Four-Star Farm Boy

Before every meal served by Daniel Boulud, New York’s longest-reigning four-star chef holds a staff meeting with his entire crew. This one is taking place in the garage of investment banker Bruce Wasserstein’s East Hampton estate one hour before 60 guests arrive for a $25,000-a-plate Democratic Party fund-raiser. Since the guest of honor is President Clinton, the grounds are crawling with Secret Service agents in full monty: earpieces, buzz cuts, and high-powered rifles. Every pot and pan brought in by Boulud, every truffle, medallion of tuna, and bottle of Mondavi Special Reserve 1982, has already been searched and hand-patted by the presidential security detail. Even the cold cuts used in the sandwiches that Boulud and his team are wolfing down before the guests arrive have gotten the once-over from an eager German shepherd, the republic’s last line of defense against a terrorist mortadella attack.

The pressure is on, yet Boulud is the picture of Gallic cool, impassively chewing on his sandwich and listening as his catering director runs down a service checklist that is as complex as an NFL pass defense. Two squadrons of six waiters, each waiter carrying two plates, will simultaneously be dispatched to the dining room. The meal must move along at the accelerated pace known as “presidential service” – i.e., as soon as any one diner at a table completes a course, the waiters are to take that as a signal to remove every diner’s plate. That way, the president is assured that the dinner won’t drag on forever. The corollary is, of course, don’t linger over the lobster.

Boulud swallows a last, huge bite, looks around the garage, and cracks a tight-lipped let-me-at-’em grin. He ends the meeting with a huddle-breaking “Let’s kick ass!”

That’s exactly what they do.

The menu is classic Boulud, simple, powerful flavors in a well-orchestrated progression: Long Island lobster, seared tuna wrapped in pancetta, a medley of lamb accompanied by a zucchini flower filled with eggplant confit. There are no leftovers – a group of Secret Service agents and White House staff loitering near the kitchen see to that – and in the end, the weary president and First Lady stop by the kitchen for a chat with Boulud. Hillary makes small talk about his cookbook, while the president, a notorious chocoholic, lavishes praise on the chocolate cake served for dessert. Clinton laughs when someone on the kitchen crew lets slip a sotto voce “Hail to the chef.”

Daniel Boulud, 43, is no stranger to feeding presidents and kings, not to mention show-business royalty and titans of high finance. For years, they’ve been crowding into Restaurant Daniel, his small but high-powered establishment on East 76th Street. Basically, since the doors first opened in 1992, it’s been reservation “by recommendation” only. Charlie Palmer, chef-owner of Aureole, sums up what almost every chef I spoke to thinks about Boulud: ‘“If I could eat only one meal, I would probably go to Daniel. He is about powerhouse taste, maximum flavor.”

Now Boulud has re-created his jewel of a restaurant (which was closed in August) on a much grander scale eleven blocks south, in the lavishly restored former Mayfair Hotel at 610 Park Avenue. The Mayfair has been converted to luxury condos – Nautica’s David Chu reportedly just paid between $10 million and $12 million for two adjoining apartments, and Wayne Gretzky and Naomi Campbell are said to be about to close on their own new spaces – and it happens to be the former site of one of Boulud’s great triumphs: as chef at Le Cirque.

The price tag on the new restaurant, more than $10 million, is the highest amount ever spent on a single dining space in the city. And the fact that the new Restaurant Daniel is three times the size of the old Le Cirque, where Boulud labored for restaurateur-impresario Sirio Maccioni, and cost twice as much as the new Le Cirque, only serves to heat up the already simmering Oedipal tension between Boulud and his former mentor.

“On 76th Street, the box was just too small,” observes Boulud’s bracingly direct business adviser Lili Lynton. “Daniel’s ambition was not satisfied simply having a society place.”

Boulud’s high-stakes gamble is even more singular in this era of upscale food entrepreneurs – men like Drew Nieporent, Danny Meyer, Ken Aretsky, and, of course, Maccioni, who are skilled at working the dining room while leaving the cooking to others. Daniel is a restaurant that has been built from the chef, and the kitchen, out.

Although boulud is a French chef, schooled in a trio of Michelin three-star restaurants, the new Daniel is definitely not a “French restaurant” with spindly Louis Quinze chairs and poofy Second Empire tchotchkes. It is a lush, ornate, Venetian-Byzantine-Deco fantasy. In the words of the designer, Patrick Naggar, who has an intriguing Sephardic, French, and Egyptian heritage, it is “a deconstructed Renaissance painting”: the gold of Giotto in a Deco cocktail bar, the checkerboard pattern on all the rugs reminiscent of Piero della Francesca, velvet and damask wall hangings that suggest the garments in a settecento painting. “What I have asked myself in building this room,” explains Naggar, “is, can you combine history and modern comment in a great restaurant? I think you can.”

