Beyond the Boardroom

Conversations with leaders who transcend traditional business

Why Daniel Boulud still lives above his store

May 18, 2012: 11:25 AM ET

The celebrated chef describes his favorite parts of the job and why he chooses to literally live above his signature restaurant in Manhattan, Daniel.

Chef Daniel Boulud

FORTUNE -- Chef Daniel Boulud has a beautiful office. The walls sport pictures of the chef with celebrities, the wooden shelves are full of perfectly spaced awards and trophies, and, perhaps most importantly, its huge windows allow whoever is inside to monitor the bustle of his flagship venue, Daniel, in Manhattan.

The restaurant is Boulud's home, quite literally. He has an apartment above it. And though he has opened several other restaurants in Manhattan, this one is the heart of his prestigious culinary career. The restaurant has received three coveted Michelin stars and a four-star rating from the New York Times, among other awards. Boulud, 57, has also won recognition for his talents as a chef and restaurateur from the James Beard Foundation and the Culinary Institute of America.

Because of his prowess in the kitchen, his job titles have grown and now include entrepreneur, book author, consultant, and celebrity. But here, he talks to Fortune about the basics and why he can still fillet a fish with the best of them.

Fortune: What goes through the mind of a top-tier chef?

Daniel Boulud: I believe that a great chef has to worry about more than cooking. I mean I may have to worry about other things in the business but still, cooking remains the thing that will give me the most comfort and happiness. It is my refuge.

After all this time, you still love it?

Yeah, well, what else am I going to do? I hate accounting. I do like service, taking care of the customer, the guest relations, and the public relations. But, I mean, I do it because someone has to do it and because I'm the brand and the image, but I'd rather stay in the kitchen all the time and not bother.

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I do it so my chefs can keep cooking. I could do their job any time, except I have other jobs to fulfill.

How do you manage such a full kitchen, full of smart people with different ideas?

Everybody has talent, for sure, to be associated with us and to work at this level. We definitely share our ideas, but I can veto everything. Sometimes I love it, and sometimes I hate it. And if I hate it, it doesn't mean that it's not good, it's just not me, that's all.

We are control freaks, we are organized and we have a lot of discipline among the staff. We spend a lot of time in training, communication, and establishing rules in order for the organization to be well oiled and for everybody to understand what the person next to him is doing.

That's why the kitchen is divided into four major areas: the meat, the fish, the entrée, and the cold station. There's a chef for each area. The executive chef makes sure that everybody functions well.

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Sometimes there are eight cooks involved in one plate. We know right away if the chef is not a player, it's like a soccer team. If the guy can't score, I mean, ça va, get rid of him.

That's tough love. The back of the house can be such a stressful environment.

I know, but that's the problem with food. I mean, I'm redoing my apartment now, and it's such an agony of time to get each detail done. But with food, you cannot wait. With food, it has to be cooked and go. If we are talking about fish that is perfectly cooked at the perfect temperature, you cannot just reheat it every five minutes. It's all about the science of timing.

But can't modern kitchen equipment help with that?

It's nice to look at technology, it's nice to look at progress, it's nice to take advantage of it, but a cook should still learn how to cook first and foremost.

For me, putting food in a bag is not cooking, but it's delicious and it works and we use it. But besides that, we try to teach the cooks how to cook as well -- how to cook a fish perfectly on the bone.

If I were you, and I had all these trophies and that giant shoe over there…

The giant shoe is not mine, it's Shaq's shoe.

Ah. Well, if I had those accolades, it would be easy for me to rest on my laurels. Don't you ever want to just let the machine you created run?

No, no. I look forward to creating new things. We have two restaurants opening this year in Montreal and Toronto. Every city is very different and even every neighborhood is very different. In New York, opening a restaurant in downtown is totally different than uptown.

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Do you have a favorite?

This is my home base. I live above it. I have my office here and I have the kitchen downstairs. This, Daniel, represents everything I worked for all my life. The other restaurants, you might see me there often, but at the same time, at Daniel, you might see me much more often.

You said you've been working all your life for this, what are you working for now?

I've been working 80 hours a week for the past 40 years.  After 40 years plus of cooking, I deserve to take a weekend. Is that asking too much?

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About This Author
Shelley DuBois
Shelley DuBois
Writer - Reporter, Fortune

Shelley DuBois writes on management issues for Fortune.com. Before joining Fortune, she was a producer for National Public Radio's Science Friday and worked for Wired. Shelley has a graduate degree in science, health and environmental reporting from New York University. She lives in Brooklyn.

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