Decades of invention and reinvention, complete with fireman's pole.
By David Bouley as told to Simon Butler
More than 30 years after opening his eponymous French restaurant, David Bouley is still building – specifically the forthcoming version of Bouley, due to launch within the next three years (pending, of course, the end of the current coronavirus crisis). Leveraging a career that has included stints at Montrachet in New York, Jamin in Paris, and his own Bouley Test Kitchen and Bouley at Home, the Connecticut-born chef is intent on creating a destination that remains accessible while channeling the spirit of the last Bouley, which closed in 2017.
I opened my last place in a space that had no mechanical systems whatsoever—they had never really been developed since 1890. I had to put everything into the space. The landlord kept a commercial unit for themselves for a hundred years or so; that structure’s no longer existing. He raised my rent threefold at the end of 10 years, and I said, “I can’t run.” So I moved to West Broadway, opened Bouley Bakery, bought a building on the corner there.
I didn’t want to open in Midtown. I didn’t want to have a restaurant where I was paying a lot for rent. I didn’t believe in a captive audience. So when I went down there, I was paying, what, three or four dollars a square foot for rent, and I had a huge space, and I could have the time to build a restaurant—build my relationship with my customers because I didn’t have so much financial stress on the business.
We were trying to put everything into that one building, which ended up in several locations: the Japanese restaurant Brushstroke, Bouley Bakery, Bouley the casual restaurant, Bouley upstairs and private rooms—Bouley Test Kitchen and Bouley Botanical were locations for private events. Then I closed West Broadway, went over to the building on the corner, which was our last location. And so the partnership bought a building on Harrison Street, which we’ll eventually renovate as my home and my restaurant in the next few years.
Harrison’s two blocks away. There are three buildings in a row, and they’re similar until you reach the top. The first floor of those three buildings is where Bouley “original” was supposed to be. The taxes and penalties and interest were very high, and my partner-capital person decided not to buy the building, and we went elsewhere—although in today’s numbers, we made a big mistake. Instead, we moved to 165 Duane. But the funny thing is, I’m going to be back in one of those buildings, 33, 34 years later. So it’s very interesting, because the first floor—they were all connected, the three properties, and we were using all that for the restaurant. But I’m in the neighborhood; it’s only two blocks away from where I always was. And I was initially supposed to be there in ’86, ’87. So, yeah, strange.
I’m living upstairs. I got the fire pole already signed up. So I’m just gonna jump on the pole and slide all the way down to the kitchen. I’m ready to go, and I will be so wired. Many customers, when they see me cooking, say, “Wow, you cook? You’re in the kitchen? You’re cooking.” And I say, “Well, I started this because I like to cook, and I’m gonna finish it because I like to cook.” I don’t wanna run around the world trying to run a whole bunch of businesses. That doesn’t really get me excited, but I like cooking and I like to be sure what we’re learning.
I never went to cooking school. I got into this because I love what my mother and my grandmother taught me so I could cook for my little buddies at 12, 13, 14 years old and watch their faces. I thought, “Wow, to feel like that, I’m going to wait to see what I’m gonna do next time they come over.” And I was like, “Wow, this is like a high.” So I’ve been doing it ever since.
The kitchen’s going to be the same size. It’s a smaller building, only 21 feet by 75 feet long. So the kitchen is the whole first floor. It’ll be the same size as the last kitchen, which will be quite substantial. And the second floor is where there’ll be two dining rooms. One is going to be like a feeling of a greenhouse. The front dining room will be more similar to what we’re doing—a little bit more modern, eclectic but more French-feeling, but not so old-school, not antique-feeling. Now it will be smaller but more spacious, because I’m not putting in so many tables or seats, but I want to have customers that want to have the best possible tables and whatever they choose. So by doing that, we’ll have less tables. I’m a little bit older now; I don’t want to have so many seats.
The wall of apples will be there. That’s definite. There will be fireplaces, there’ll be a greenhouse. Outside of that, I don’t know yet. I’m going to find my way. I’m going to work with different designers, architects—maybe some here. A very famous architect lives across the street, the French architect who did the Statue of Liberty renovation, and he’s done a lot of things. He was the architect who redesigned The Ritz in Paris. I was thinking about talking to him. So we want to integrate some of TriBeCa, but also give it more freshness, a French ambiance. But not from antiques so much and things like that, like the last one.
It’s going to be quite an advanced wine list, because it’s going to be a smaller restaurant. I want to get the highest quality I can. I’m taking small steps like I did in the first Bouley. I know where my weaknesses are, and I know where my strengths are. So I’m going to try to pay attention to them and hit the target.
The Frivolous dessert is kind of like, for me, a good friend. Two months, three months ago I was reaping blackberries, so with the melted core I put cooked blackberries. Last night we still had several hundred pounds of wild blueberries, so we confited those down and mixed those with solid cubes of chocolate, put that inside, and they melted together, which is fascinating. It’s an evolution.
What do we have—a handful of signature dishes if we’re lucky. And those signature dishes, if you continue to refine them, will teach you everything you need to know to create 500 other dishes. Obviously the increments of change are small, but if you can refine it further, that intimate knowledge of a recipe, or the skill, those variables will enhance the way you think about many other things.
