Letters to a Young Chef


By Daniel Boulud

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From the reinvention of French food through the fine dining revolution in America, Daniel Boulud has been a witness to and a creator of today’s food culture. A modern improviser with a classical foundation (a little rock ‘n’ roll and a lot of Mozart, he’d say), he speaks with the authority that comes from a lifetime of preparing, presenting, and thinking about food-an ancient calling with universal resonance. In Letters to a Young Chef, Boulud speaks not only of how to make a career as a chef in today’s world, but also of why one should want to do so in the first place. As he himself puts it, it is “a tasty life.” The love of food and the obsession with flavors, ingredients, and techniques are the chef’s source of strength, helping the young chef to survive and flourish during the long years of apprenticeship and their necessary sacrifices. Part memoir, part advice book, part cookbook, part reverie, this delicious new book will delight and enlighten chefs of all kinds, from passionate amateurs to serious professionals.



MUCH HAS CHANGED since I first wrote these letters fifteen years ago. Some things haven’t, though; carrots are still carrots, and a roast chicken is much as it was in my grandmother’s day (and in her grandmother’s as well). You need the same knife skills now that I learned as a young apprentice, and it will take you the same amount of time to master them. We live in a world where social media has brought every chef into instant contact with his or her peers and family, and with clientele from all around the world. Serve a bad meal tonight and thousands of social media users will know about it by morning. Serve a great one and food enthusiasts will start clamoring for reservations. Invent a new recipe in Paris tonight and it may be imitated in Los Angeles tomorrow.

Perhaps not exactly tomorrow, because no matter how fast information moves, it still takes time to figure out how to break down a recipe and master the steps necessary to turn it from a good idea to a practical item on the menu. The appetite for change has accelerated, but meeting the challenge of quality and consistency means that the successful chefs move only as fast as the capabilities of their staff, the reliability of their purveyors, and the tastes of their customers.

We swim in a rising sea of information among an ever more informed public that is always on the hunt for the next hot trend. Staying good and staying interesting are constant challenges, much more so today than just a few years ago. Add to this the unreality of food television that features frantic competition, weird combinations of ingredients, and a jury of experts providing instant, often brutal, criticism. As successful as these shows are, they have fostered a less than realistic conception of what it takes to be a chef. Yes, speed is important, but never at the expense of accuracy. And although a good chef is often called upon to improvise when ingredients vary in quality and availability, a true chef is known more by his or her consistently high level of execution than by the ability to throw random ingredients together. Some of the candidates on the shows certainly have a lot of talent, but what’s portrayed is not always true to the reality of working in a restaurant. It’s much more about good TV than it is about good cooking. Having said that, I’ve participated in judging on those shows. I’m like the rest of you: I watch the programs and often enjoy them. Cooking shows have always been very entertaining media for all generations and will remain so; I simply caution aspiring young cooks against glamorizing them too much.

Perhaps the two most important waves of innovation in the last decades have come from the Spanish and the Scandinavians. In Spain twenty years ago, Ferran Adrià spearheaded a technological revolution that inspired many chefs to try their hands at new textures, tastes, and methods, often using foams, gels, colloids, and other substances and tools better known in the food laboratory than in a conventional kitchen. The results of the modernist molecular gastronomy movement were tastes, textures, and shapes that delighted, entranced, and mystified (in a good way). But in the hands of less accomplished chefs, the movement also resulted in some strange and unsatisfying food, sacrificed at the altar of novelty. At Restaurant DANIEL we’ve adopted some of those techniques—I’m not opposed to them. I just think they should not be done recklessly, but rather with purpose and always in balance.

At the opposite, northern end of Europe, René Redzepi and his cosigners of the Nordic Manifesto encouraged us to look to the humble, often overlooked ingredients that could be foraged from the forests, oceans, fields, and lakes right outside our door, wherever that door might be. We have seen the same ethic in a different style with the geolocality of ingredients used in the regional cooking of France, Italy, or any nutrient-rich region, but never before to the extreme of finding less obvious ingredients the way Redzepi has done. I believe this is going to be a growing and long-term trend that will widen our knowledge of ingredients and open us to the possibilities of rediscovering flavors and textures known to our distant ancestors but that have been passed by in the era of refrigeration and long-distance transport of perishables. At the same time, no matter how interesting locally foraged food is, there’s no getting around the fact that spices and rare ingredients from far-off lands will keep landing on menus all over the world.

