If you’ve spent any time eating in Tribeca lately then you’ve got David Bouley to thank. His Montrachet opened in 1985 – the first of its kind to appear in those desolate streets where cabbies refused to drive – and since then the French-trained master has created a multi-star restaurant empire that calls like Mecca to foodie pilgrims across the world.
But Bouley is no lab rat. This is the guy who dated Bernadette Peters. Who supped with Warren Beatty, Bill Cosby and Woody Allen. Who in 1994 earned the distinction of one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People. Not to mention dominating the legendary 1991 Zagat survey that asked 7,000 diners, ”Where would you eat the last meal of your life?” They famously, overwhelmingly, picked Bouley.
These days if you want to taste Bouley’s radically fresh fare you’ve got several choices: A new Bouley on Duane and Hudson Streets, and Brushstroke, a partnership formed between Bouley and an Osaka culinary school. The apparently indefatigable maestro also runs Bouley Test Kitchen, where he caters to a new crop of models, actors and rock stars in search of the (fresh, local, seasonal) divine. Visit him behind the scenes and he’ll spoon feed you quite literally into the palm of his hand.
GrandLife saw him there last week to talk about his work – and get a few spoonfuls of his rarefied vanilla oil straight from the source. Read on to hear more of the conversation.
GrandLife: How did you end up in New York?
David Bouley: I grew up in Connecticut, in a farm area. We had an area there that was part of UConn, which was an agriculture college town.
My family, my grandparents had a farm. It was animals, everything. And in those days, we knew where the blueberries were, we knew where the blackberries were, the wild strawberries. All those kind of things.
GL: Did you work on the farms in the area?
DB: We always did. It was fun.
GL: Really? Sounds like hard labor.
DB: Well, as a young boy they let you drive the truck at 14 years old! All the farmers. It still exists – teenagers before the age of license can drive farm vehicles to help out. They help the farm because lot of times these kids need to get off back roads to drive to the next piece of farm.
So there were a lot of things that as a young person you’re thinking are cool.
GL: I know you’re a big reader. What are you reading these days?
DB: These days I read about nutrition. I just bought four books yesterday on eBay. Something about the most nutrient-dense vegetables, the other one is juicing, and the others were about minerals and things especially focused on health.
I did my first book in the 90s. In those days we were building through the tasting menu an incredible intimacy with our customers. That was the best thing to have. And the woman who did the book became an agent. Her first book was with Tiger Woods and then the lead singer of Aerosmith, Steven Tyler.
I knew him from the 70s. Last year when he was in the kitchen we were talking and I told Steven, “I used to listen to you at Shaboo Inn.”
GL: Shaboo Inn?
DB: Shaboo Inn was a place up by Storks. A giant brick mill that had become an amazing sound system and everyone from New York and Boston would go there because everyone played there. Everyone from BB King, Taj Mahal, Aerosmith, Boston. Even Dylan played a couple nights there. It was constantly busy with a lot of talent.
GL: Who were you listening to then?
DB: I liked them all. I wasn’t really watching him [Tyler], but I knew him. I was a kid. The owners were older than me, but they let me work the door so we’d hang out back and sit behind the stage and then I knew where the parties were on the second floor. That was a crazy time for Steven, too. Those were wild days.
When I moved to New York, all of my friends were getting jobs. Professional. They were already here, but I came in the late 80s. I had been in France before that working with haute cuisine chefs. I worked with six three-star chefs then.
GL: How old were you when you came?
DB: l was in my late 20s.
GL: Did you feel like you were coming late to the game? I mean, it can take even a year to get a feel for the city, to establish social and professional networks, and a lot of people come here when they are 21 or 22.
DB: I was living in Paris then so my cutting my teeth on a city was in Paris. It was the first time I saw public transpiration.
GL: So you were already connected to a world city in that way.
DB: Well, New York is a tough place. It’s different than Paris because…I don’t know if sophisticated is the right word, but in those days Paris seemed more cultured. You could buy a subway pass and go anywhere. The buses were all over Paris. The city was not as aggressive as the city of New York.
Coming here from a professional point, there were a bunch of us that realized that French cooking was really behind. A whole generation behind.
It was a very rich food and there was a reason for that – I could understand because the kitchen had very few cooks and a lot of volume. Very creamy. Everything was kind of ready.
I was used to putting everything in a pot, but that wouldn’t have been feasible here. Part of it was economics. There weren’t really any chef owners either making a lot of money as a chef, and food hadn’t evolved yet where people could really understand the artisanal elements or different things that would work.
It went from earlier structured food, stable, that could go around the world, but a lot of chefs, say in Japan, were cooking in season and making things more vulnerable, more pure.
I think I was the first one of that generation to come to New York. The reason I moved to New York is because the pastry chef of this restaurant moved to take over another place and he called me, found me out of the blue. I was living in Greenwich, Connecticut at the time. I was going back and forth to France, but I was mostly in Paris.
He called me and said there was a job: would I be interested in coming to New York?
GL: The start of it all.
DB: Yeah. About a year later I had an apartment – a studio on top of a building – and I had a lunch planned with Jean Pierre and a few other French chefs that I knew from Europe that were kind of passing through New York. I created this pot au feu. It was a seven or eight hour lunch.
