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Secrets to a ‘tasty life’

New book by chef Daniel Boulud, “Letters to a Young Chef,” offers insight on the delights and obsessions of a life dedicated to making and experiencing great food.
/ Source: TODAY

In his new book, famed chef and owner of three New York City restaurants, Daniel Boulud offers advice to aspiring young chefs everywhere. As part of the “Art of Mentoring Series,” the book, “Letters to a Young Chef,” offers an inside look at what it takes to make it in the world of food. Boulud discusses the book on “Today.” Here's an excerpt:

Writing these letters to you has inevitably made me think of myself when I started out in this business more than thirty years ago. I had yet to see an avocado, taste a truffle or eat my first dollop of caviar, which happened to be a spoonful of beluga over a turbot braised in champagne sauce. You, on the other hand, having spent three years in cooking school, know a lot more about our craft than I did when I threw myself into this career when I was fourteen. I left our family farm in St. Pierre de Chandieu and went to work at Restaurant Nandron in Lyon. I very soon got my first taste of truffle.

Chef Nandron had just shot a pheasant, grown autumn plump on overripe grapes and juniper berries: He marinated it in cognac and Madeira, stuffed it with foie gras and the first black truffles of the season then roasted it in juniper butter, with cabbage, salsify root and a chunk of country bacon. Even for a kid raised on the glorious food of the Rhône valley this was a sensual revelation. I knew how to hunt and cook a pheasant country style, but that was simple home cooking and this was real cuisine.

Restaurant Nandron was only ten miles down the road from home, but my little village remained much as it had been in the nineteenth century with the exception of cars and electricity. Lyon, on the other hand, was very much part of the modern world: huge, busy, full of cosmopolitan people with sophisticated tastes. It was a far cry from the Boulud farm, where finding a snake in the barn provided enough excitement for a week’s worth of conversation. I loved restaurant work from the moment I tied on a crisp blue apron (only the chefs wore white). It didn’t take me long to decide three things: I knew I loved to cook, I knew that I wanted to learn from the masters and I knew that being a chef was the only thing I wanted to be.

It was probably a stroke of luck that I did not know much more. In the beginning, I didn’t have a clue how much it would take to go from a lowly worker in a French restaurant to creating a restaurant of my own in New York City; I now know that it takes much more than simply knowing how to cook.

People often make that mistake: they confuse skill in the kitchen with being a chef. I’ve had some wonderful people work for me who can cook damn well. They have the talent. They’ve learned from the best. And yet I know that they will fulill their talents best by continuing to cook in a great restaurant rather than trying to run one as a chef or owner.

To be sure, you need to know all the basics: cooking, from savory to sweet, curing to baking, the almost mystical art of sauces, seasoning, spicing, texture and taste. Add to that an up-to-date knowledge or at least acquaintance with the evolving styles of the important contemporary chefs all over the world. Yet this is only the beginning. How to work with people, how to manage them in the cramped quarters and fiery heat of the kitchen, how to practice self-discipline and bring it out in others, where to find the best ingredients and how to squeeze every last penny out of them, how to move around the dining room and be genuinely interested in every customer, how to fulfill the constantly changing food fantasies of a demanding public — these are skills that have nothing to do with shaking the pan but everything to do with whether or not you have what it takes to be a successful chef.

This lengthy list is not meant to discourage you. What I really want is to lay out before you some things you need to consider now, as you begin your career. And as far as I’m concerned, being a chef of what I would call a gastronomic restaurant is a wonderful career. By this I mean a restaurant that in the spirit of the Michelin guide is “worth a journey,” not just a detour. In these letters I will share with you lessons I have learned in the hope that they will help you figure out if this is really the life you want. Of one thing I am sure: The only way you are going to make the grade is if being a chef is indeed what you want most to be.

First, do not be in a hurry. Even if things fall into place perfectly, it will take you at least ten to fifteen years before you can truly call yourself a chef. You will need those years to acquire the culinary skills and absorb the management and people skills that you’ll need as a chef. So then the question becomes, How am I going to spend those beginning years? And I would answer that you should begin by spending at least two years traveling the world, working as you go, experiencing what is becoming an increasingly global cuisine. This is a luxury that I did not fully have in my early years. Once you have done that, spend a half dozen years working for the very best chefs you can find: Bear in mind, you will gain a lot more from making salad in the kitchen of a great restaurant then you will from attempting Lobster Thermidor in an average joint.

