Although spring bloom should already be sprouting, the East Coast’s latest bout with cold, snowy weather doesn’t exactly harvest inspiration for seasonal, local, fine dining. Dreary weather means limited produce—farmers markets lack much variety beyond the potato— there’s only so many root vegetable dishes once can craft during twenty plus weeks of winter-weather menus. Always trying to be greener-minded as a businessman, New York’s famed French Chef, Daniel Boulud picks from his farm boy roots to keep things epicurious in his Michelin-starred restaurants.
“Foods get very boring for me by the end of the winter,” Boulud tells GOOD at his latest restaurant launch, Café Boulud in Toronto’s newly renovated flagship Four Seasons. “We want to be local as much as we can, but there is only so much we can do when ingredients are limited in the cold months.”
While local and seasonal produce are priorities for top chefs, the reality is most aren’t 100 percent if they want to keep their customers satiated year round. Regions that enjoy four distinct seasons aren’t going to access variety when limited to a 100-mile radius. So Boulud and his teams strategize ways to be better to the environment while creatively and logistically plotting dishes that bring diversity to his menus.
“This is the time when I think about where I grew up in France,” says Boulud. “I grew up on a farm where we had the four different seasons like we do in New York and also here in Toronto. During the winter, every month we would eat something from the spring and summer months that we had preserved and then stored in the roots cellar.”
That means summer vegetables like Swiss chard, green beans, tomatoes, and eggplants that the Bouluds enjoyed during the summer, were also cooked, jarred and stored in anticipation of the winter months.
“We were eating our own summer vegetables in the winter, so that we never had to buy anything from other people who were importing, or from other farmers doing other things,” says Boulud. “We’d take the endive, the celery all year. We’d make it last into the next summer and then mix that with our new fresh summer vegetables for beautiful flavors.”
The Bouluds would keep things sustainable with their meat and poultry, too. Just as in his kitchens today, on his family farm they didn’t let anything go to waste.
“We had cows and calves,” says Boulud. “We'd kill three calf a year and put all the roast and everything into the freezer and live off that roast from our farm rather than buy fresh meat from someone. Each year we would transform a pig into sausage, saucisson, ham, and cured pancetta—enough to eat for that year. Then after that we'd do the same with birds and ducks. Right now would be baby goat season and we’d eat that for about a month or two.”
In Singapore where Boulud opened db Bistro Moderne at Marina Bay Sands, it's impossible to operate locally. Even with the best chefs in the world, the reality is the city-state is more of a global destination than a real food capital given its dearth of fertile soil.
“In Singapore I have great food and great talent, but the climate can’t register so nothing grows there,” says Boulud. “It’s very tropical and hot. You can’t even grow carrots or herbs there because of the soil. Instead, there is a great food community growing and I love being a part of that.”
It’s been decades since Boulud himself has lived on a farm. His home now is above his eponymous restaurant, Daniel, in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. With restaurants in eight cosmopolitan cities, he’s adapted to feeding people with ingredients that have to travel some miles to reach plates and palates.
“New York is a much easier city to have green businesses in comparison to other cities,” says Boulud. “It would be a lie to say that everything functions with local because nothing functions only with local. I am realistic about my limitations and am always researching ways to be better. But also, when you see waste created by food vendors and supermarkets that is a real shame. I would like to see some real large changes from them rather than the pressure for a little chef bringing his fish from another body of water for you to eat.”