Sometimes it just takes a civilized meal to make us feel like ourselves again.
The word “restaurant” actually comes from the French word and means “to restore to a previous state”. Scholars attribute the term to the (possibly apocryphal) Boulanger, a tavern owner from the 18th century.
Soup is also Daniel Boulud’s favorite comfort food. Throughout the pandemic, the acclaimed French chef has been offering his own culinary remedies.
Believing that restaurant staff, similar to doctors or nurses, are called upon in times of crisis to “redesign their operations and redesign the interiors of their restaurants to adapt to rapidly changing health guidelines during the toughest months of the pandemic. Boulud prepared meals for hospital workers, started a food delivery service, gave cooking classes on Zoom, and started a charity called the Food 1st Foundation with the aim of getting his staff back to work.
The bar in Le Pavillon.
Like many restaurant owners, Boulud had to close most of its restaurants outside of New York City and take the majority of its employees off last year. But as parts of the world return to a semblance of normalcy, he is optimistic enough to open a new fine-dining restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. He called it Le Pavillon, a nod to the legacy of French gourmet cuisine in the United States. “People are starting to entertain their friends,” he says. “We can already see business people coming together and picking up where they left off a year and a half ago.”
In fact, people are eating en masse in places where Covid-19 restrictions are being relaxed. In the US, the number of establishments offering seat reservations is increasing every day, according to OpenTable’s industry survey. Pubs and restaurants in the UK are seeing a similar surge in customers coming out of lockdowns in March.
On the occasion of the opening of Le Pavillon, Boulud spoke to Quartz about why restaurants were so important 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 was scared for business, but first it was about helping my team. Marc Holliday, my business partner at Le Pavillon, helped me keep my kitchens open. We started a charity and started bringing back people who really wanted to work or couldn’t afford unemployment.
At first we produced about 17,000 meals for World Central Kitchen [a non-profit that provides meals in humanitarian crises] one and a half months in our preparation kitchen. Then one day a customer asked if I would like to cook meals for hospitals. I opened Daniel again [his eponymous fine dining restaurant in Manhattan] for this we have prepared meals for Cornell Medical Center and other clinics and hospitals in the neighborhood. We also supported Citymeals On Wheels, of which I am Co-President. We followed very strict measures and were very careful. I had a feeling that if all these nurses and doctors can work, maybe we can too.
It was an emotional challenge. You work with a team, you try not to get sick and you really do everything so as not to endanger anyone. I work in an industry where there is no way I can stay home and place orders remotely. I am totally immersed in my employees and totally involved and invested in everyone. I want to make sure that if there is a reward, it goes to them first. It was very difficult, but we were blessed with customers who wanted us to do well and suppliers to support us with every initiative we tried.
How did your restaurants perform outside of New York City?
DB: We were able to move the 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 spent the whole summer season there which was really fantastic. We also immediately reopened the Palm Beach restaurant and reopened the Boulud bar in west Manhattan. The ability to dine al fresco has allowed us to bring back more staff. We are working on putting chefs where they wanted to work.
But some of our restaurants, like the one in Canada, have been closed for over a year.
Reuters / Carlo Allegri
Chef Daniel Boulud from Restaurant Daniel speaks to his staff before the service in the dining room on the first day restaurants have been allowed to start eating indoors since the outbreak of Covid-19.
Their new restaurant pays homage to an iconic French restaurant. What gave you the idea for Le Pavillon?
DB: I really felt that Le Pavillon is synonymous with New York, France and good food. But we’re not trying to replicate the original other than referring to its name and legacy.
For the 1939 World’s Fair, the French brought the original Le Pavillon restaurant to New York. It introduced the French style of fine dining to America. The restaurant [which was in business from 1941 to 1972] also became the school for a whole generation of cooks, maître d’s and restaurateurs. In New York there were 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 that mimicked the original Le Pavillon.
When I arrived in New York City, I opened the Polo Lounge at the Westbury Hotel. My maitred there was William Mascarotti, who it turned out was actually the maitred of Le Pavillon in the 60s and 70s. He had many stories about the place, like every restaurateur and chef I knew in the early 80s. I also met Pierre Franey, the long-time head chef at Le Pavillon, and he told me about his time there.
In French, a pavilion refers to an extension of a large building where you can meet and chat. I’ve been thinking about it in relation to One Vanderbilt [a supertall skyscraper next to Grand Central Station] where they carved a south wing for the restaurant.
What adjustments have you made in your restaurants so that your guests and employees feel safe?
DB: For a while we brought these Emeco plastic chairs with us. They are made from recycled plastic bottles and, above all, are very easy to clean. We also regularly changed the filter on our air conditioning system and reassessed all of our ventilation systems.
Many of these initiatives were taken to ensure that we had the right security setup at all times. We were initially unfamiliar with many of these strategies, but we learned a lot from Marc Holliday’s company SL Green Realty [which owns One Vanderbilt]who have done a lot of work to implement these security measures in their office buildings.
We also followed all health protocols – measured temperatures, observed social distancing, and asked guests to wear face masks in public areas. Our employees wear masks at all times.
Creating a social atmosphere must have been difficult. In a way, guests long for an escape from reality, but they also want to feel protected. How did you navigate that?
DB: Yes it was a challenge. This was true with Daniel. We only got permission to open a street café very late in summer – almost in September. We built Boulud Sur Mer with the idea of creating a Provencal outdoor experience. We wanted to keep the café running over the winter, otherwise we’d have to take people off again. Stephanie Goto, a very talented architect, came up with these “bungalows” with the striped cloth. Everyone has heaters and feeds music.
When it was possible to eat inside, we expanded Boulud Sur Mer into a restaurant. We had wonderful sponsors like Hermes who provided us with wallpaper and fabrics to reinvent the interiors. Stephanie, who also designed it, kindly helped me raise funds and get sponsors to make these changes.
What do you think of QR code based menus?
DB: I prefer a paper menu. How can I search for wine with a QR code? It would mean scrolling through pages and pages on your phone. It would be a lot easier to have a wine list printed on paper and interact with a sommelier. And of course it’s always better to keep our smartphones away while eating. I am anything for paper and face-to-face conversations.
Has working on so many projects helped you cope with the pandemic?
DB: Yes absolutely. I think I wouldn’t have done well if I had to stay home and do nothing.
Which comfort food do you use?
DB: Good soup. When I was a kid, there was soup at the table every night. That taught me that there is so much flavor, nutrients, and enjoyment to put into it. Soup can be extremely simple, yet very nutritious. A nice soup, for example, can only be made with leeks and potatoes.
How do you see the development of fine dining?
DB: There is nothing more uplifting than the memory of a very good meal. People keep saying that good food will go away, but I think it will stay forever. It can only be a different form – perhaps with less pretension, less pomp and circumstance. But there is still something irreplaceable about the sophistication of a meal, the love for service and the attention to detail. People long to create good memories around a table with good food and wine. I think these moments are very emotional and very powerful.
This long period of deprivation culminates in a real joy of being together.