Celebrity Culinary: The Boulud Effect

Celebrity chef

The seduction began at noon – a little early in the day for sensual delights, perhaps, but the host was, after all, a Frenchman. There were frogs’ legs, caviar and champagne, just for starters.

The teasing canapés were followed by five courses, each paired with a wine, each building in intensity: ahi tuna sashimi, Queen Charlotte halibut, coquilles St. Jacques, young Quebec pork and a climax of mango-and-passion-fruit pavlova followed by milk chocolate praline napoleon.

It was March 14, and, with this private media luncheon to announce his newest restaurant venture, New York celebrity chef Daniel Boulud had Vancouver’s dining elite eating out of the palm of his hand.

After top chef Rob Feenie’s highly publicized and acrimonious November 2007 split from Lumière and Feenie’s – in which the Iron Chef claimed he had been forced out of his own kitchen by the restaurants’ majority owners, David and Manjy Sidoo – a huge question mark hung over the city’s dining scene. How could Feenie, our culinary darling, possibly be replaced? Four months later, the Sidoos had a definitive answer: Boulud, the iconic chef-owner of four renowned New York rooms (Daniel, Café Boulud, DB Bistro Moderne and Bar Boulud) as well as restaurants in Palm Beach, Las Vegas and Beijing. Through his company the Dinex Group, Boulud would take over the management of Lumière and replace Feenie’s with a DB Bistro Moderne, modelled on his popular New York locale of the same name. If ever there was a culinary coup, this was it.

“I’m really, really, really lovin’ my job right now!” an ecstatic Mia Stainsby crowed in the Vancouver Sun. “Mr. Boulud is the first major celebrity chef to open a restaurant anywhere in Canada,” wrote Alexandra Gill in the Globe and Mail, adding, “The news has sent shockwaves through the culinary community.” At the March luncheon, Wally Oppal, B.C.’s attorney general and minister responsible for multiculturalism, passed on the premier’s regrets and announced that it was “a great day for the city of Vancouver. . . . It truly places our city in the major leagues.” He then presented a bemused Boulud with a plaque reading, “B.C., the best place on earth for entrepreneurs,” and a jacket emblazoned with the government’s ActNow BC healthy living campaign motto: “Every move is a good move.”

Boulud may be the first major marquee celebrity chef to make the move to Vancouver, but he likely won’t be the last. In April word leaked that the Shangri-La Hotel Vancouver was in talks with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the Alsatian-born chef whose four-star New York City-based Jean-Georges Restaurant is one of seven establishments he runs in the city (in total there are 17 restaurants bearing Vongerichten’s imprint across the globe, from Prime Steakhouse in Las Vegas’s Bellagio Hotel to Lagoon in Bora Bora). Jill Killeen, the Shangri-La’s publicist, says only that “we are in discussions, but there is no done deal” when queried about the rumour, but adds, “You can expect something very exciting.” Also working its way through the gossip mill are stories of a potential Vancouver outlet for hot-tempered Gordon Ramsay (of Hell’s Kitchen fame) and a Jamie Oliver charitable restaurant (Oliver’s restaurant project, Fifteen – now in Amsterdam, Cornwall and Melbourne – trains disadvantaged youth to work in the industry).

The city’s ascendance as a culinary mecca – and one that attracts international talent such as Boulud, Vongerichten, Ramsay and Oliver – may come as a surprise to those for whom dining out means a choice between White Spot or the Keg. For dedicated foodies, however, it’s old news; this year, in the latest accolade, Vancouver made Food & Wine Magazine’s list of the 10 Best Restaurant Cities for 2008 – eking in at No. 10. Last November enRoute magazine elected two Vancouver rooms for its Top 10 Best New Restaurants of 2007 list – Kingyo Izakaya and Salt Tasting Room (No. 2 and 3, respectively). Its Next 20 list includes six more Vancouver eateries, including Fuel, Gastropod, Shore Club, So.Cial at Le Magasin and the Taco Shack. Critics from the New York Times, the London Times and the Seattle Times have all dedicated column inches to Vancouver dining, with the London Times’s Nick Wyte remarking last August that “Vancouver . . . has long been one of the world’s best kept food secrets.”[pagebreak]

“You know, we tend to look a little like star-struck provincials when something like [Daniel Boulud’s arrival] happens,” says Vancouver Magazine’s recently retired food editor Jamie Maw. “There are some very, very good chefs here. . . . If you make it in New York, you can become an international culinary icon. Are you that much better than the guy in L.A. or Seattle or Vancouver? Not necessarily. That’s my first-hand experience.”

