By Claire Sibonney
TORONTO (Reuters Life!) - America's preeminent French chef Daniel Boulud says luxury is alive and well and though he's expanding into more accessible food, he is uncompromising about his take on casual dining.
The three-star Michelin mastermind behind an empire that includes a dozen restaurants and catering company in New York, Florida, London, Beijing and Singapore is set to open two new Manhattan venues in May -- a Mediterranean grill and adjacent cafe and market.
Boulud, 56, who closed his two Vancouver restaurants earlier this month, said he is looking closely at a new project in Toronto, and hoped to confirm it soon.
He spoke to Reuters from New York about his inspirations, the backlash against self-satisfied foodies and the most tiresome culinary craze.
Q: What was some of the inspiration behind your new restaurant Boulud Sud and cafe/market Epicerie Boulud?
A: "I had a lot of fun creating some restaurants with a casual note to it, such as DBGB, for example, where it was about bangers and beers, being a very casual brasserie with very affordable food but very interesting homemade program ...
"I worked in the south of France for three years and I never forgot my time there from eating a pain bagnat on the beach to enjoying the sort of casual approach to Mediterranean cuisine ... not by virtue of simplicity. For me to go casual is not to go simple. To me it is to be able to bring back the art of tradition and the soul of French food and my interpretation of that."
Q: Given the rise of global food prices and popularity of more casual and affordable restaurants since the recession, what do you think the future is like for fine dining?
A: "I think dining is still the most affordable luxury of all because when you see that a woman spends $10,000 on a pair of shoes, on Jimmy Choo or (Christian) Louboutin, and a nice bag on average is maybe a couple thousand and they're selling them like there's no tomorrow ... I think people appreciate quality.
"Of course, the restaurant business or the hotel business or the luxury business in hospitality is not something you wear and it's not something you show off with it, you just take it for your soul and you take it for yourself."
Q: What do you say about the backlash against foodies and the self-indulgence they stand for?
A: "I think in France for example, we can say whatever we want about the French, but going out and dining is more about the intellectual moment to share with the people you dine with than trying to figure out what the chef did with that little piece of salmon or lobster and all that. It's more about the conversations, it's more about the privilege to share a moment with your friends and not be so obsessed with everything going into the plate and around it ... I think luxury and pampering and refinement and rarity in what you have stimulate your intellect. I take so much pleasure at seeing customers who are happy, happy with what they eat but happy with their friends and sharing a great moment together and I think that is more important in life than the endless pursuit of perfection."
Q: Are there new foods or ingredients you're obsessed with at the moment?
A: "We just discovered putting sorrel leaves to seep into olive oil ... by keeping the virtue of the taste and yet having very fresh color with it which is difficult. And the wild salmon is starting. Salmon and sorrel is nothing new. Troisgros in Roanne created that recipe 45 years ago ... but to me every spring we play with sorrel and salmon and every spring we come up with some new ideas applying the two together."
Q: What food fads are you sick of?
A: "At (his New York restaurant) Daniel, 18 years ago we were doing a whole braised pork belly ... talk about a fad. If there's one piece of meat in the world that became overused and overrated and still delicious and captured by every sort of chef, it's the pork belly."
Guinea hen casserole with morels, fava beans and fiddlehead ferns (serves 4)
1/2 pound fiddlehead ferns, cleaned and trimmed
1 cup shelled fresh fava beans (about 1 1/2 pounds with pods)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
One 2 1/2- to 3-pound free-range guinea hen, cut into eight pieces
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 pound morel mushrooms, stemmed, washed twice, and drained
1/2 pound new potatoes, scrubbed and halved
8 cloves garlic, unpeeled
4 shallots, halved, or 8 spring onions, trimmed
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme, leaves only, chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup unsalted beef stock or low-sodium beef broth
2 tablespoons minced chives
Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil over high heat. Add the fiddlehead ferns and cook for 6 to 7 minutes. Add the fava beans and cook for 3 to 4 minutes more. Drain the vegetables into a colander and run under cold water to cool. Make a small incision in the skin of the favas with your thumbnail and pop out the beans. Discard the skins.
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
Warm the olive oil in a large cast-iron pot or roasting pan over high heat. Season the hen with salt and pepper. When the oil is hot, slip in the pieces, skin side down, and sear until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Turn the pieces over and add the morels, potatoes, garlic, shallots, bay leaf, thyme, and butter, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, tossing, for 5 minutes. Slide the pan into the oven and roast the hen for 25 to 30 minutes until the juices run clean when the hen is pierced.
Transfer the hen and the vegetables to a large bowl and keep warm. Place the pan over high heat on the stove; add the beef stock and reduce the liquid by half. Return the hen and vegetables to the pan and toss until heated through, 2 to 3 minutes. Sprinkle with the chives and serve family-style from the pan.
(Reporting by Claire Sibonney; editing by Patricia Reaney)