The Last Supper
Arrive asked Boulud what he’d eat on his last day on earth. “Eat?” he replied.
“If it were my last day on earth, I’d be more interested in drinking wine rather
than eating.” But he gave it some thought and came up with a simple plan.
“I’d eat nothing but pig and potatoes. I’d cook each one hundreds of different ways. And it goes without saying that absolutely every part of the pig,
from ears to tail, would be used.”
“All downtown restaurants were closed, so he set up a
kitchen on a barge near Ground Zero,” recalls chef Bradford
Thompson, formerly of Mary Elaine’s in Scottsdale, Ariz., a
James Beard Award–winning protégé of Boulud who remains
close. “He organized volunteers and hardly slept until the Red
Cross was ready to take over. It was hurting him so much to see
what the city was going through and what the rescue workers
were going through. And he sat down with them and talked
about it with them and let them share the struggles they faced.
It was such a human side to him.”
There’s also a whimsical side, one that occasionally lends
itself nicely to generous publicity, as Boulud is a bit of a press
darling. At one point, French farmers were raising a stink about
American fast food. Boulud was asked by a reporter at the
time if he was capable of making a great French version of the
hamburger. Certainly he could, he responded. In impromptu
fashion the next day he went to his kitchen, came up with
a combination of fine ground chuck, short ribs braised for
12 hours in red wine, foie gras and truffle and—voilà!—his
famous $32 hamburger was born.
“We thought it could be a flop,” Boulud says. “I didn’t
want to bastardize the American hamburger. I just
wanted to give it a French interpretation and add some
flair. I still sell hundreds of these burgers a week, and it’s
still $32. That’s pretty good, considering that beef and
everything else in it has gotten so much more expensive.”
A regular parade of A-list customers also help
keeps Boulud on Page Six and in other columns.
NASCAR champion and part-time New Yorker Jeff
Gordon is a regular. (“He gave me one of his racing
gloves to display. He saw Michael Schumacher’s racing
suit here and said, ‘If you have one of his, you must
have one of mine.’ ”) Lance Armstrong is a fan and
friend, too, and presented him with a yellow Tour
de France jersey as a token of his appreciation. Sean
Combs, going back to when he was Puff Daddy, has
enjoyed the white truffle. (“My server brought it to his
table, let him smell it, and then started shaving it on
the plate,” Boulud says. “Puff Daddy said, ‘Shave that
b——! Keep shaving that b——!’ He was not trying
to be impolite. It was his way of saying ‘Go for it!’ My
waiters, of course, never get rattled by such things.”)
Then there was a visit by another VIP, Bill Clinton,
while he was president. “My apartment is above my
restaurant,” Boulud says, “and the Secret Service guys
used that as what they call the POTUS hole, where they
hang out and the president will come to refresh himself or take a nap, whatever he needs. They messed
up my phone lines for quite some time after that.
Those Secret Service guys, they’re good at taking
things apart but not so interested in putting it back
together nicely.” (For the record, Boulud notes that he
refused to let Secret Service dogs sniff around in his
kitchen. “I know what’s in my kitchen,” he told them,
“and there’s nothing dangerous in there.”)
And, of course, Boulud has become quite a celebrity
himself, with regular appearances on the Letterman/
Regis/Today show circuit.
“The first time I was on Regis, I was promoting
a newsletter,” he says. “I told the audience, If you send me a
pre-stamped envelope, I’ll send you a copy of my newsletter
for free. I got 10,000 letters with envelopes. But my newsletter was too big for them! I lost a lot of money trying to keep
my promise. This taught me about the power of television.”
Today, his own show, After Hours, is in its second season
on Mojo. It depicts what chefs do late at night, after the kitchen
is closed. They gather in their various restaurants, drink wine,
tell stories, and come up with new creations to feed each other.
It’s the kind of on-the-fly, improvised science approach that
has suited Boulud well for years.
“We never went to school to be scientists,” he says. “But we
are self-proclaimed scientists. We understand the transformation of food and ingredients into a great meal. There are heating and cooling elements to it, but there is always science with
a heart involved, too. To practice it well, you must have a sixth
sense about precision when it comes to taste. To transform
something into a perfect taste—even the greatest of scientist
cannot match the natural instinctive feeling of a great chef.
We are constantly seeking a new perfection with every dish.”