As the temperature outside was dropping rapidly towards zero degrees last Thursday night, inside a lecture hall on the Upper East Side, chefs David Bouley (below) and Daniel Boulud (bottom) were contemplating the role of heat as a critical variable in cooking. “Conventional restaurant kitchens use too much heat,” declared Mr. Bouley. “We cook with far less heat than most restaurants,” he noted, as he extolled the virtues of balancing humidity and temperature control to properly roast a chicken, letting the fat in the skin melt first so it can “roll,” as he put it, around the bird in order to seal in the juices.
If Mr. Bouley’s consideration of the subject of heat reflected a particularly analytical approach to cuisine and a penchant for detail, Mr. Boulud’s response to the matter was simple and direct. Smiling, he quipped, “Chefs have a good instinct for heat. You give us fire, we’ll figure it out.”
The two chefs were on stage together for a talk entitled "The Making of a Great Chef," moderated by WNYC’s Leonard Lopate. The discussion was the first installment of the 2004 "Food Talks" series at the 92nd Street Y. Although the event had been sold out, the frigid cold had taken its toll on a number of the ticket-holders, and, in the end, about two-thirds of the crowd braved the icy weather to show up and hear two of New York's premier chefs talk about their craft.
Both men appeared completely at ease with each other and with the question-and-answer format. Mr. Boulud, leaning back into his chair and wearing a navy cardigan sweater and open-necked blue shirt, projected an air of relaxed assuredness. Mr. Bouley, sitting upright in a dark suit and salmon colored tie, revealed a studied confidence, his body pitched forward to field each question from by Mr. Lopate.
The conversation ranged widely from temperature to restaurant ratings, popcorn, and potatoes. Below are some brief highlights of the evening.
D, B, O, U, L
Perhaps, the key to success as a chef is having the initials D.B. and a last name that begins with the letters B-O-U-L, Mr. Lopate joked. The two acknowledged that others frequently confused their identities. "It happens only two or three dozen times a day," said Mr. Bouley.
75 Percent French, 25 Percent Fantasy
Both chefs spoke strongly of the need for a chef to be grounded in a culinary tradition. For American chefs, in particular, Mr. Boulud observed, "You need to be committed to a culture of cuisine, otherwise you have no roots." With this kind of grounding, one may stretch out and evolve one's cooking. "I happen to be French, so I stick to it 75 percent of the time, but the other 25 percent is my fantasy, my experience in New York."
"I feel terrible for them . . ."
Is a four-star rating a curse or blessing for a restaurant? While acknowledging having four stars is a welcome boon to business, both men noted that a restaurant will not be successful if it sets out to achieve such a goal. When Mr. Lopate asked about The Grocery's surprise rating in the 2004 Zagat Survey, both Mr. Boulud and Mr. Bouley feared that this level of recognition would draw too much attention, raising expectations to a level that could not be matched by the small Brooklyn restaurant. "I feel terrible for them that to get a review like that," observed Mr. Boulud. "It's not what they were building."
"A chef needs a stove"
"Do you still regularly cook in your restaurants?" Mr. Lopate asked. Both said yes immediately. Mr. Bouley responded that a chef needs to exercise his relationship with what he is producing. "A chef needs a stove," Mr. Boulud noted.
Popcorn and Potatoes
A member of the audience asked, via index card handed to Mr. Lopate, what was "their most embarrassing food confession, their favorite comfort food." Calling himself a very bad home cook, Mr. Bouley admitted to an obsession with popcorn when he is at home. Mr. Boulud commented that he loved potatoes and had 200 to 300 recipes for making them. "Neither of you have read about Atkins," Mr. Lopate kidded.
Where would the two chefs go to eat now if they could be anywhere in the world, Mr. Lopate asked. “Tokyo,” both chefs responded immediately, each noting the value placed in Japanese cuisine on quality of ingredients and presentation.
As the event came to a close, Mr. Boulud and Mr. Bouley responded to a question about Mad Cow Disease and food safety by underscoring the importance of maintaining reliable sources of ingredients. Throughout the evening, both men put an extraordinary emphasis on demanding the highest quality fruits, vegetables, and meats in the service of creating excellent food, but here they also noted that the same attention to sources could play a critical role in food safety. Mr. Bouley suggested that diners will increasingly see chefs as chiefly responsible for ensuring the reliability of the ingredients in the foods they serve, and that this responsibility will become a major element in the careers of chefs in the future.
Photos: 92nd Street Y.