There are very certain times within the evolution of culture—turning points in which the underground breaks into the mainstream, the underdog rises from obscurity and steps into the spotlight—that signals the dawn of a new era. It is a domino effect of events, which echoes that a seismic shift has occurred and nothing will ever be quite the same. It happened this year to Washington’s food culture.
The pot has been simmering for some time, and there is no one thing that can take all the credit for its boiling over. Since the recession hit in 2007, the influx of young urban professionals to the area, who flocked here for government job stability and seemed to surprise even themselves by settling in, resulted in the rapid development of city areas long since written off—and restaurants around town were always the first doors to open, fresh, funky and eager to impress. The revitalization of the H Street corridor, Southwest Waterfront and Shaw neighborhoods have brought noticeably bold new talent, energy and innovation to our restaurant community.
Meanwhile, old guard restaurateurs have continued to anchor the city’s reputation, from Jeffrey Buben to Robert Wiedmaier, Ris Lacoste, Michel Richard, and our incomparable culinary ambassador José Andrés. Patrick O’Connell of the Inn at Little Washington has long been one of our country’s most universally acclaimed chefs who has brought international attention to our area for more than 30 years.
But over the past few months this revolution seems to have galvanized. The city has exploded with national culinary acclaim, scoring high in countless national rankings, from the pages of Forbes, Food & Wine, Travel and Leisure and Livability, among others. Bon Appétit magazine just named the Capitol Hill restaurant Rose’s Luxury the best restaurant of 2014, lauding its innovative cuisine as a “game-changer.”
And big names are taking notice. New York chef and restaurateur David Chang is opening a branch of his freakishly popular Momofuku ramen bar later this year in D.C.’s developing CityCenter, crowning the local ramen boom that includes the cultish (and incomparably tasty) hotspots Toki Underground and Daikaya.
However, for those harboring a more intimate knowledge of restaurants over the past 30 years, there is another chef coming to Washington that signals its culinary heyday unequivocally and beyond all others. His name is Daniel Boulud.
To know why this is, it is important to know a little bit about who he is.
Boulud was born in Lyon, France, the Mesopotamia of European cuisine. He was raised in the land of Beaujolais and Côtes du Rhône, the birthplace of charcuterie, quenelle, andouillette and coq au vin. Frankly, it is an unfair advantage for a chef. When asked if he was genetically predisposed with a heightened sense of taste and flavor, he admits, “I did grab a few genes.” (Though “not all positive,” he laughs.)
He started cooking early in life, and at the age of 15 he had already achieved recognition as a finalist in a competition for France’s best culinary apprentice. After working with legendary French chefs Roger Vergé, Georges Blanc and Michel Guérard and a brief stint in Copenhagen, Boulud moved to Washington in 1980 to be the private chef to the European Commission.
“The first thing I did when I got here was drop my suitcase and go see Jean-Louis Palladin at the Watergate,” Boulud says.
Palladin, who died in 2001, was one of the true torchbearers of French cuisine in mid-to-late century America, whose namesake 40-seat restaurant in the Watergate Hotel will go down in history as a gastronomic Camelot in its own right.
“He was the avant-garde chef,” says Boulud. “Unconventional, but a national figure. It was very important for me to meet him.”
But Boulud’s stint as a private chef did not satisfy his ambition. “I found the cooks here exciting and interesting,” he says, “but the restaurants were old fashioned French, where I didn’t have much interest.”
He chocks this fad off on none other than Jacqueline Kennedy—with a wink and a smile, of course—who famously brought French cuisine to the White House and into vogue on a national scale. Not that Boulud has a problem with it. In fact, he is proud to have once called her a regular dinner guest. It was simply not his calling.
So, after two restless years in Washington, Boulud was directed by Palladin to the Westbury Hotel in New York City. Once he arrived in New York, his mastery of French cuisine and desire to push the boundaries of unconventionality quickly rocketed him to the top of the food chain. He landed the job as chef de cuisine at Polo Lounge at Westbury Manor then moved onto Le Regencé at the Hotel Plaza Athenée, finally taking over as executive chef at Le Cirque, an old restaurant in Manhattan’s Upper East Side known for its elite, remarkable clientele—and unremarkable food.