In creating a palimpsest of centuries of culture, Naggar is attempting to do for the new restaurant’s décor what Boulud does with his reinvented pot-au-feu. The foundation of his cooking has always been ancient French farmhouse recipes that he passes through the refiner’s fire of high culinary technique.

“He makes gutsy food, but he does it with such finesse,” says former Times restaurant critic Bryan Miller, who gave Boulud his first four-star review back when the 31-year-old Frenchman was the chef at Le Cirque. “I thought it was great that he would put pigs’ feet on the menu – a real peasant dish, but the best pigs’ feet you will ever have.”

At heart, Daniel Boulud remains a country boy.

The Boulud farm, a family enterprise, lies in a green valley near the sleepy agricultural community of St. Pierre de Chandieu, about twenty miles outside Lyons. Daniel Boulud returns there for a holiday every summer with his wife, Micky, a former family therapist, and their 9-year-old daughter, Alix. Along the way, of course, he likes to visit old dining haunts and is constantly trying out new ones. “He thinks about food deeply and all the time,” says his wife. “He likes golf and tries to play it on Sundays, but truthfully he’d rather check out a new restaurant.”

On one recent trip to France, I join him and his sommelier, Jean-Luc Le Dû, on a drive from Paris, down through the heart of the Côte d’Or, and on to the Boulud farm. Boulud drives very fast, listens to very loud Howlin’ Wolf tapes, and routinely polishes off such quantities of food that his trim figure can only be explained by a metabolism that would exhaust a hummingbird. In five days, we eat at four Michelin three-star restaurants and taste-test hundreds of Burgundies.

We arrive at the Boulud farm on a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon. The farmhouse is a generic gray stone-and-stucco structure dating from the mid- nineteenth century, but there are three things in the backyard that demonstrate clearly how far Boulud has come. To the left, a modern swimming pool and tennis court occupy the place where the family’s chicken coop used to be. But right in the middle of the backyard there’s a very large and unattractive electrical pylon. It was erected in the sixties, when the family farm was still a shoestring operation, and a local nobleman offered area farmers several hundred dollars apiece if they would allow the electric wires and towers that brought power to the valley to pass through their land rather than impinge on his view from the château.

The Bouluds accepted the offer. “Hey, man,” Daniel explains, looking up at the ugly tower, “that was a lot of money for a small farmer, and we were small.

Daniel’s family raised a little bit of everything. Every market day, they went into Lyons and sold their products at the farmer’s market. To help make ends meet, six generations of Boulud women cooked for the public at Café Boulud, on the first floor of the family home.

After embraces and kisses on both cheeks, we are shown to our places at a long table in the dining porch at the rear of the house. There is slow-roasted baby goat made in an outdoor bread oven by Daniel’s father, Julien. His mother, Marie (the spitting image of Daniel), serves up trembling mounds of her homemade fromage blanc studded with slivers of garlic and tossed with garden-fresh lettuce. There is roasted goose stuffed with cardoons, juicy and savory quenelles, and a gratin of creamy, soft chicken and goose livers, all made according to the recipes of Daniel’s grandmother Francine. Until she was 7, Francine explains as she sits in the kitchen rocker wearing her fuzzy slippers, she spoke not French but rather the regional patois known as Dauphinois.

After the meal, Daniel, his father, and a number of brothers and friends adjourn outside for a game of petanque. Smoking cigars and cracking jokes, they toss iron balls in a pastime similar to the Italian game of bocce. In mid-match, we troop over to the storage cellar to warm ourselves with some homemade booze: plum brandy, orange liqueur, and – proving that if it lives, the French will figure out a way to eat it – a swig of the fearsome eau de vipère. It is the custom on the old farms that when a poisonous snake is caught on the grounds, it is forced into a wine bottle and drowned in eau de vie. The death throes of the serpent are said to impart a potent flavor to the beverage, which is then left to age for several years.