Hand-in-hand with the emergence of a more globalized culinary landscape, restaurant-goers have changed. Once upon a time, you served only what was on your menu plus a few specials. If someone was a vegetarian I always tried to make something interesting for them, but more often than not, in most restaurants, a plate composed of a few side dishes was all a plant-eater could hope for. Not anymore. Vegetarians, vegans, and gluten-free diners make up more and more of the restaurant-going public. Rather than merely rejecting good food, they want dishes that are as delicious and as meticulously prepared as anything on the meat, fish, poultry, and pasta sides of the menu. For many chefs the effect has been hundreds of new recipes drawing on influences from all over the world to showcase the power of vegetables. For me, it has led to changes in my own diet. Though I’m not a vegetarian, I’ve always consumed a lot of vegetables; it’s just how I grew up. But the new emphasis on bringing convenience to strict vegetarian meals makes it easier for me to eat a diet rich in vegetables but no less delicious and, no doubt, more healthful. Only those chefs who adapt to the new needs of their customers will have a better chance of sustaining in the business.

Decades ago, most of the restaurants that were recognized as the top of the heap were French, with elegant crystal glassware, thick white linens, and pricey porcelain. They were the definition of fine dining and the kind of restaurant that I aspired to run. They held out the allure of more than a superlative meal. They promised refinement, luxury, and elegance, and although pricey, they delivered an experience worth the money. I was lucky enough to apprentice in some of the great ones. Although there still is and, I hope, always will be a place for such temples of French gastronomy, the nature of their dominance has changed. For starters, although French restaurants still occupy a strong presence on the Michelin three-star list, their reign is not unchallenged. Japanese and American chefs combined outnumber the French. Furthermore, whereas elaborate and costly (both to the chef and to the customer) fine dining was the ultimate goal for many chefs, the brutal facts of the economy meant and continue to mean there is only so much room at the top. But happily, traditional fine dining is no longer the only way to offer recipes at the highest level of the chef’s craft, nor is it confined to the food-obsessed major cities.

Although it is true that a few major cities still remain hotbeds of new and exciting food trends, more and more of our smaller cities and towns have developed a local clientele that wants and will pay for food just like what is seen on the global scene but created with local talent. At the same time, one of the most heartening developments in the restaurant landscape has been the birth of smaller, more casual restaurants where chefs who are ready to start to climb the ladder can move into their own businesses without being crushed under the massive investment and, often, the mountain of debt that a full-on big-city fine-dining establishment requires. Now we find informal restaurants with less expensive decor and table settings, lower rents, and, crucially, smaller menus. It’s been called the bistronomy movement in France, or the rise of gastropubs, and it features skilled chefs who have put in their dues with master chefs in serious restaurants. Cities such as Nashville, Detroit, and Portland, Maine, can offer truly great dishes at more affordable prices. A number of fine chefs who have worked for me have made this move lately. Many of them are thriving, to the delight of their cities.

With a more enthusiastic and adventuresome clientele that displays a willingness to patronize casual places offering great food, and in the face of an online culture that rapidly disseminates new ideas, opportunities to make your mark in this business exist today that were unheard of when I was a young chef. And from the thousands of smaller restaurants continuing to spring up, it is certain that great fine dining will emerge in more places as well.



REFLECTING ON THESE letters inevitably reminds me of when I started out in this business many years ago. I had yet to see an avocado, taste a truffle, or eat my first dollop of caviar, which happened to be a spoonful of beluga over a turbot braised in Champagne sauce. I was just a young teenager when I left our family farm in St. Pierre de Chandieu and went to work at Restaurant Nandron in Lyon.

I very soon got my first taste of truffle.

Chef Nandron had just shot a pheasant, grown autumn plump on overripe grapes and juniper berries. He marinated it in Cognac and Madeira, stuffed it with foie gras and the first black truffles of the season, then roasted it in juniper butter, with cabbage, salsify root, and a chunk of country bacon. Even for a kid raised on the glorious food of the Rhône valley this was a sensual revelation. I knew how to hunt and cook a pheasant country style, but that was simple home cooking and this was real cuisine.

Restaurant Nandron was only ten miles down the road from home, but my little village remained much as it had been in the nineteenth century, with the exception of cars and electricity. Lyon, on the other hand, was very much part of the modern world: huge, busy, full of cosmopolitan people with sophisticated tastes. It was a far cry from the Boulud farm, where finding a snake in the barn provided enough excitement for a week’s worth of conversation. It was not part of my family’s culture to go out to eat at a restaurant. But I loved restaurant work from the moment I tied on a crisp blue apron (only the chefs wore white). It didn’t take me long to decide three things: I knew I loved to cook, I knew I wanted to learn from the masters, and I knew that a chef was the only thing I wanted to be.

It was probably a stroke of luck that I didn’t know much more. In the beginning, I didn’t have a clue how much it would take to go from a lowly worker in a French restaurant to creating a restaurant of my own in New York City; I now know that much more is required than simply knowing how to cook or taking a selfie with a world-famous chef.