Sometimes you will be what we call a stagiaire (like an intern) and you may not even be paid. I know that sounds like being a medieval serf, but there’s a lot of competition to get into the best kitchens and it may require that you do whatever it takes to get your foot in the door. Furthermore, once you have that kind of head start on your resume you will only advance by working harder and longer than the rest of the kitchen crew so that you become noticed by your chef. If you do this, you will have taken a tremendous first step, because that chef more than likely will give you a full-time position or provide a connection to a new job and more education in another restaurant with another talented chef. I was very fortunate to begin my career in Lyon at a time when that part of France was at the forefront of a culinary revolution. I went from one great restaurant to another, learned as much as I could and was given more and more responsibility. I learned cooking. I observed a lot about what went into the front and back of the house. And I also learned something about luck. In those years, when I worked in the kitchens of Roger Vergé, Michel Guérard and Georges Blanc — at three of the top restaurants in France — I never had the feeling that these chefs were merely lucky. They made their luck by working very hard, honing their skills and developing their art.

When you go to work in the kitchen of a great chef, chances are you’ll learn as much or more from the souschefs around you and your fellow cooks in training. The best places attract the best people. You’ll learn from them, compete with them, challenge them. Right now in my kitchens in New York, besides my mostly American cooks and chefs, we have people from China, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, Israel, Italy, Spain and France. Every one of them knows something about food in his or her country that none of the rest of us knows.

Sometimes this international polyglot makes me laugh at the mishmash of cultures in modern kitchens. We had one Japanese cook who was very good but handled everything — from a leaf of chervil to a lobster tail — with his chopsticks. He was fast and precise, so I learned that there is more than one way to do things right in the kitchen, but still the technique amused me because it looked so strange in a classique kitchen. With slicing, though, he had the greatest precision I have ever seen. He could slice radishes for our cucumber soup blindfolded and they would look like they had come out of an expensive mandolin.

So, with the advent of truly global cuisine, a chef’s education is not as straight a path as the one I took when I went from my first job at Nandron in Lyon and two years later drove sixty miles up the road to Georges Blanc. For a young chef today, you can make part of the global tour that I mentioned earlier simply by working in the right kitchens in the wide range of cuisines available in most cosmopolitan areas.

After you spend five years or so going from kitchen to kitchen, it is time to put down some roots in one or two places and move up through the ranks. This is when you will take the steps that will make you a true chef. Although you may arrive with a beautiful résumé from some famous restaurants and think you are pretty hot stuff, take my word for it, you are not. Even if you are, it does not mean that much to your chef. He or she is interested only in what is needed in the kitchen.

Building your ego is not part of the game. This may be hard to swallow after having worked so hard for five years, but there is only room for one ego in a kitchen when the crush of service is on. Do not take it personally. Respect the chef and always give more than expected. Become a key part of the team. This truly will deepen your technique, knowledge and relationships. It is a critical chapter in your development as a chef. This is where you move from being someone who can cook very well to one who does it right every time — or almost every time. Your goal must be perfection.

For example, I was watching a guy make pizza the other day in Greenwich Village, spinning the dough, tossing it in the air, stretching it into a neat circle. I thought, “He’s perfect. I love it. I wish I knew how to do that.” Yet I also knew that to be in the same league I would have to spend at least a year at it. It is the same in a restaurant kitchen. You cannot be master of anything unless you work at it for a good long while and can really understand it.

I remember chefs at the restaurants where I apprenticed who had been doing the same thing for ten years and were perfect at it. For any number of reasons, this career path is no longer possible. Perhaps it is the point-and-click accelerated pace of our lives, the ambition to be famous right away or rapidly changing trends in food; whatever the reason, we all work in a charged atmosphere of speed, high expectations, high ambitions. No one can put in all the time that apprentices once did. You will feel tremendous pressure to move forward as your peers advance. To develop skills the old, slow way is not always practical, so I do not expect a young American chef to do that, but still we can expect perfection in some things and competence in others.

Take the example of an omelet. Here I expect perfection, and so would any chef you go to seeking a job. André Soltner, the legendary chef and owner of Lutèce, may never have looked at a résumé the way I might with a prospective young cook. Instead, he would say, “make me an omelet.” He figured he could tell a lot simply from watching the way the applicant beat the eggs, handled the pan and tasted for seasoning.