Daniel lived on the farm until he was 14, when he signed on as an apprentice at Nandron, a Michelin two-star restaurant just a few steps from Lyons’s central market, where the great chefs of the Lyonnais-food renaissance did their marketing. There the young, eager chef-in-training got to know some of the most famous names in gastronomy. “Since I was a teenager, I had chefs like Paul Bocuse kicking my butt,” Daniel recalls. “Alain Chapel would be there, too, along with Georges Blanc; also the Troisgros brothers. They would put in their orders, and while their suppliers filled up their trucks, they would go to a café on the square and sit down to a big Lyons breakfast: tripe, saucisson, fresh bread and butter, lots of coffee. They would let me hang out, and I became a familiar face. By eleven in the morning, they were on their way back to their restaurants, and I was setting up for lunch in Nandron.”

Daniel spent two years at Nandron doing the scut work that befalls the low man on the kitchen totem pole. He learned knife skills, the basics of sauces, the importance of mise-en-place – the preparation of everything you will need before the crush of meal service. Once he’d learned all he could, Boulud asked for a recommendation to one of the great chefs he’d gotten to know on market days. Nandron suggested Georges Blanc, who was then in the process of transforming La Mère Blanc, his own mother’s small café, into the three-star Georges Blanc, still regarded as one of the most romantic and best restaurants in France.

Blanc was the first of three chefs who helped form Boulud’s style; all were in the vanguard of a tectonic culinary change then taking place in France. Blanc opened Boulud’s eyes to the possibilities of adding elegance to basic country ingredients. Among his signature dishes was his reworking of an old peasant standby, saddle of wild hare. Instead of making a sauce of blood and brandy, the way it had been served since the nineteenth century, Blanc roasted the hare and arrayed thin-sliced meat on either side of the carcass with a wine-and-huckleberry sauce on one side of the plate and a peppery cream on the other. It was a kind of Cubist cuisine, the simultaneous presentation of different views (or in this case, different tastes) of the same ingredient.

Boulud spent two years with Blanc, then decided to continue his studies in Provence with another master, Roger Vergé, a grand seigneur of a man whose silver hair and full mustache suggest Marshal Foch in a chef’s toque. Vergé’s Moulin de Mougins was in the same village where Pablo Picasso lived and worked. The kitchen brigade came from all over France, the best and brightest of the young generation, and included the man who is now the reigning master of Parisian dining, Alain Ducasse. For Boulud, barely 19, this first trip away from Lyons was exhilarating. There were glittering parties full of movie stars and moguls out for country trips from nearby Cannes, and kitchen talk from well-traveled sous-chefs who spun tales of Manhattan’s all-night discos brimming with pretty girls.

Vergé still recalls how impressed he was by Boulud’s affinity for sauces. “A good chef has to be a good saucier first,” he explains. “You must understand their complexity, balance, and seasonings, and to know how to associate them with fish, meat, or vegetables. This is a quality that is missing in a lot of chefs today. It requires a perfectionist drive for the composition of flavors and ingredients, the impeccable cooking of each vegetable to achieve its full flavor potential. What Daniel first indicated to me in my kitchen is a mastery of the simplest ingredients.”

Boulud says that while Blanc taught him to look to local tradition and ingredients as the basis for his invention, it was Vergé who exposed him to what he calls “a sunnier cuisine, much more complex in its sauces and much more vegetable-oriented.”

But after three years with Vergé, Boulud was again ready for a move. He heard of an opening with Michel Guerard in the southwest, the land of truffles and foie gras. In his two years at Guerard’s Les Prés d’Eugénie, Boulud was trained according to Guerard’s great theoretical innovation, cuisine minceur, which eschewed much of the rich, flavor-enhancing fats so typical of classical French cuisine. To replace them, Guerard turned to other methods of creating flavor and texture.

“Michel Guerard played a tremendous role in what nouvelle cuisine became,” Boulud says fervently. “Other chefs might have concentrated on the look of the dish or been so minimalist with it that it was silly. His dishes could be simple in execution yet complex in taste. I think that’s the key to Guerard – simplicity and complexity at the same time. Take his salade gourmand, for example. It was a green-bean salad with shaved foie gras and truffles and some white mushrooms. Very simple, but if it didn’t have the perfect bean, cooked perfectly, the perfect foie gras, the perfect truffle, the result is a pretentious and lousy imitation. Every step must be precise and perfect. If you missed one step, you were dead meat. The result was a lot of tension, but good tension.”

Boulud pauses and adds, “It’s not even so much about technique as it is about understanding the connecting wire of the recipe and being sensitive to how each ingredient hangs off that wire.”

During his time with Guerard, Boulud finished his apprenticeship. As a restaurateur, he would have to wait until his years with Sirio Maccioni before his front-of-the-house skills matched his expertise with pots and pans, but in his early professional career the most important step came in 1981, when he became chef to the European Commission’s ambassador, Roland de Kergorlay, in Washington, D.C.

