Daniel Boulud arrives at a table in his restaurant at the Four Seasons in Toronto, expertly plated.
There's a soigné look about him, typical of the French at a certain age, both male and female. It speaks of fastidious grooming: salon-perfect hair, a smooth, moisturized complexion, clothes perfectly pressed, shoes shining. He looks like a corporate executive dressed up in a chef's jacket. The only disconcerting thing about his careful presentation are his hairy forearms, exposed by the rolled-up sleeves of his jacket.
His hands are like prepped vegetables, scrubbed and clipped, expertly manicured, and they immediately set about fixing the place setting in front of him as soon as he sits down. Not that he's going to eat, mind you. It's just to have everything arranged just so, the placemat straightened, the glass exactly at its corner, the cutlery in perfect, architectural alignment.
It's a matter of habit, this obsession with exactitude. He does his fiddling without seeming to think about his actions. He just talks and fixes, readjusts, realigns, as if he's a pilot in a 747 cockpit, ensuring that everything is ready for take off. Even when his espresso arrives, he will sip, and then shift the cup by the handle as he sets it down, studying it for a few seconds, until it's sitting exactly the way he wants it to in its saucer. (And those rolled-up sleeves? He later tells me they have to be turned up a certain way, and pressed to his precise directions.)
This is a man at the top of his game, a long way from his youth in St. Pierre de Chandieu in France, where he grew up, the eldest of five children, on a farm, harvesting haricots verts after his homework was done. At 14, he bolted for Lyon, just 10 miles down the road, where he worked in the kitchens of some of France's greatest chefs, including Roger Verge, Michel Guerard and Georges Blanc. It was there that he lost his culinary virginity, calling it a "sensual revelation" when he tasted pheasant stuffed with foie gras and the first black truffles of the season. He set off for New York in 1982 and worked at Le Cirque when the restaurant was at the peak of its influence. In 1993, he opened his first restaurant.
So, at 58, with a mini-empire of 14 restaurants around the world and a staff of 1,300, is there any crumb of revelation that might fall from his table of perfection?
First, I would have to get through a course of his sublime arrogance.
The renowned New York chef first opened in Canada in Vancouver in 2009, closing two years later. Was that a mistake?
"No, because I didn't put in any money," he says. "It was not my investment. It was not my business. I was just consulting. The owner of the restaurant was desperate to have someone take it, and I had opened a restaurant in China at the time, and I thought it would be on my route. But it was a bad location, wrong city. I have no affiliation with it. And I didn't have much affiliation with the clients there."
Many of the patrons in Montreal, where he opened a restaurant in the Ritz Carlton in the spring last year, and in Toronto, where his eponymous café launched with the opening of the new Four Seasons last October, frequent his establishments in New York.
"I don't think luxury dining is a novelty here in Toronto. There are many restaurants that offer great food, great service, great care. And I think a whole generation of chefs today have been learning abroad and are coming back home to create a great place."
He gently laughs off the cool reception some in the media have shown him. "Well, we know how they receive me here," he begins, looking down at his place setting to adjust the knife's alignment. "Some of them wanted to flex their muscle. But that's okay," he continues, offering a Gallic shrug. "I'm not intimidated by that." He brushes imaginary crumbs from the table. "What is it, really? Is [the criticism] trying to make me insecure or are they trying to show they're insecure? That's what I want to know."
"We don't take any criticism lightly," he asserts. "We are taking things seriously here." He comes to Toronto from New York several times a month to work with the chef, Tyler Shedden, on new menus and dishes. As with all the chefs in the company, Shedden, who was raised in British Columbia, has been trained by Boulud. Still, the menus are very much a collaboration. "They come in part from the chef and from me with my team in New York. Then when the chef has been working here for many years, it could be 75 per cent him."
"Basically, it's like if you're a famous designer and you work for Chanel, you are still producing a Chanel product."
He has no plans to retire. "There are more chefs today who are a decade or more younger than me, and they don't work as hard as I do." He produces an appetizer-size laugh. "I feel good, and I like the people I work with," he says of his continued passion for the work.
And then, finally, he allows a tidbit of personal information to fall. He and his wife of 23 years divorced three years ago because "we didn't want to be so passive about each other."
He has a new girlfriend, Katherine Gage, who "keeps me young."
The groomed eyebrows lift. "Young enough."
"No," he states emphatically. "Ca va pas." More imaginary crumbs brushed from the tablecloth.
He has been seeing her since he divorced, he tells me. They often cook together with his 23-year-old daughter, Alix, on Sunday nights.
"We're getting married this summer," he offers suddenly, leaving the morceau on the table as a final, unexpected surprise, before sweeping me into the kitchen to show me how he can expertly deep-fry an egg.