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How chef David Bouley taught America to dine

Social media influencers have defined influence downward. The real stuff isn’t about likes but about legend. And the late chef is one for the ages

Chef David Bouley
Chef David Bouley (Screenshot via @davidbouley, Instagram)

The influencer culture has, for all practical purposes, blandly redefined influence as a commercial subset of social media. Its purpose is ever more followers and the monetization of those numbers, a frothy kind of circular prosperity. But real influence is made of sterner stuff — soul and sinew and heat and love. That’s what you see in the legacy a truly influential American, restaurateur David Bouley, who died this week at the age of 70. Much more than a mountain of likes, he’s legend.

Also read | Legendary chef Imtiaz Qureshi dies, aged 93

First, take this ludicrous and implausible image: Dan Barber — currently one of the most formidable chefs in the business —  caught in a headlock, sweating in fear in a crazy busy kitchen. And yet, as the chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns recalled that night in 1994, that’s exactly what Bouley had him in soon after spying Barber — then just about 25 years old — perfunctorily frying mackerel. “I always talk to my fish,” Bouley whispered this close into the younger cook’s ear as the rest of the kitchen of his eponymous New York restaurant bustled on, “How else would I know when she's done?” Then he released Barber from his lock. Translation: Engage with the cooking and don’t rush the process, a commandment he sensed Barber wasn’t following.

A hazing? Not really, just David Bouley’s personal — and effectively direct — expression of running the kind of restaurant that we now associate with and almost expect from genius chefs, those sometimes unhinged sorcerers we seek out for matchless culinary and sensory delights. It’s hard and grueling work, but Bouley pulled it off for four decades. Apart from his namesake restaurant, which closed in 2017, he ran Danube, Brushstroke, Bouley at Home, Bouley Bakery, Bouley Upstairs and Bouley Test Kitchen. To this day, Bouley is a touchstone for magical flavors and enchantingly designed urban temples of cuisine. Indeed, he transformed his beloved downtown Manhattan into a global destination for restaurant aficionados. Kate Krader, Bloomberg’s food editor says, “You floated on a cloud when you walked out of his restaurants because the experience was so singular.”

All this enchantment came with a seat-of-the-pants approach to haute cuisine. He’d tell staff of changes to menus on the verge of service. This mercurial style sent many cooks in his employ screaming out of the kitchen. Fejsal Demiraj, who later became sous chef at Noma in Copenhagen, says Bouley gave him his first long-term gig out of cooking school in 2008 on the day several members of the restaurant crew abruptly took off. “I stayed for a year,” he recalled in a Facebook post, “worked my first three months without a day off on about four hours of sleep a night.”  Those who persevered — including Blue Hill’s Barber — have Bouley’s dicta tattooed into their souls.

George Barber (no relation to Blue Hill’s Barber), who worked front of the house at a number of Bouley’s restaurants, recalls seeing the chef make a young cook repeat a dish four times till he got it right. By that time it was almost 1 a.m. As George recalls, Bouley “patted the cook on the back and simply said, ‘Good job, dude.’ The cook was beaming with so much joy you would have thought David had just given him his first Michelin star.”

Many people put up with the labor because Bouley was at it harder than everyone, heading out to buy fresh fish at 4 a.m. after service ended at the restaurant and returning to work by 8 a.m.

The chef was as involved in the front of the house as the kitchen. George Barber, who retired a couple of years ago as one of New York City’s most masterful maitre d’s, says Bouley cared intensely for his guests, but “was well known for keeping people waiting.” He recalls one evening. “It was after 11 p.m., and a table of four was furious. They’d been waiting for an hour for their food. One of the guests set fire to the menu, and they all walked out.” Bouley sent George out into the street after the angry guests, offering them a special tasting menu if they’d come back. “Reluctantly they did.” Bouley then spent the next three hours preparing their meal, after which he came into the dining room and sat talking to them about food for an hour. “They were totally enchanted by this very charming man,” George wrote in an email to me. “All was forgiven.”

His charm was part of the magic. His motorcycle-loving persona gained him a spot in People magazine’s annual “50 Most Beautiful People” issue in 1994. There were also heroics. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York, Bouley led his kitchen into Ground Zero, cooking for weeks for first responders and rescue workers. Peter Elliot, a regular at the restaurants and now editor of Bloomberg DINE, was dragooned along with other Bouley friends into working the makeshift kitchen. “We worked side by side for the next two weeks, cooking, cleaning, handing out food, over and over in a haze of burned everything,” he said. But there was an esprit de corps to Bouley’s mission. Says Elliot: “It was finding a brother I should have known I always had.” 

As powerful as his personality was, Bouley’s real enchantment emerged from his food: a sumptuous American translation of French nouvelle cuisine, dishes that highlighted the clean flavors of excellent produce, to which he’d introduce the look and feel of Japanese cuisine. (Brushstroke, which closed in 2018, was a collaboration with Osaka’s Tsuji Culinary Institute). Some of his wonders were fortuitous discoveries. Anita Lo, who emerged from Bouley’s kitchen to open Annisa, one of my favorite New York restaurants, recalls when he created tomato water. “I was in charge of making tomato concassé — little cubes of tomato flesh,” she says. “One day, he looked at the bottom of the tub where there was some separating tomato juice. He said, ‘We should be using that.’” Tomato water is now a universal ingredient in professional and home kitchens.

Admirers and rivals imitated his innovations — and thus spread his legacy. “Many people tried to copy his porcini mushroom flan,” says Steven Hall who did PR for Bouley from 2011 to 2018, “But they just couldn’t get the texture or consistency right.” Hall says Bouley didn’t mind. “He knew they weren’t as good. Truth is, there was no disguising a Bouley dish.” 

I’ve only eaten at one Bouley restaurant — Danube — but I can feel the shock of the loss through friends who worked with him, people like Dan Barber and Fejsal Demiraj and Anita Lo. Demiraj, who hopes to open his own restaurant soon, says, “I want each guest to enjoy a meal cooked in the ‘spirit of me’ just as Bouley cooked with all his soul and intuition every night.” There’s a lot of mourning for this brilliant, difficult master of the culinary arts. Dan Barber emailed me saying, “I’m so sad it hurts. I was just with him a few weeks ago and he seemed vigorous and ready for a second act.”

Dan, we are all part of his second act. 

Bouley wasn’t afraid to do the same to big name culinary guests. George Barber recalls a dinner at Bouley Test Kitchen where the guests included such top chefs as Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park and Daniel Boulud of Restaurant Daniel as part of an early evening party hosting the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, an elite federation of Burgundy connoisseurs. Bouley did not show up till 7 pm. in the company of his head chef Cesar Ramirez (who has since won acclaim for his tenure at Chef's Table Brooklyn Fare). They were carrying a cooler, “the kind you take to the beach,” said Barber. Bouley then announced, “I am changing the first course!' Barber said that the menu was already printed and on the dinner tables. 'We are going to serve a chilled Tomate Consomme. They will love it,” Said George:“They did”

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Written by Howard Chua-Eoan, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering culture and business. He previously served as Bloomberg Opinion's international editor and is a former news director at Time magazine. 


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