Pierre had to pick up this young guy from JFK whom he had known in France, and this other chef had been there before me – well, he was a cook. We were cooks. And Pierre brought him from JFK right to my apartment, and his name was Daniel Boulud. So Daniel’s first meal in New York was in my apartment, and that apartment was right across the street from where his restaurant is today! I lived on 65 between Park and Madison for two years. It was really wacky.
At that lunch we all talked about how much there was to do in New York, now French cooking was so far behind. So in a way we had to acclimate and learn what is the city. But in our trade, our medium, we were ahead.
GL: Fresh, local, pure ingredients were novelties at the time. But they’re the basis for your entire enterprise.
DB: Yes. We want to empower people just to use the building blocks, which are just so pure and can adapt so quickly that you now have a hand that will blow away the jaded palate and the person who thinks they don’t like sophisticated food. Because as simple as it is, it is sophisticated.
When I opened Montrachet in ‘85 it was really the first restaurant that did things in a pot. And everything was cooked to order. And as far as I know that was the first restaurant tasting menu. At Bouley we really enhanced that.
GL: How did people respond to the tasting menu when you first introduced it in New York in the late 80s?
DB: There were a lot of challenges. People sometimes thought they were going to eat too much, that there was too much food. They thought it was going to take too long.
Those folks with the metabolism of being packed in like Thanksgiving dinner? That’s not what this is. This is like being a birdie, you know. I’m seducing you, I’m seducing you, I’m seducing you. And you’re playing. I’m teasing you.
Hopefully the understanding is that your body is not tired and your taste and digestion are peaking performance, and we’re not taking the rest of the energy to digest our food, which makes us tired or we can exhaust our taste buds. And when they find this, when they go back to the office or see how they slept, they find better comfort, better health.
Those people that didn’t understand it or had to break away from packing food in and saying, ‘Okay the tank’s full now I’ll deal with it and have a couple of espressos because I’m falling asleep and all the energy is in my stomach’ – they didn’t have that any longer. They had a different energy and a clarity. They went back to work feeling better. They probably slept better. Had better functioning metabolism. Those people were silently victims of the tasting menu.
GL: And the others?
DB: The others were adventurous, curious. They loved it. I remember in those days I used to cook a lot for Cheryl Tiegs. She was upstairs not long ago telling me, ‘David do you remember in the old days you used to cook for us, and we used to have to go do shoots and we would send you notes that we all got into our bathing suits and you fed us 15 courses?!’
Paulina [Porizkova] I feed a lot still. I remember I got to know her father and her mother. They are food people. She is amazing.
GL: These models loved food!
DB: Oh, Paulina likes to eat. A lot of models like to eat. Who’s the Calvin Klein model?
GL: Kate Moss?
DB: Kate Moss! She used to come in all the time too and just let me cook for her. She was young then. She had to be early 20s, late teens.
GL: Wow, that’s great.
DB: I met Paulina when she was young, too. I remember in the old restaurant, the first restaurant. One of my friends was sitting next to her, and he said that when Paulina got the second dessert she was scraping the dish out and she said to Rick, ‘I hope David is sending more dessert!’ I had sent her 12, 14 courses already.
Her plates come back like that [holds up a bare plate]. Always.
GL: That’s great. I’m sure it’s a joy.
DB: Always. It’s what you want. Because then you know.
I look at all the plates still. The reason I do that is because at that time, the tasting menu…do you know the saying that what’s measured gets done?
DB: Well, you should write that down. Everything you do in your life, one of the areas that can help things move faster along is if you’ve got some tool to measure where you are. A lot of people don’t measure their work.
I’ve been looking at plates for 25 years because if I see the plate empty I know where I’m going. If I see a little bit of food on there I know there’s something wrong with the cooking – too much salt, improper technique, or the food itself.
I have a reputation for changing the menu three times in a night or something. And I’ll be very quick about these things. A lot of cooks don’t understand that I’m basically just a product. As Skinner would say, I’m a conditioned person.
GL: A product of the Pavlovian response?
DB: Yes. The tasting menu taught me how to use the products, how to work with new products.
I remember Liam Neeson came into the kitchen one time and said, ‘How do you make these sauces?! They taste so complex but I don’t think they are because they taste so clean.’
I told him in the kitchen that I’ve learned how to cook with the simplest known ingredients. Everybody knows I’m a little crazy with ingredients.
I’m a chef of ingredients. That’s my type. That’s what it’s all going to come back to. Ingredients. Your body remembers them your whole life. A beautiful presentation is fun, but you will forget that. You won’t wake up one day with a craving for that. However you will wake up with a craving for a perfect white peach. I’ve always been sensitive to that. That has got me hooked.
Technique is very important, but I told Liam that I have an intimate relationship with one ingredient to the point where I have put that ingredient through every kind of way I think you can do of cooking, and it tells me what way it likes best and then I learn from it and now when I put the second ingredient – with which I’ve already had an intimate relationship as well – I know the power of when I put them together. And I don’t need to do 10. I can get there, but I’ve had an intimate relationship with each one.
And he had just finished Schindler’s List and said, ‘Oh that is so cool. I feel the same, like I had been given a large piece of wood in my career and I had been whittling it and whittling it down and this movie makes me feel like I found that power.’
And I was like, ‘Oh beautiful.’ I mean, I need to write a book about how these people talk about things.