People often make that mistake: they confuse skill in the kitchen or social-media savvy with being able to run their own restaurant. I’ve had some wonderful people work for me who can cook damn well. They have the talent. They’ve learned from the best. And yet I know that they will fulfill their talents best by maintaining a strong position as a chef for someone else rather than dealing with the hassles of business ownership.

To be a chef, you need to know more than the basics of cooking—from savory to sweet, curing to baking, the almost mystical art of sauces, seasoning, spicing, texture, and taste. Add to that an up-to-date knowledge of or at least acquaintance with the evolving styles of the important contemporary chefs all over the world. Yet this is only the beginning. How to work with people, how to manage them in the cramped quarters and fiery heat of the kitchen, how to practice self-discipline and bring it out in others, where to find the best ingredients (and how to squeeze every penny out of them), how to move around the dining room and be genuinely interested in every customer, how to fulfill the constantly changing food fantasies of a demanding public—these are skills that have nothing to do with shaking the pan but everything to do with whether or not you have what it takes to be a successful chef.

This lengthy list is not meant to discourage you. What I really want is to lay out before you some things you need to consider now, as you begin your career. And as far as I’m concerned, being a chef is a wonderful career. In these letters I will share with you lessons I have learned in the hope that they will help you figure out if this is really the life you want. Of one thing I am sure: the only way you are going to make the grade is if being a chef is indeed what you want most to be.

First, do not be in a hurry. Even if things fall into place perfectly, it will take you at least ten years before you can truly call yourself a chef. No great chef ever became a star without paying his or her dues—“earning their badge,” so to speak. It takes time to move up the ladder in a professional kitchen. Learn all you can at every rung; treat each of them as an opportunity to improve your craft that you will never have again as you take on more responsibilities. You will need those years to acquire the culinary craft and absorb the people skills that are required of a chef.

So then the question becomes, how am I going to spend those beginning years? And I would answer that you should begin by finding a mentor in the town you are most familiar with that has very good chefs. After that, travel the world or your country, working as you go, experiencing what is becoming an increasingly globally influenced cuisine. This is a luxury that I did not fully have in my early years, though I did tour most regions of France. Basically, spend a half dozen years or more working for the very best chefs you can find. Bear in mind, traveling is not for everyone, and I know young chefs who have never traveled but are damn good. You will gain a lot more from making salad in the kitchen of a great restaurant than you will from attempting lobster Thermidor in an average joint.

If you are at school in America, you will be what we call a stagiaire (or intern), and you may be paid minimum wage. I know that sounds like not much, but in the old days we often worked for no money. There’s a lot of competition to get into the best kitchens, and doing so may require that you do whatever it takes to get your foot in the door. Furthermore, once you have that kind of head start on your résumé, you will only advance by working harder and longer than the rest of the kitchen crew so that you are noticed by your chef. If you do this, you will have taken a tremendous first step, because that chef more than likely will give you a full-time position and one day provide a connection to a new job and more education in another restaurant with another talented chef.

I was very fortunate to begin my career in Lyon at a time when France was at the forefront of a culinary revolution. I went from one great restaurant to another, learned as much as I could, and was given more and more responsibility. I learned cooking. I observed a lot about what went into the front and back of the house. And I also learned something about luck.

In those years, when I worked in the kitchens of Roger Vergé, Michel Guérard, and Georges Blanc—at three of the top restaurants in France—I realized that these chefs were never merely lucky. They made their luck by working very hard, honing their skills, and developing their art.

When you go to work in the kitchen of a great chef, chances are you’ll learn as much or more from the sous chefs around you and from your fellow cooks in training. The best places attract the best people. You’ll learn from them, compete with them, challenge them. Over the years in my kitchens in New York, besides the American cooks and chefs, we have had cooks from all over the world. Every one of them knows something different about cooking, and the exchange is inspiring.

So, with the global nature of modern French kitchens, a chef’s education is not as straight a path as the one I took when I left my first job at Nandron after two years and drove sixty miles north to Georges Blanc. A young chef today can make part of the world tour that I mentioned earlier simply by working in the right kitchens in the wide range of cuisines available in most cosmopolitan areas.

After you spend enough years going from kitchen to kitchen, it is time to put down some roots in one place and move up through the ranks. This is when you will take the steps that will make you a true chef. Although you may arrive with a beautiful résumé from some famous restaurants and think you are pretty hot stuff, take my word for it, you are not. Even if you are, it does not mean that much to your chef. He or she is interested only in what is needed in the kitchen, and your goal is to be an asset to their team—not a judge of their place.

