In the realm of fine dining, there are very few things chef Daniel Boulud doesn't do, and do very well. After training in his native France under renowned chefs including Roger Vergé, Boulud made his way to New York and in 1986 took the post of executive chef at Le Cirque. In 1993, he opened Daniel, consistently rated one of the top restaurants in the country. His operations now include three restaurants in New York with a fourth set to open this month in Palm Beach, Fla.; the catering operation Feast & Fêtes; and DB Connoisseur, distributing caviar and smoked salmon.
SPECIAL EVENTS MAGAZINE: What led you to open Feast & Fêtes?
DANIEL BOULUD: At age 14, I started in a restaurant where we were doing a lot of catering, cooking for all the notable people coming to Lyon. From that, I always had an interest in catering. When I was at Le Cirque, we did some parties with Jean-Christophe Le Picart while he was owner of [caterer] Tentation New York. When I opened Daniel and he sold Tentation and passed his non-compete agreement, he wanted to go back into the business, but on a smaller scale, and he asked, “Would you be interested in catering with me?” He had the know-how of the logistics, which is very important in this equation. It's nice to be a chef and think you are going to open a catering business. But unless it's mom-and-pop catering, where you cook in your basement and then deliver, it's very limiting. To make it a real business, you need a team.
Q: How big is the Feast & Fêtes staff?
A: That can go anywhere from five people to 100. You need a lot of flexibility because in catering, you cannot support a structure. It's a question of organization. We are very careful. If we have a large party, we don't take [another job] a day or two before. We make sure we have plenty of time to do our job right. We are really sending chefs to the parties, not cooks. I think we're a bit more expensive than the average caterer. But on the other hand, we don't want to compete with the average caterer. We want to maintain the standard of Daniel.
Q: Is your business feeling a chill in the New York market now?
A: No, but the economy in general is definitely a bit shaken. The catering business has been fairly consistent and strong, but it's definitely not the same as when every caterer was busy. Today, I think price is an issue, and we have to be accommodating with our guest. If the customer needs to negotiate a bit, we will see if there is room for negotiation, and try to do our best with it. Our standard offering could be eight different hors d'oeuvre, and the guest maybe wants to go to six. We usually serve a small dinner of a four-course meal, and the guest may go down to three. But if we cannot afford to do it, we tell the guest. We are not going to give them poor-quality beef because they want to pay less money.
Q: Having such a high-profile restaurant as your flagship must raise the expectations of your off-premise catering clients.
A: At the restaurant Daniel, we are challenged every day by our customers. We are challenged every day by our suppliers. The difference between me and a basic caterer is that when he's off, he is not cooking. But I'm cooking every day, no matter if I'm busy with the catering or not. And everything going into the catering is the extraction of what we are making every day. If you cook for 20 people, you know every individual guest, their taste, how far you can go with the food. If you need to take responsibility for 200 people, it narrows down to the most basic, simple ingredients.
Because Daniel is closed at lunch, we have a private room for 80 available. To use a restaurant for private parties, you have to cover the loss of revenue, so there's a premium to pay. But sometimes at the end of the day, it's easier to do in a restaurant than to rent everything and have mediocre staff and sometimes the food not turning out so great because it's catered in bad conditions. Of course, I'm not talking about my catering!
Feast & Fêtes can be reached at 212/737-2224; the Web address is www.danielnyc.com.