Daniel Boulud on the essential role of restaurants in recovering from the pandemic

Essential services.
Essential services.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Sometimes it takes just one civilizing meal to make us feel like ourselves again.

The word “restaurant,” in fact, comes from the French word meaning to “restore to a former state.” Scholars trace the term to the (possibly apocryphal) Boulanger, an 18th-century tavern keeper who sold soup made of sheep feet simmered in a white sauce as a “restorative” for weary Parisians.

Soup also happens to be Daniel Boulud’s preferred comfort food. Throughout the pandemic, the celebrated French chef has been offering culinary curatives of his own.

Believing that restaurant personnel, much like doctors or nurses, are called to serve during a time of crisis, he ‘transformed his operations and redesigned the interiors of his restaurant to adapt to fast-changing health guidance during the hardest months of the pandemic. Boulud made meals for hospital workers, began a food delivery service, gave cooking classes on Zoom, and created a charity called Food 1st Foundation with the goal of getting his staff back to work.

The bar at Le Pavillon.
The bar at Le Pavillon.

Like many restauranteurs, Boulud was compelled to close most of his restaurants outside of New York City and put the majority of his employees on furlough last year. But as parts of the world are returning to a semblance of normalcy, he harbors enough optimism to open a new fine dining restaurant in midtown Manhattan. He named it Le Pavillon, as a nod to the legacy of French fine dining in the US.  “People are starting to entertain their friends,” he says. “We can already see business people getting together and starting to resume where they left off a year and a half ago.”

Indeed, people are dining out en masse in places where Covid-19 restrictions are easing. In the US, the number of establishments offering seated reservations are increasing daily, according to OpenTable’s state of the industry survey. Pubs and restaurants in the UK are experiencing a similar uptick in customers emerging from lockdown in March.

On the occasion of Le Pavillon’s opening, Boulud spoke with Quartz about why restaurants have been so vital during the pandemic. What follows is an edited excerpt from the conversation.

What motivated you to keep your restaurants open during the pandemic?

Daniel Boulud: I feared for the business, but first it was about helping my team. Marc Holliday, my business partner at Le Pavillon, helped me keep my kitchens open. We established a charity and we started to bring back people who really wanted to work or could not afford to be on unemployment.

First we produced about 17,000 meals for World Central Kitchen [a non-profit that provides meals in humanitarian crises] at our prep kitchen over the course of a month and a half.  Then one day a customer asked if I’d be interested in cooking meals for hospitals. I reopened Daniel [his eponymous fine dining restaurant in Manhattan] for that and we made meals for Cornell Medical Center and other clinics and hospitals in the neighborhood. We also supported Citymeals On Wheels, which I’m co-president of. We followed very strict measures and were very careful. I felt that if all those nurses and doctors can work, maybe we can too.

It was an emotional challenge. You’re working with a team, trying not to get sick, and really doing everything not to put anyone at risk. I’m in an industry where I can’t possibly stay home and give orders remotely. I am totally immersed with my staff and totally involved and invested in everyone. I want to make sure that if there’s any reward, it goes to them first. It was very difficult but we were blessed with customers who wanted us to do well and suppliers who supported us in any initiative we tried.

How did your restaurants outside of New York City fare?

DB: We were able to move Cafe Boulud [from New York City] to the Blantyre Relais & Châteaux in Lenox, Massachusetts. We took at least half of the team up there. They did the whole summer season there, which really was fantastic. We also reopened the Palm Beach restaurant right away and we reopened Bar Boulud on the west side of Manhattan. Being able to set up outdoor dining allowed us to bring back more staff. We are working to place cooks where they wanted to work.

But several of our restaurants, like the one in Canada, have been closed for over a year.

Chef Daniel Boulud of restaurant Daniel, speaks to his staff before service
Chef Daniel Boulud of restaurant Daniel, speaks to his staff before service in the dining room on the first day that restaurants were allowed to start indoor dining since the outbreak of Covid-19.
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri

Your new restaurant pays homage to an iconic French restaurant. What gave you the idea for Le Pavillon?