From 1986 to 1992, Boulud turned Le Cirque into one of the most highly rated restaurants in the country. In his last year there, he received his first James Beard Award for Best Chef in New York City.
“When I came to Le Cirque,” he says, “the clientele was mature but powerful, very old fashioned. Always royalty, politicians, entertainment people. But the food was never any good. And I came in there and made them talk about the food. It helped the restaurant, but it also helped me—it gave me the confidence and knowledge to open my own place.”
“The ’80s were pivotal for me,” he goes on. “It was like the Olympics. It’s where I got on stage for the first time. But in order to jump the podium, I had to open my own place.”
Boulud found an investor and took the plunge, opening his namesake restaurant, Daniel, in 1993.
Shortly thereafter, Daniel was rated one of the top ten restaurants in the world by the International Herald Tribune, received a four-star rating from the New York Times, and collected top honors from Zagat, Gourmet magazine and Wine Spectator. He was recognized again by the James Beard Foundation as Outstanding Chef of the Year in 1994.
Since then, Boulud has not had the chance to look back. His food is now legendary and his name is an industry. He has six restaurants in New York, as well as locations in Paris, Montreal, Vancouver, Miami, Palm Beach, Las Vegas, London, Singapore, Beijing and probably a few others. He has been a guest on Letterman half a dozen times and appeared on television alongside Anthony Bourdain more than a few times. His awards are innumerable and include a 2007 Culinary Humanitarian Award from the United Nations and a 2006 Legion of Honour distinction from the President of France for his contributions to the advancement of French culture.
When confronted with this boggling list of accolades, he smiles. “So, I passed my exam.”
Now, after 30 years, Boulud returns to Washington. DBGB Kitchen and Bar, a companion to his bistro of the same name in New York’s East Village (in honor of the Bowery’s now-departed CBGB), is opening in D.C.’s newly developed CityCenter at the corner of 9th and H Streets, NW (just around the block from Chang’s Momofuku).
“Through the years, I’ve done charities and events in D.C., seen friends, but the opportunity just never really came along to open a restaurant until now,” he says. “And I am suddenly remembering things from when I was here. Like Patrick O’Connell, who was a pioneer in reaching out and making relationships with local farmers to source local ingredients. I remember Jean-Louis had a farmer raising squab, and he would go around Maryland and Virginia searching for game and seafood all the time.”
“I think what the 1980s brought to restaurants, especially around Washington, is an entire generation of chefs who cared about the ingredients,” he says. “Cooks who cared about how their food is being grown and raised, with an interest in local product.”
DBGB, to hear Boulud tell it, is the wild sibling of his more traditional fine dining outfits. “It’s certainly the most casual of my restaurants,” he says, “and sort of rustic—a kind of French-American brasserie. It’s about having a restaurant where I can be Daniel Boulud but make myself affordable in the style of the bistros and bouchons of Lyon. It’s seasonal, market-driven, and inspired by the talent of an individual chef to make it special and personalized.”
The heart of the restaurant is burgers, bangers and really good beer. Sausage is a particular inspiration, “because not only in France, but if you go around Europe and the rest of the world, every culture and cuisine has beautiful and interesting sausage. It can be street food or fine dining. It is a way to really extend our charcuterie program.”
A deep sense of pride and enjoyment comes from Boulud as he discusses his white-cloth table restaurants, but at this point in his career, he is curious to tackle what he calls the “problem” of casual dining. “It has no identity,” he says. “It means a diner on the corner, it means a bistro, it means fun, but it is somehow considered less than fine dining. I want to think of it as fine fun dining (FFD). And it’s an important point for D.C. right now, because there are a lot of fantastic restaurants here getting so much recognition for being casual. And with that sense of casual, you can achieve the most unstructured, earnest and delicious food of all. There is no fear to cook something gutsy, to try anything and never put a label on whether it’s a four-star dish or a no-star dish. That’s what I love about the restaurants here.”
“As a chef, I have always worked in the finest restaurants,” says Boulud. “I think I’ve proven that I am a great chef. But I enjoy making rustic dishes just as much, with the real history and DNA of where I come from. To me, casual dining is a little bit the inner you, which is sometimes more important in your life than the professional you. That idea alone is something that I am excited to bring here, an idea that is important to bring to Washington.”
Long live Boulud, and all welcome the new era of the Washington restaurant dynasty.