Stephanie Izard And Daniel Boulud On The Tricky Art Of Designing A Meal

We eavesdrop on the Boulud, one of the most accomplished chefs in the world, and Izard, a Top Chef winner who’s opening… a diner?!

Stephanie Izard

Izard, 35, runs Chicago’s Girl and the Goat and this fall opens Little Goat, a diner/bread shop/bar.

Daniel Boulud

Boulud, 57, has an empire of 13 restaurants in five countries, with four Michelin stars.

Stephanie Izard: You have so many restaurants. I’m curious: Do you use the same designer for all of them?

Daniel Boulud: No. We used the same one, Thomas Schlesser, for three. But, of course, the food drives the design of the experience. We think, Okay, that’s the kind of food I want to do. How do I want my place to reflect that?

SI: Right.

DB: For me, the design of a meal depends on who we cook for. Friends? Someone you know? A famous chef?

SI: Yes. And, well, what’s in season.

DB: How do you conceptualize?

SI: I like to have a theme, then go to the market and find whatever ingredients are around. A theme helps me design.

DB: I can imagine for you that the design of a meal is a reflection of what you know and what you may not know but want to know--

Boulud’s sea-bass paupiette

SI: --and want to figure out! I did an event with a friend to raise money for gardens in Africa. We wanted to do an African meal, but I didn’t know anything about African cuisine. So I started reading about it, and I ended up finding things that I now use regularly, like kitfo. It’s an Ethiopian beef tartare. It’s basically butter on beef tartare--fat on fatty beef, which doesn’t sound terrible. We infused spices and a little vanilla bean and Thai chillies into the butter. You have to get the balance right so the butter doesn’t seize up when it hits the beef. It’s interesting to force yourself to learn new things. I don’t like making the same things over and over.

Izard’s confit goat belly with bourbon butter, lobster 'n’ crab, and fennel

DB: I happen to be French and inspired by French cuisine, but I’ve been surrounded with diverse talent in my different restaurants. So the design of a meal is also sometimes a collaboration of talent. The way I think about designing a meal with Gavin Kaysen, the chef at Cafe Boulud, is different from my chef at DB Bistro or my chef at Daniel. It’s important that the chef is not an executor of my program but a partner.

SI: Do you approve the dishes at all your restaurants before they go on the menu?

DB: That would be too difficult.

SI: I have to start depending on other people. That’s my biggest challenge: figuring out how to share the creativity.

DB: It will come. You have to sweat it at the beginning. You’ll find the adrenaline to spread yourself thinner. Though a lot of people open restaurants and forget the business.

SI: Then they go out of business.

DB: It’s the worst for a chef to lose his dream, but the business model of a restaurant is the worst model.

SI: That’s why so many don’t survive.

DB: I was inspired by people I worked for--Michel Guerard, Georges Blanc, Roger Verge, Paul Bocuse--for their excellence, consistency, and ambition. Especially longevity: Bocuse is 86 and just opened a fast-food restaurant in Lyon!

SI: That’s awesome! So, when did you move here?

DB: I’ve been in the same zip code 30 years. It was New York or nothing. 1982 or 1983.

SI: I was 5!

DB: I’ve been pretty lucky. In life, you need luck, but you have to go and get it. You have to take risks.

SI: I was nervous that people wouldn’t want to eat goat.

DB: That’s daring! How is the goat your mascot?

SI: Izard, in French, is a Pyrenees mountain goat. When I found out, I thought, I have to use that! But I’d never cooked goat. We were like, "We should probably learn!" At first, we braised it or made sausage. Then we did goat belly and neck. For Valentine’s Day, I did goat heart and people went crazy. I didn’t think anybody would order skewered goat heart!

DB: Provocative!

SI: I don’t get all pink and hearts and stuff.

DB: You get hard-core with a heart! But I think you can afford to do those crazy things. I don’t know if I can.

DB: You want the customer to love it so much that they make another reservation on the way out.

SI: I always ask, "Did you have fun?" One of your chefs today said she came in for dinner. She said, "It was really tasty!" And I said, "But did you have fun?" That’s all we want.

DB: It has to be a moment you remember, so that you want to go back. I want people to feel special and, like you said, have fun. Every individual in the restaurant plays a role--the food is on us, but also it’s the waiters, busboy, bartender. To make people feel even more special than they were expecting—that’s the experience we try to design.

A version of this article appears in the October 2012 issue of Fast Company.

Photograph by Larry Fink

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