I agree with Chef Soltner. When the young chef beats eggs, I observe if he uses a fork so that the eggs are aerated but not foamed. Then I look to see if he has a sure hand with seasoning. Next, does he mix little bits of cold butter into the egg mixture? Does the young chef pick any pan that comes to hand, or does he know that only one pan in a kitchen is used for omelets and that it will be a well-seasoned black steel pan? If the pan is dusty, does he wash it? I hope not. Washing removes the well-seasoned patina. Instead, the pan must be heated very hot and scoured with a handful of coarse salt. Then, rather than rinsing, does he dump the salt in the garbage and wipe the newly seasoned pan with clean paper? Of course, now that we have Teflon, the cleanup may be easier, but give me black steel every time.

Now the cooking. It should be a quick operation. Heat up the pan until the steel is very hot, hit it with some clari.ed butter or a touch of oil, then pour the eggs in the pan and stir fast enough that they do not curdle. Mix rapidly with the fork as you stir, moving the pan and fork in opposite circular motions until the eggs are cooked to a runny consistency. Then a crisp tap of the pan against the burner will even out the eggs into a smooth unwrinkled blanket. Seconds later, lift the handle of the pan and roll the omelet. Give a tap on the handle to flip the rolled omelet, then flip neatly onto the plate. The whole process takes mere minutes, comprises many steps, and in observing them you can instantly assess the level of skill and confidence of any candidate.

You may never be called upon to make an omelet in a fine dining restaurant, but you will need to strive for the same high level of precision in every aspect of your craft. Spending six months to a year at each station in a restaurant seems just about enough if you practice, keep improving and keep challenging yourself to make it perfect. The more you look at cooking, the more you realize it is always an unfinished education. There is truly no limit to how much you can learn.

Mine is not the only path you can take. Cooking schools produce thousands of graduates each year. They do not all end up apprenticing in my restaurant or a restaurant like it. Many go into hotels, clubs, cruise ships, resorts — all good careers. Those chefs must be very well organized, have good management skills and know how to control costs, all of which are skills that you also need in a gastronomic restaurant. These are fine jobs but are often limited in creativity. Nothing sounds more boring to me than so-called Continental food, which is the standard fare in hotels, cruise ships and banquet halls. From prime rib to lobster bisque, it is the same all over the world and has nothing to do with the region, the seasons, the new trends in cooking. I think what makes a restaurant interesting is the vision and personal style of the chef, not sameness everywhere. So, from my point of view, a career like that is limited, with a ceiling in terms of salary as well. You can reach that ceiling pretty quickly. I should add that with the fine dining revolution I expect that the level of food and compensation for the chef is bound to change as cruise ship passengers and hotel guests demand more to justify the relatively high expense of a cruise.

Or you may opt for working in someone else’s restaurant. Being a cook is an honorable profession, even an art. There is the quiet satisfaction of doing a job well, but security, not money and renown, are its rewards. Still, it is a life.

If you are an entrepreneur, however, there is no limit to how far you can go or how much you can earn. It takes sacrifice. It will take an understanding that you will work very long hours and not have much of a personal life, but if it is your passion, as it is mine, you do not have much of a choice. You are going to have to do it so you might as well try to do it right.

Of course, there are only so many top restaurants that even great cities such as New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles can support. Does this mean that you have to make it there? Not anymore. You can be a chef in a smaller city, in such places as Cincinnati or Louisville or Madison, Wisconsin, or even in the countryside. Look at Patrick O’Connell at the Inn at Little Washington. I am certain that no one in Washington, D.C., in search of a gourmet meal ever drove to the petite town of Little Washington before Patrick built his restaurant. But O’Connell is a wonderful chef with a vision, and his restaurant has become a destination for gourmets all over the country. If you cook amazingly and create the right environment, the public will find a way to you. So that’s why I tell today’s very good sous-chefs in New York City who are feeling frustrated because they are not out on their own yet, “You could quickly become a superstar in a smaller city.” America craves those kinds of restaurants, so the opportunities are there. The choice is yours.

Excerpted from “Letters to a Young Chef,” by Daniel Boulud. Copyright  © 2003. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Basic Books a member of Perseus Books Group.