Maw points to Vancouver’s position as a “culinary gateway,” with a cuisine that reflects the various ethnicities of the city. And just about every genre of cuisine has its local star, including longtime residents such as Rob Feenie, Vij’s Vikram Vij, Tojo’s Hidekazu Tojo and Cioppino’s Pino Posteraro. The difference is, now there’s a huge ring-shaped spotlight on the city. “It’s a little bit reminiscent of Sydney just before their Olympics,” notes Maw. “Sydney was always a brilliant city to dine in. It just became identified, sort of anointed by the American culinary media, which can steadfastly ignore a place.”

The charismatic Boulud, for his part, dismisses the idea that he may be looking to cash in on mounting Olympic fever. “Vancouver is not waiting for me to be on the international stage,” he says, his English still heavily accented after more than two decades in New York. “I think with the Olympics, you already are on a major international stage, but I don’t think the Olympics have anything to do with my decision. That was not the reason.” Boulud prefers to emphasize the “wonderful mosaic of restaurants and cuisine and culture,” when explaining his decision to extend the Boulud brand to Vancouver. “I felt there was a great energy in this city and great passion for food and a lot of great people.” A ready supply of fresh ingredients from good suppliers, he adds, was also a draw. As for how much time he’ll spend in Vancouver sourcing produce, the chef is coy. It’s difficult to say when and how long he will be in Vancouver, he says. First and foremost, he says, he has to take care of the restaurant. “I’m not trying to stamp Vancouver on my letterhead,” he says. “That’s not the goal.”

According to Charles Passy, restaurant critic for the Palm Beach Post, Boulud hasn’t exactly been a man about town since opening a Café Boulud in Palm Beach’s Brazilian Court hotel in 2003. “He comes for just a handful of events each year,” says Passy. “As far as I know, he basically gets the restaurant going, designs the menu with the chef that’s picked for the location, sets the tone, and then it pretty much runs without him. . . . Once in a while he shows up for an event or whatever.” Virginia-based journalist Juliette Rossant, whose series on celebrity chefs for Forbes magazine was spun into a book, Super Chef, says Vancouver shouldn’t expect any special Boulud touches. “Hey, they’re clones,” she says of celebrity chef restaurants. “They’re chain restaurants. . . . Daniel Boulud is not going to be there 365 days a year. I mean, he’s going to send somebody and train people and they’ll take over. And he’s in Restaurant Daniel in New York City. Everybody knows that. That’s his passion – to be in that place.”

Pino Posteraro, the Italian-born chef and owner of Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill and Enoteca in Yaletown, voices similar skepticism about how much face time Boulud will be giving Vancouver. The outspoken Posteraro – who spent much of the Boulud luncheon in a heated debate with a journalist from Elemente magazine defending the price of wine in restaurants – claims he was offered a contract 2½ years ago to open a restaurant at the Fontainebleu Resort in Las Vegas, one which required very little time commitment. “I was supposed to be present in the restaurant 30 days of the year,” he says. “All these big chefs, they only have 31 days out of the year to be attending the restaurant. . . . It’s not something that I would do, because I’m a hands-on person. I’m a micromanager.”

Whether the time spent in Vancouver by Boulud and his celebrity cohort is in body or in spirit may not matter much, at least economically. The celebrity restaurants “increase, altogether, food tourism and spending of local dollars on food,” says Rossant. “For tourism it’s really good. For some cities it will just mean people will start eating out more, they’ll be more excited about food. Because hey, we’ve got a star here, let’s even try our local guys. It can be good for everyone involved.” The international media will also begin to take note of what else the city has to offer, she continues. “Personally, as a food journalist, I would be tempted to try all the locals. I’ve already tried Daniel Boulud in New York. Why would I try a clone in Vancouver?”[pagebreak]

Besides, with the international profile chefs such as Boulud and Vongerichten already enjoy, do they really need a boost from little old Vancouver? “I do think the über-chefs are seeing Vancouver as a vibrant and unique restaurant city,” says the Vancouver Sun’s Mia Stainsby, “but they’re also accustomed to operating in bigger, more moneyed cities with national media cosseting them. . . . I would imagine there would be very attractive financial arrangements luring them.” Posteraro – who calls Boulud a great chef, a great professional and a friend – puts it this way: “Daniel Boulud, to be down here – definitely lots of money had to be brought in his face.”