DB: I really felt that Le Pavillon was synonymous with New York, France, and fine dining. But we’re not trying replicate the original, other than reference its name and legacy.

The French brought the original Le Pavillon restaurant to New York for the 1939 World Fair. It introduced the French style of fine dining to America. The restaurant [which was in business from 1941 to 1972] also became the school of an entire generation of chefs, maître d’s, and restaurateurs. In New York you had restaurants like La Caravelle, Le Cinq, Le Cirque, Le Perigot, La Cote Basque; in Cincinnati, La Maisonette; in Los Angeles, L’Orangerie; and Le Francais in Chicago, Boston, and Miami. It seemed that there was a French restaurant in every city imitating the original Le Pavillon.

When I arrived in New York City, I opened the Polo Lounge at the Westbury Hotel. My maitre’d there was William Mascarotti who, it turned out, was actually the maitre’d of Le Pavillon in the ’60s and ’70s. He had a lot of stories about the place, like every restaurateur and chef I knew in the early ’80s. I also met Pierre Franey, Le Pavillon’s chef for many years, and he would tell me about his time there.

In French, a pavillon refers to an annex to a big building where you might gather and entertain. I was thinking about that in relation to One Vanderbilt [a supertall skyscraper next to Grand Central Station] where they carved out a southern wing for the restaurant.

What adjustments did you make in your restaurants to make your diners and staff feel safe?

DB: For a while, we brought in these Emeco plastic chairs. They were made from recycled plastic bottles and importantly, very easy to clean. We also changed the filter of our air conditioning regularly and reassessed all our air ventilation systems.

There were a lot of these initiatives taken to make sure that we had the proper safety set-up at all times. We weren’t familiar with a lot of these strategies at first, but we learned a lot from Marc Holliday’s company SL Green Realty [which owns One Vanderbilt], which was doing a lot of work in putting these safety measures in their office buildings.

We also followed all the health protocols—taking temperatures, social distancing, and asking guests to wear face masks in common areas. Our staff wear masks at all times.

Creating a convivial ambience must’ve been tricky. In some sense, diners crave an escape from reality but also want to feel protected. How did you navigate this?

DB: Yes, it was a challenge. This was true in Daniel. We got the permit to open a sidewalk café very late in the summer—almost in September. We built Boulud Sur Mer, with the idea of creating an outdoor Provençal experience. We wanted to keep the café going through the winter, otherwise we would have to furlough people again. Stephanie Goto, a very talented architect, came up with these “bungalows” with the striped cloth. Each one has heaters and piped-in music.

When indoor dining was possible, we extended Boulud Sur Mer to the restaurant. We had wonderful sponsors like Hèrmes who gave us wallpaper and fabrics to reinvent the interiors. Stephanie, who also designed it, graciously helped me raise money and get sponsors to be able to make those changes.

How do you feel about QR-code based menus?

DB: I prefer a paper menu. How can you look for wine with a QR code? It would entail scrolling through pages and pages on your phone. It would be much easier to have a wine list printed on paper and interact with a sommelier. And of course, keeping our smartphones away while we’re dining is always better. I’m all for paper and face-to-face conversation.

Did working on so many projects help you deal with the pandemic?

DB: Yes, absolutely. I don’t think I would have done well if I had to stay home and do nothing.

What comfort food do you turn to?

DB: A good soup. There was soup at the table every night when I was a kid. That taught me that you can put so much flavor, nutrition, and pleasure in it. A soup can be extremely simple and still be very nourishing. You can make a beautiful soup with just leeks and potatoes, for example.

How do you see fine dining evolving?

DB: There’s nothing more uplifting than the memory of a very good meal. People are constantly saying that fine dining will go away but I think it will stay forever. It may just be a different form—maybe with less pretension, less pomp and circumstance. But there’s still something irreplaceable about the refinement of a meal, the attention to service, and attention to detail. Creating good memories around a table with good food and wine is what people are craving. I think those moments are very emotional and very powerful.

This long period of privation culminates to a genuine pleasure of getting together.