Washington proved to be a relatively easy gig. Though diplomatic dinner parties demanded precise technique and great food, they left Boulud with time to get used to a new country. When the ambassador was re-posted to Europe, Boulud, who liked the U.S., decided to stay on. Following up on a job tip from Jean-Louis Palladin, who presided over Washington’s hottest restaurant (Jean-Louis at the Watergate, now closed), he applied for a position at the Polo Lounge in New York’s Westbury Hotel.

He packed his car, headed north, and auditioned at an early Monday lunch. “Sometimes in your career, you are pushed against the wall and you have to defend yourself,” Boulud remembers. “I made a fifteen-course lunch to blow them away. This was a big-time job, and I wanted it, so I threw everything I knew at them.”

The Westbury management was impressed but a bit leery of Boulud’s youth. He was still only 27. They hired him on the condition that he become co-chef with Patrice Boely. For the first time, Boulud was serving his farm-inspired haute cuisine recipes to New Yorkers, and he soon began to attract the attention of critics and serious eaters alike.

In this era of hyperfusion – the culinary equivalent of Phil Spector’s wall of sound – Boulud cut through the clutter and presented defined, simple, and deep flavors. “What makes Daniel different from every other chef who says that his food is based on fresh local ingredients and regional fare,” says Dorothy Cann Hamilton, the founder of the French Culinary Institute, “is technique. The flavors are precise, identifiable, and at their peak.”

Susan Spicer, the chef-owner of Bayona in New Orleans, had a chance to watch him work when she was a chef-observer (known in the trade as a stagiaire) at Restaurant Daniel in 1994. “He has a perfect command of technique,” she says, “and that leads to depth of flavor. Sometimes he extracts flavor, sometimes he infuses it, but the techniques, the way he roasts bones to make a stock, the way he caramelizes vegetables, the way he makes a broth of salmon, all show an understanding of what you do with ingredients to get the most out of them.”

In 1984, boulud became head chef at the Plaza Athénée’s new restaurant, Le Régènce. It was at this point that he made the best hire of his career. In need of a sous-chef, he received a tip from a friend about a young Cambodian working with Alain Passard just outside Paris at a restaurant called Duc d’Enghien. His name was Sottha Khunn, and he was a product of the kitchens of Alain Senderens and Roger Vergé.

The following year, Boulud was approached by André Soltner of Lutèce and Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque, both trying to hire him. Soltner was the consummate chef and wanted someone who would eventually replace him at his homey townhouse restaurant. Sirio was the greatest restaurateur since Prohibition, and he needed a head chef immediately.

Daniel preferred to be master of his own kitchen rather than return to second-in-command, and thus began his six-year run at Le Cirque, the glittering, no-demand-is-too-hard-to-fulfill, overlit, high-ticket celebrity grazing spot. Le Cirque’s run started just as New York late-night society was transforming itself from the druggy anorexia of the era of cocaine and Studio 54 to a new hedonism based on haute cuisine, expensive wine, and expanding waists.

Energized by the scene, encouraged by Sirio and assisted by Sottha, Boulud had a burst of creativity, inventing his signature scallops black tie (scallops and black truffles) and paupiette of sea bass in a Barolo-wine reduction (potato-swathed bass with a cracklingly crisp skin and a brawny yet refined sauce).

Maccioni, like Boulud, had risen from humble beginnings in a small village and had never lost his love of rustic food. One of the great results of their collaboration was the innovative step of offering peasant food to café society (a route that Sirio had already begun to travel with his former chef Alain Sailhac). Some of the food, per Sirio’s Tuscan background, was Italian. Some of it was French. But it all shared a basic gutsiness: pot-au-feu, bollito misto, lard and focaccia, pigs’ feet and lentils – not exactly raised-pinkie fare – part of a mix that included the most refined sauces and labor-intensive haute cuisine. Boulud’s simplest inspiration was white truffles and baked potato with lots of butter and grainy sea salt. “I wanted to show Sirio that the French could do something different with the white truffle instead of the pasta and rice that the Italians used,” he says. “It couldn’t have had more simple ingredients. Baked potatoes always move well on an American menu, so it became a new kind of American-Italian-Lyons rustic dish.” At $35 a pop, it also set a new standard in potato pricing.

It was only a matter of time before the petite, boxlike Le Cirque became too small to encompass the ambitions and egos of two big (and still growing) personalities. In the beginning, Maccioni dominated. From him, Boulud learned how to work the front of the house, how to make guests feel pampered, loved, special. Eventually, though, they became two suitors wooing the same lover – their public.