A lot of people will come to a restaurant to eat a dish that they remember last time. I remember at Jamin, Joël Robuchon was telling me, “David, I only change 20 to 25 percent of my menu … 75 to 80 percent has not changed. People come all the way, long distance, to see it. If I don’t have it, they’re disappointed. However, the tasting menu can change regularly.” It’s a great concept to keep your edge on the tasting menu, but from the customer point of view, we’ve learned—and I’ve learned it from the greats before me—that many people expect to find a dish that they spoke to their friends or family about. If it’s not on the menu, they holler and they break stuff.
I’m a cook of the products. I’m a cook of Mother Nature. My grandmother used to always tell me, “Mother Nature is the boss—respect her, and everything will work out just fine.” As I grow now, I realize that from a consumer’s point, no one wakes up one day craving presentation. We’ll wake up craving Mother Nature. So I’m going to stay in my line and try to cultivate the best that I can find from her.
Now, we’re obviously closed like everyone else. We don’t have a big group of employees like a lot of folks do. We’re smaller, so our energy is going into preparation in terms of designing foods that will service health, like we’ve been doing now for quite a number of years with this Chef and Doctor series. We’re learning a lot more about different kinds of foods. There’s a lot of data and a lot of results in terms of certain kinds of foods that can help build strength in the immune system.
We’re not doing any food as takeouts or pickup at this time. Some of our energy is going into designing things that we think people can do at home at practical levels of skill, with accessible products. There’s no better time to start this than now, because everybody’s at home. Hopefully a lot of people are cooking. We’re building something that we’re going to start streaming out, and hopefully we can get into correspondence—what do they have in their pantry, what do they have accessible, what do they like to eat, and how do we augment that to have better service of health.
People have to think about eating balanced meals at this time—meals that give them the energy that they need and a good night’s sleep. My suggestion to our chef brothers and sisters is to create food that has the full impact of bioavailability. There’s no better time than now to educate those who are buying food that chefs are preparing in terms of why they put the food together, and how chefs can think about building more strength from a health point of view, not just a flavor point of view.
I won’t be doing any more restaurants. I want to get into reaching people in their homes. I want to build some kind of a living pantry, which will go onto the Internet at some point. Let’s say you’re having problems sleeping, or you’re having arthritis, or you need to get your sugar level down, or you’ve got a fatty liver, or you’re concerned about your pre-diabetes markers or other issues. We want to be able to direct people into which kind of ingredients can help with that. The spice kingdom is apparently a hundred times more anti-inflammatory than the green-vegetable kingdom or the berry kingdom, but people don’t know how to use spices.
When we do open again as a gastronomic restaurant, how can we enlighten folks that they can do all this at home? They can continue to enjoy their body singing under their own design, under their own proprietorship, which is a hell of a lot more fun than reading recipes. And they can own their cooking. So we want to be A to Z in terms of what does food do for you. I have a lot of work to do.
If you’re an employer, you’re studying what the stimulus is going to do to help you get through this. When we do come back, it’s going to be a slow beginning. Thinking about how we’re going to run our businesses differently, what’s our profit margin—there’s a lot of variables to think about as a businessperson.
There’s a lot of people that supply us who are having issues. For instance, I ordered a calf’s liver last week from one of my sources who’s a very old butcher, and it was larger than I wanted. I said to him, “I wanted the smallest one; did you have anything smaller?” He said, “Well, no, David, because right now the animals are still growing. So that’s why your liver was so large.” It’s a different taste, a different cooking technique. But we have to think about all those people. How are we going to help our farmers, how are we going to help our fishermen?
I’ve been hearing from some of my chef friends around the world that they’re not only helping to feed the people who are on the front lines dealing with this virus, but they’re also helping educators, they’re helping firemen, they’re helping policemen. They’re servicing them with food because we’re gonna need them. We need everyone to get in great health.
The restaurant business is kind of like bacteria. It will survive. But it’s going to have to reinvent itself. It takes a lot of energy to just cover costs. How much can you charge the consumer? It’s very competitive now because it’s so much home delivery and all these different things—making meals at home, augmenting meals at home. How much more could it cost to go to a restaurant?
I’m trying to keep myself strong, my family, my wife strong. I went through the 1990s, and then I went through 9/11, and I went through ’08. And each time we’d have these extremely heavy challenges. You have to look at what are the opportunities, and there’s always a new list of them if you can get your eyes on them. It’s good to look around outside and find some inspiration from what other folks are doing. But I think if you look at the opportunities that exist in your own world as a chef, there are many. They could be just how do we survive this from a business perspective. Does that mean we’re going back to white gloves and spacious tables? What are the opportunities that we have as chefs that we don’t realize, that we take for granted? I think those are going to be the most exciting points of inspiration.
We have to break down the barriers between the health practitioners and cooks. Someone famous said, “The health industry knows nothing about food, and the food industry knows nothing about health.” You know, they always say you are what you eat. I say you become what you eat.
Photo: Kenji Takigami.