Given the vibrancy of B.C.’s economy in recent years, it’s not surprising that there would be the money to lure the likes of Boulud and Vongerichten. Vancouverites are feeling flush, which means they’re more comfortable splurging on fine dining. According to Statistics Canada, Vancouverites top the list for average household spending on restaurant meals, doling out $2,212 in 2006; Torontonians spent $1,913 per household, while Montrealers spent $1,687. Writing in the Globe and Mail on April 23, Beppi Crosariol noted that of the estimated 100 restaurant openings in the city last year, 40 were fine dining establishments. Many of these, such as Boneta or Fuel, have already generated national and international buzz.

Indeed, with an established fine dining scene in Vancouver, there’s no guarantee that the interloping superstars will outshine their local competition. “I think the whole celebrity chef thing is somewhat overrated,” says Jamie Maw. “It’s just one person. You can argue that Daniel Boulud is a very good chef. I’ve eaten his food many times in his three different styles of restaurant in New York City, and . . . DB Bistro Moderne is certainly the most applicable concept – but it’s a concept. I hope he can get used to the prices in Vancouver, that’s all. We’re still less expensive than most other North American cities to dine in, with the exception of Montreal. In major culinary cities, we’re certainly one of the least expensive in the world.”

What works in New York, London or Paris might not necessarily work in Vancouver, adds Stainsby, tempering her initial enthusiasm about Boulud’s arrival. “It’ll be interesting to see how Vancouver responds. I was in New York eight years ago when Alain Ducasse, a revered French chef with a pair of three-Michelin-star restaurants in Europe, opened his first U.S. restaurant,” she recalls. “New Yorkers mocked the pretentiousness and preciousness of details – like Mont Blanc fountain pens for signing the bill and embroidered stools for women’s bags – and the exorbitant prices.”

Boulud’s reception in Palm Beach, for one, wasn’t particularly warm. “If Café Boulud has settled into a groove, it’s an absurdly expensive one,” wrote the Palm Beach Post’s Passy in a December 2005 review. Passy singled out Boulud’s take on Southern-style barbecued chicken (in which the chef substituted a poussin) as being particularly lamentable: “There’s not enough meat on the bones – literally – to give you that sense of satisfaction that barbecue is all about. And charging $34 for the dish is an outrage.”

John Bishop, whose famed Bishop’s restaurant in Kitsilano has been a fixture in Vancouver for more than 20 years, also wonders how comfortable these marquee chefs will be with the West Coast vibe: “This isn’t New York or London. This city doesn’t run 24 hours a day. There are still quiet days. Anyone in the industry will tell you that there are still very quiet Mondays in the wintertime.” Could these chefs, with the attention they’ll bring to Vancouver’s culinary culture, change all of that? Possibly. As Posteraro notes, where one superstar chef goes, others will soon follow. “Las Vegas used to be a shit place, excuse the French, to go and eat,” he says. “And all these people, they were begged to come, with lots of money, to go and work there and make it a culinary mecca. So if this is what Vancouver’s going to become even more – God bless, let them come.”

Although, warns Posteraro, employing a soccer analogy, the influx of celebrity chefs could suffocate local restaurateurs. “For the longest time, Italian teams, the local clubs, were not winning because they did not have enough international talent. So they started to bring international players, throwing them lots of money and making sure we got results. The same thing has happened in England, with one problem: if you keep bringing all this international talent – and, because of different reasons, you have to let them play – then the young talent, they get neglected. So the result, on the international level: England has been eliminated this year in the World Cup because of the lack of local talent. . . . That’s what I think the problem might be here.”

For now the local talent is relishing the prospect of going head to head, pan to pan, menu to menu, with one of the world’s most famed chefs. “Competition always makes us try harder,” says Warren Geraghty, the new executive chef at West (and a recent émigré from London). “If it’s a one-horse race, how fast do you have to run? When there’s more competition, it’s great.” His predecessor at West, David Hawksworth – who is preparing to open his eponymous restaurant in the revamped Hotel Georgia in fall 2009 – feels similarly. “Everybody’s aim will be to be better than what these guys are doing,” he says. “We’re going to be doing our own thing, but it’s a good barometer to see where you are and what these guys are doing, and most of us really thrive on competition. Bring it on.”