Daniel Boulud may be a globally celebrated chef, one who travels in a Michelin-starred glow, but he’s also an avowed farm boy, a guy who prizes soul over snooty any day of the week.
So don’t expect him to make too much of the recent revamping of his Café Boulud Palm Beach. He won’t spin it to sound hip or trendy – he has little use for such ephemeral qualities.
“We wanted to refresh the place. We wanted to open the place up, to create a more airy, light, sunny feeling,” he says on a recent day as the early afternoon sunlight picks up the creamy tones of the renewed dining room and the sleek lines of its new central focus: an under-lit, U-shaped bar.
Yes, this bar just might attract a younger, more hip crowd of Palm Beach diners. Moved over from a narrow corridor of the Brazilian Court Hotel, which houses Café Boulud, the bar has brought music and buzz into the formerly sedate dining room. But that doesn’t mean Boulud is hoping to trade the island’s iconic blue blazers for hipster beards.
“We have to be consistent in what we do. We don’t try to be a trendy place. We want to be a quality place,” says Boulud.
The upgraded space, warmed by simple hardwood floors and pecky cypress wood-beam touches, offers a sense of the 12½–year-old café’s identity and, in a more fundamental sense, that of its founder: polished yet warm, simple yet sensational. Those who may believe Boulud might gild the menu to match the new, glowing bar may not grasp the chef/restaurateur’s café concept.
“The food is trying to be very tasty, not very refined,” he says.
Of course, that’s not to say this food is presented without a chef’s intervention. For that, Boulud has a keen interpreter in Chef Rick Mace, who has managed to take ownership of the kitchen, something his boss encourages.
But the café’s rustic inspiration is never too far from Boulud’s thoughts.
The original Café Boulud, run by generations of his family until it closed in the 1950s, was a roadside spot in Saint-Pierre-de-Chandieu, the town just outside Lyon where Boulud was raised on a family farm.
“It was the rendezvous point for generations of townsfolk. It was the place people went to begin and finish a day, to toast births and marriages and to mourn losses … It was warm, welcoming, and a vital part of village life,” wrote Boulud in “Daniel Boulud’s Cafe Boulud Cookbook,” the 1999 book he co-authored with culinary author Dorie Greenspan.
Decades later, Boulud opened a more stylish Café Boulud in New York’s Upper East Side in 1998, five years after he had opened his flagship fine-dining restaurant Daniel. In 2003, he opened the café at the Brazilian Court hotel, Palm Beach.
The island’s Café Boulud replaced the hotel’s lackluster restaurant, bringing panache to the yellow stucco landmark. It marked a new era in the life of a property that had been closed after the 1984 drug overdose death of Kennedy heir David Kennedy, son of Robert and Ethel. Later, after a redo, the place was turned into a retirement hotel. When the café opened, the hotel was in the midst of yet another revamping, this time to offer private residences.
The opening was a milestone for Boulud.
“We were the first Daniel Boulud project outside of New York, and the pressure we placed on ourselves to get it right was tremendous,” says Zach Bell, Boulud’s opening chef in Palm Beach and presently executive chef of the Addison Reserve Country Club in Delray Beach. “The mission in Palm Beach was to mimic the spirit of the still young Café Boulud New York, adapting to the Florida market with a lighter Provencal touch.”
It was a challenging, often bumpy start, but Café Boulud’s Palm Beach outpost would come to gain national acclaim. Before he departed the café amicably in 2011, Chef Bell would earn four consecutive finalist honors for the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef in the South.
Bell led a team of five transplants from Cafe Boulud New York, “a dedicated core staff … who really made the place hum.”
For Boulud, the silent mandate in any of his kitchens is “Would Daniel do that – and like that?” In Palm Beach, what Daniel would like was a place that served excellent food in a non-stuffy setting.
“Palm Beach is more casual,” says Boulud. “The idea is not to be a fancy place, but a soulful place where food is tasty.”
Most influential at the café is Boulud’s adherence to the fundamentals of “cuisine du marché,” or market-inspired cuisine. In this Boulud has been far ahead of the now ubiquitous farm-to-table and market-to-table concepts.
For Boulud, “it all starts at the vegetable market,” says Bell. “Find the best seasonal produce and start there. From there, then you find an appropriate protein to match. After that, it is a matter of coaxing the best story from the vegetables.”
Boulud says he is pleased to see the wave of appreciation from diners for this kind of cooking.
“More people are getting conscious about where their food is coming from, and more and more chefs are returning to the land,” says the chef who still keeps an apartment near Lyon, France.
This trend is true in both casual and fine dining establishments, notes Boulud, who is quick to caution those who might predict the demise of America’s fine dining world. His flagship restaurant Daniel, despite its loss of one of its three Michelin stars in 2014, is firmly rooted in New York’s fine dining scene, a scene so spectacular it still makes Boulud light up and go “Hooo! It’s smoking!”
“People still like to be entertained when they go out,” says Boulud.
For a moment, his eyes sparkle like that fancy new bar in Café Boulud’s dining room.