Until then, Boulud had always worked for people who took an interest in helping him to the next step in his career, even if it meant moving on to something bigger and better. For Sirio, however, what could be bigger and better than being chef at Le Cirque? “Sirio could have tapped on my shoulder and asked, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ ” Boulud says, still betraying a trace of rancor. “But we never had a dialogue. It’s hard to have a dialogue with Sirio. Basically, you listen.”

Inevitably, Boulud began to think about a restaurant of his own. He quietly set about formulating a business plan with Lili Lynton, a former Lehman Brothers mergers-and-acquisitions specialist who had given up full-time work after the birth of her second child. Joined by their attorney, Tom Danziger, they met regularly at the Three Guys Restaurant on Madison Avenue. “It was a place that served BLTs and cocktails to lonely widows at eleven in the morning,” Danziger says. “There could not have been a more Sirio-free zone.”

The original plan called for $2 million raised in $200,000 chunks, but when Joel Smilow was shown the projections – he is Lynton’s uncle by marriage and the former chairman, CEO, and principal shareholder of Playtex – he decided to assume the whole risk. After a long search, Boulud’s team settled on the ground floor of the Surrey Hotel on 76th Street. When Boulud told Sirio he was leaving, he offered to stay on for six months to insure a smooth transition, but Sirio wanted him to leave immediately.

In his new space, Boulud attracted the same clientele he had at Le Cirque, but not the same critical plaudits. The room was crowded. Reservations were nearly impossible to get. Boulud had his hands full getting his kitchen up and running, and there was no Sirio to fill the front room with welcoming bonhomie. Marian Burros, in her short stint as the lead reviewer at the Times, took away two stars. Sizing up the situation, Boulud increased his service staff by 50 percent.

Things smoothed out. Boulud spent more time in the dining room at every service, and when he wasn’t there, four strategically placed cameras allowed him to survey the room from his post in the kitchen. With the service glitches solved, his food, once again, became the main focus of his patrons’ attention. In 1994, Ruth Reichl’s four-star review reestablished Boulud at the top of the fine-dining food chain.

The success of restaurant daniel was not enough. Boulud still wanted the scale of the great country restaurants in which he had learned his craft, so last year Lynton and Marcel Doron, Daniel’s Romanian-born CFO, developed a business plan for a larger restaurant. Earlier, Colony Capital, the Trump-assisted developers of the old Mayfair Hotel on 65th Street, had approached Boulud and several other well-known restaurateurs about opening a restaurant in the space that had housed the old Le Cirque. Boulud’s team was interested, but not if the property continued as a hotel. They felt the location would be attractive only if it were a condo, so that they would not have to deal with the hotel union, a pugnacious group that drove Sirio Maccioni to close the original Le Cirque.

Within three months, Colony made the decision to go condo, and all that remained was to settle on a price. During the short negotiation, Lynton told the Colony executives, “You might get more money if you break the space up into twelve gynecologists’ offices, but is that going to be the kind of draw for your building that Daniel will be?” They made the deal.

Boulud next turned to a longtime customer, I. M. Pei, for architectural advice. Pei recommended Frank Williams, who had built the Four Seasons Hotel, the Rihga Royal, and Trump Palace. His task was to reconfigure the ground floor and basement of the Mayfair to house the infrastructure for a modern, high-technology restaurant without altering the look of the landmarked interior, which was a 1925 version of a Venetian palazzo. Daniel’s specs called for increasing customer capacity in the main rooms by more than 30 percent, to 120 (compared with 90 in the old Daniel), and adding a banquet space for up to 100 guests. His dream kitchen included a $300,000 polished-steel Bonnet range as well as a six-burner induction range, three salamander top broilers, two huge plancha-style grills, and a wall-mounted rotisserie that can handle two whole suckling pigs at a time.

Through the summer and most of the fall, the new Restaurant Daniel took shape. The old Le Cirque has been completely gutted, along with most of the ground floor at 610 Park Avenue. The dining room where Sirio held sway is now largely given over to the banquet space, which, with its high margins, is critical if Boulud hopes to meet his revenue projections. The former lobby of the hotel has become a grand entryway that begins a procession of arches extending right into the new dining room, the original arched colonnade of which has been extended to circle the room. Naggar’s interior is a combination of soft, plush fabrics with expanses of warm-toned woods. The upper lounge and entryway are furnished with velvet klismos chairs and couches with bolsters the color of pink roses veined with gold.

