At the end of March, two world-famous chefs and long-time friends, Daniel Boulud and Marcus Samuelsson, flew into Toronto and took over the kitchen at Café Boulud to collaborate on a very special meal. They were cooking for approximately 120 local chefs and restaurant owners who, like them, had been through the wringer the past couple of years as the pandemic forced the closing of restaurants around the globe.
However, this particular evening was not about rehashing the industry hardships of recent months – the billions in revenues lost, the layoffs that numbered in the thousands. (According to the Statistics Canada February 2021 Labour Force Survey, there are still about 319,000 fewer jobs in the Canadian food service sector than February, 2020. Amid this bad news, there is hope: Restaurants Canada says annual sales at full-service restaurants are forecast to surpass its prepandemic levels in 2023).
Instead it was a celebratory event that the two James Beard award-winning chefs held to applaud the passion and resiliency of their fellow restaurateurs, who had struggled to keep their businesses afloat as lockdowns came, went and came back again.
And they specifically wanted to signal to the culinary communities of Toronto and Montreal – where both have eponymous restaurants in Four Seasons Hotels – that they were back, and ready to carry on the storied tradition of fine-dining regardless of what obstacles (virus or otherwise) lay ahead.
“It’s time to move forward, not look back,” the two men told their friends at the fete, which featured dishes such as Oysters Vanderbilt, a classic Lyonnaise salad, Ethiopian Braised Lamb and Red Rooster’s Hot & Honey Signature Fried Chicken – a menu that highlighted their diverse backgrounds and culinary strengths.
Boulud, born and raised in Lyon, moved to New York 40 years ago and has built a global restaurant empire inspired by French cuisine. He now has 14 restaurants, including the two-star Michelin restaurant, Daniel, consistently ranked one of New York’s best. Samuelsson, who was born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, moved to Manhattan in 1994 and has since opened more than a dozen restaurants around the world, including Red Rooster Harlem and Marcus Restaurant + Lounge in Montreal.
Over the years they’ve seen trends come and go, and smiled benignly as industry watchers predicted – for the umpteenth time – that fine dining was dead. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Boulud and Samuelsson set the record straight.
Fine dining isn’t dying, they said, it’s evolving. Just as it always has.
The industry has been in such turmoil the last couple of years, how did each of you adapt?
Boulud: We are creative. Chefs always find ways to do things, so we did what is in our blood – we served food in a time of crisis to the people who needed it most. [Boulud, for instance, created a charity called Food 1st that served meals to hospital workers and other front-line responders in New York with the goal of getting his staff back to work]. One of our strengths is we know how to do fine dining but we also know how to do “fine” food in volume. We reconfigured our restaurants to adapt to health and safety requirements and we forged on. We all know how to scale down and look at what is necessary to do. However, we could not have done any of it without the loyalty of our customers and of our suppliers, who never gave up on us.
Samuelsson: Fine dining takes a lot of bodies so we had hundreds of staff members – who are our family – affected by the lockdowns and restrictions. However, restaurants are the heart of every neighbourhood and it was important to me to find ways to give people hope. One of the great things about being in the culinary industry is you are part of a community. We help each other, we mentor each other, and we prop each other up. [Samuelsson partnered with World Central Kitchen (WCK) and Food Rescue US-Miami and used his Red Rooster kitchens in New York and Miami to provide free meals to those in need]. The last two years were difficult but I have never been so proud of the industry. We came together. We adapted, and like everyone else, we worked with what we had.
What does “looking forward” mean to both of you?
Samuelsson: It means hosting dinners like the one in Toronto where we welcomed our fellow chefs, restaurateurs, and business partners back for a delicious meal. [The next night the two men also collaborated on a sold-out, five-course dinner for the public who paid $280 apiece to sample dishes such as a Snow Crab Risotto and Grilled Japanese Medai]. We did these events to send indicators to our teams and to our customers to say that we’re back. We missed you and fine dining is not going anywhere. Sometimes the world gets messy and complicated but how to be in a kitchen is not that complicated. You strive for excellence and you help each other. That’s all there is to it.
Boulud: Fine dining will never go away because it is not just cooking. Fine dining is people. I can have the most simple meal, but if I have amazing service, cool music, a wonderful, warm atmosphere and delicious food – that is fine dining to me. Both Marcus and I have countless examples of kids who used to work for us 20 or 30 years ago, who learn the skills and techniques to succeed, and then they go and put their own interpretation on what fine dining or fine food means to them. This is what mentoring is all about. It’s about learning from each other to keep the traditions of fine dining alive and relevant to new generations of food lovers.
During the pandemic both of you have continued to open new restaurants: Chef Marcus with Red Rooster Overtown, Streetbird Las Vegas, Marcus at Baha Mar Fish + Chop House in Bahamas and even a Streetbird in Yankee Stadium with hot and spicy fried chicken; Chef Daniel with the French culinary showpiece Le Pavillon in midtown Manhattan and an “informal” French restaurant called Le Gratin that will open in May in New York’s Beekman Hotel. Some are very high-end while others boast a friendlier price point. Clearly, fine dining is open to interpretation, how do each of you define it today?
Samuelsson: As a young man I worked at Georges Blanc Restaurant in Vonnas, France (actually Daniel worked there, too, but at a different time). It was a restaurant started by his [Blanc’s] grandmother. It was very simple but everything was done at the highest level. Georges also had a nearby boulangerie that made the most incredible croissants I’ve ever tasted. As a young student I took note of all of that – all family businesses, all of incredible quality but at different price points. The key was that, regardless of the venue, everything was done with exceptional care. Fine dining is about paying attention to quality across the board, and incorporating a million little touches that go into creating a truly memorable experience that can’t easily be replicated.
Boulud: We believe in fine dining but we believe in fun dining as well. I love to see parents bring their children into one of my restaurants to give them an education in fine dining. They will often ask, ‘Am I doing the right thing bringing my kids to a fancy restaurant?’ Of course, I say yes. Fine dining is more than fine food. It is about having the finest moment together as a family. It is about creating a moment the children and the parents will not forget.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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