Preparing an American Revolution
New York's David Bouley wants to change the way the whole nation eats
DAVID BOULEY'S establishment near the foot of Manhattan was recently pronounced America's best restaurant by the James Beard Foundation.But such accolades aren't enough for Mr. Bouley (boo-LAY). The young chef wants to revolutionize American cooking. He wants to strip it of the fats, creams, and chemicals of industrialized agriculture and marketing. He wants to get back to the essences - the remembered flavor, say, of a ripe peach. He favors what might be called organic, boutique agriculture and marine harvesting. In his own cooking, this means using fresh, modest amounts of fish, fruit, and herbs instead of featuring chunks of protein, using vegetable purees instead of reduced meat stocks, and keeping flavors light and distinct instead of cooking them into blurred oblivion. Bouley's own cookery reflects a broader trend that is in keeping with technological and sociological change. Computer-literate growers and fishermen and satellite-dispatched truck delivery systems characterize a new North American generation for whom organic produce and "a clean cuisine," like a clean environment, are important values. Many growers of natural products find it hard to market them. For his part, Bouley finds it difficult to use all the fish that a fisherman, contracted to fish for a certain species, may haul aboard on a given outing. So, Bouley must call other restaurants all over town, like a middleman, to sell the overage.
A larger operation The answer to this logistical problem, he says, is to create a larger operation - one that incorporates a serious restaurant, a bistro, a retail food emporium, a wholesale operation, and a mail-order operation. This would create enough volume to establish a market for the specialty producers, from Canada to Mexico, that Bouley is linking up. If he succeeds, in the process he will also have the high-quality products on a sustainable basis that he needs for his own kitchens. The cost of the undertaking? Ab out $6 million. Bouley is already pricing some properties nearby, almost in the shadow of the World Trade Center towers. Bouley speaks quietly but intensely. He remembers when he was a boy, one of nine children in a Storrs, Conn., family, taking slices of homemade bread to school. His classmates would trade him anything they had to get a piece of that bread! He knew then that he wanted to convert the Twinkie generation to real food. A long apprenticeship followed. He worked in a Storrs restaurant at 15 and used restaurant jobs to put himself through college and to live in many parts of the United States and abroad. After a West Coast project headed by renowned chef Roger Verge failed, Verge invited Bouley to work at his restaurant in southern France. From there he worked for Paul Bocuse in Lyon, Joel Robuchon in Paris, and Paul Haeberlin in Alsace - all French masters. Bouley stood out by working harder than anyone else, he says. He was there in the morning when Bocuse arrived to go to the market. He took no break in the afternoon, and he was still on the job "when they shooed everyone out and turned out the lights." The French hierarchical kitchen is hard on any recruit, and particularly hard on Americans. But he made his mark, especially in Paris, with a crme brulee recipe that became the talk of the city. He was nine years in France. Four years ago he opened his own restaurant in New York. It has a French country atmosphere. "I designed it and my brother built it," Bouley says. He went to the south of France just to get a door for the front of the restaurant, but quickly filled a 20-yard container with furnishings. "I didn't want a downtown, industrial-looking restaurant," Bouley says. "I wanted to build a restaurant [in which] people would feel they were out of New York. I designed the vaults on a computer. We made a model out of pa per, to see if we could do it structurally and what it would cost. And once we had done the vaults, I just kept adding things." The building was a warehouse in the wholesale food district, across from a small, triangular park that dates back to 1616, when the Dutch owned the city. The restaurant has 74 employees, about one for every seat in the dining room, which is the ratio of the best French establishments. Despite his accolades, and still in his mid-30s, Bouley says he is only "at the teenager level" of realizing his vision. "Here, I can cook for perhaps 200 people a day," he says. "I want to change the way all of America eats."
Economics is the key Bouley would like to establish two businesses: a real-estate company and the food establishment. "The retail business would be complementary to the restaurant," Bouley says. "My brother and I will build the restaurant that I would have liked to build here - like this, but it will have ... a greenhouse in back that you will be able to eat in. There'll be fireplaces. The retail operation will be part of that facility. And it will have banquet facilities and a bistro, so we will have created a circle for ut ilizing the stock cuisine." Bouley likes to talk of specific strains of corn, "fingerling" potatoes, and a marine biologist who fishes for him in the North Atlantic to indicate the care he takes to special-order the products he serves. He refers to "the palette of flavors, the palette of experiences" that diners have stored in their minds. Traditional cooking exhausts the digestion, he claims: "The Japanese people have understood for centuries how to eat an entire meal and never feel exhausted." "The last three times I went to France, it was a realization for me," Bouley says. "I can't eat the butter and cream anymore that they still serve in restaurants in France, even the best restaurants. I was eating at some of the masters I had worked with, and I was very disappointed. Not long ago I was eating at a French restaurant I eat at - I ate a veal sauce with mushrooms, and the veal sauce was extremely reduced, and that's a lot of gelatin from the bones. That's one of the most difficult things for your body to digest.
Cooking as if at home "I stopped working with butter and cream completely because I was just tired of it," Bouley says. "I want to cook like you'd cook at home. But there were different things that I was considering: the reputation of a French restaurant, the lifestyle of a New York clientele, and how much people eat out in a restaurant like this.... I don't want to make a green salad, and I don't want to make a dish with sauce on the side. If I have to do that, I don't want to be a chef. "I didn't want to make vinegar sauces; I didn't want to make butter sauces. "So we cook shallots in red wine for four hours until they are so sweet, they're like jam, and we pass them through a tamis [sieve]. We do that with many kinds of vegetables. We do it with white vegetables: I can make a white sauce for you that you'll think is cream and butter, and it won't be." A salmon filet is served in a clear, hot tomato consomme. Was a yellow tomato used to give that color? "No, that's a red tomato," he replies. "That's an ancient technique. The water in any tomato, if you take it and squeeze it, is perfectly clear. If you mash it and let it drip, you'll have clear water. We scent it with lemon grass, with thyme, and verbena." The lemon thyme used as a garnish? "That's from a grower on Long Island." And so it goes. The Bouley circle of fresh produce, from growers he knows by name, is presented as the new American cuisine: old-fashioned, pre-Industrial Age ingredients, made available via computer-age communications and transportation, and presented simply and cleanly.