The restaurant won’t open officially until mid-January, but a string of private events have been scheduled, somewhat optimistically, throughout December, and in the days leading up to the first preview meal, I watch the space being transformed from construction site to soigné salon.

Last Tuesday, an hour before guests are to arrive for the first dinner, the 747 whoosh of industrial vacuum cleaners competes with Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’ ” blasting from a boom box. Boulud and his crew frantically prepare for a charity event thrown by Joel Smilow for the Board of Governors of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Colin Powell will be among the guests.

It is literally not until that moment, as the final touches take shape before our eyes, that Naggar’s renderings become real and I finally get a fix on a feeling I have had since Daniel and I took our 80,000-calorie ride from Paris to Lyons. The new Restaurant Daniel – in the generosity of space, in the layout of the rooms, in the capacious lounges and the ease and comfort of the furniture – gives me a sense of déjà vu.

“Daniel,” I say, “it feels a lot like Georges Blanc’s place in Vonnas.”

He looks up, staring at nothing in particular. “I never thought of it that way,” he says dreamily as he conjures up the restaurant that as a teenager he helped Blanc create. “C’est vrai … You may be right.”

It all made sense now. Daniel Boulud has finally come home.

Twenty-five minutes later, Boulud takes command of his new kitchen and dining room for the very first time. Construction detritus is still being dragged out to curbside Dumpsters. Curtains are being hung while new furniture, still wrapped in plastic, is carried into the lounge. Naggar unfurls a Tibetan checkerboard area rug. Daniel gives last-minute instructions to the wait staff and the entire kitchen crew, who have shown up for their first look-see just minutes before.

Usually a kitchen gets a shakedown cruise and the stoves get a day or two of “burning in” before the chef tries even a tentative first meal. Not this restaurant. Boulud and his brigade must prepare their first meal alongside Vladislav Kamikovski’s kitchen-equipment team, who are brandishing screwdrivers, voltage meters, and needle-nose pliers while scurrying around, under, and behind the stoves, the rotisseries, and the momentarily recalcitrant induction oven. They are at their posts through the entire night – kind of like having an auto mechanic work on your engine while you take the car for a test drive.

As the guests take their seats in the dining room, Boulud himself slams the first two pans down on the virgin Bonnet stove, carrots in one, leeks in the other. He flips the vegetables with two flicks of the wrist, propelling them skyward in a mass full gainer.

“We need another table in here … big-time!” he shouts, and two waiters vault into the dining room, returning instantly with a table that they set in front of the huge yellow ceramic surface where Daniel will supervise the plating of each course.

“The plates! Vit,” he coughs, and, rather than wait for someone to do it, he sprints to the back of the kitchen and removes a stack of 40 dinner plates from the warming oven. He carries them through a slalom course of sous-chefs and line cooks, securing the stack with his chin like a librarian carrying too many books.

Second-in-command Alex Lee composes a plate with the first course, Maine-lobster salad on a bed of avocado. Around the edge he places dots of sauce between pieces of clementine and sweet lemon bits.

“Like this,” says Alex. “Got it?”

“Let’s get everyone in here. I want 60 out … tout suite … move it!” Daniel adds, as five more chefs in white tunics race up from the prep kitchen downstairs.

The assembly line works in quiet precision, Daniel giving a last adjustment to every composition. Suddenly he looks up, puzzled.

“What time is it? How do I know if we are on time? Merde! We need a good clock. Toto!”

Toto Ourzdine, Daniel’s go-to guy for everything, runs in and answers, “I have three. Tomorrow I’ll hang them.”

The salad leaves for the dining room, followed by peppered black sea bass with shallot confit in a port sauce. Right behind that, slices of roasted saddle of lamb with black-truffle gnocchi and root vegetables with a satiny, rich jus are dispatched to the tune of Daniel’s drill-sergeant encouragement.

When he discovers that one table has been missed, his face clouds over and he unleashes a streak of pungent, untranslatable French expletives that kick the wait staff into warp speed. His explosion is audible in the dining room, but the storm passes quickly and he is back at work, putting the last precise touches on the dessert, a chocolate-hazelnut cake with nougatine ice cream (think Heath Bar Crunch with a French accent).

“Not bad,” Daniel tells his crew. “Of course, I would like it smoother, but very good for a first run. Tomorrow we do 120. We won’t make the same mistakes.”

“What will be on the menu?” I ask.

He shrugs. “We’ll have to see what looks good in the market.”

Four-Star Farm Boy