Building your ego is not part of the game. This may be hard to swallow after having worked so hard for so long, but there is only room for one ego in a kitchen when the crush of service is on. Do not take it personally. Respect the chef and always give more than expected. Become a key part of the team. This will deepen your technique, your knowledge, and your relationships. It is a critical chapter in your development as a chef. This is when you move from being someone who can cook very well to one who instinctively does it right every time. Your goal must be perfection.

I’m always amazed by the humble artistry of a pizza chef, spinning the dough, tossing it in the air, stretching it into a neat circle. Always perfect. I love it. I wish I knew how to do that. Yet I also know that to be in the same league I would have to spend at least a year at it. It is the same in a restaurant kitchen. You cannot be master of anything unless you work at it for a good long while and really understand it. It has to become second nature to you, and that’s why it’s good to take time to master every station in a kitchen.

I remember chefs at the restaurants where I apprenticed who had been doing the same thing for ten years and were perfect at it. For any number of reasons, this career path is no longer very common. Perhaps it is the always-online, 24/7, accelerated pace of our lives, the ambition to be famous right away, or the rapidly changing trends in food—whatever the reason, we all work in a charged atmosphere of speed, high expectations, and high ambitions. No one puts in all the time that apprentices once did. You will feel tremendous pressure to move forward as your peers advance. To develop skills the old, slow way is not always practical; still, we can expect perfection in some things and a high degree of competence in others.

I used to give the example of André Soltner, the legendary chef and owner of Lutèce, who—in lieu of reading a résumé—would ask prospective young cooks to make an omelet. Today, I often ask for a simple soup or even an interesting salad with a perfectly balanced vinaigrette. Like the omelet, the whole process takes mere minutes and comprises several critical steps, and in observing them you can instantly assess the level of skill and confidence of any candidate.

You may never be called upon to make an omelet in a fine-dining restaurant, but you will need to strive for the same high level of precision in every aspect of your craft. Spending six months to a year at each station in a restaurant seems just about enough if you practice, keep improving, and keep challenging yourself to make it perfect. The more you look at cooking, the more you realize it is always an unfinished education. There is truly no limit to how much you can learn, especially today, with a global chef community.

Mine is not the only path you can take. Cooking schools produce thousands of graduates each year, but it’s important to remember that they’ve never had to present the bill to a customer or be challenged by food critics for what they made in class, so while many of them have learned a lot, not every one of them will be able to handle the pressures of running a business. Many go to work at hotels, clubs, cruise ships, resorts—all good opportunities—but in a restaurant, the pressures to maintain excellence are higher. I mean, every chef with a reputation must be a great cook first, then be very well organized, have good management skills, understand marketing, have good taste, and know how to control costs. These are skills that you need in a gastronomic restaurant or casual bistro alike. By absorbing everything, you can learn the business. Or you can opt to work in someone’s restaurant for the long haul. Becoming a sous chef to a great chef is an honorable achievement. There is the quiet satisfaction of doing the job of a sous well, and being the most supportive behind-the-scenes chef has its rewards. It can be a fulfilling life.

If you are an entrepreneur, however, there is no limit to how far you can go with your ambition. It takes sacrifice. It will require an understanding that you will work very long hours and not have much of a personal life, but if it is your passion, as it is mine, you do not have much of a choice. You are going to have to do it, so you might as well aim to do it right.

Of course, there are only so many top restaurants that even great cities such as New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles can support. Does this mean that you have to make it there? Not anymore. You can be a chef in a smaller city, in such places as Cincinnati or Louisville or Philadelphia, or even in the countryside. Look at Gavin Kaysen in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Gavin was a loyal asset in my restaurants who, as an alumnus, became a friend. Now he’s a partner to me in many endeavors, but especially in the foundation Ment’or, which provides grants to train future generations of chefs (www.mentorbkb.org). This is the evolution of chefs in America today: just like Gavin, through dedication and mentorship, younger chefs are able to partner with others and meet the growing demands of a local clientele for better cuisine in small cities. Gavin is helping to expand a culinary identity in Minneapolis. And most important, his cuisine is delicious and soulful, and his restaurant offers warm and knowledgeable service in a cool and cozy atmosphere. America craves those kinds of restaurants, so the opportunities are there. The choice is yours, but the competition is fierce, and you need to know your clientele. The hardest challenge for millennial chefs is to earn loyalty from millennial customers as they search for the latest trends. Being trendy is fantastic, but you need to stay the course. Being successful means outlasting the trend: staying current while maintaining a certain respect for the past; regarding the future in terms of evolution, not revolution.


On Sale
Oct 3, 2017
Page Count
240 pages
Basic Books

Daniel Boulud

About the Author

Daniel Boulud was born in France in 1955 and trained under renowned chefs Roger Verge, Georges Blanc, and Michel Guerard. He moved to the United States, where he served as Executive Chef at Le Cirque in New York. In 1993 he opened Daniel, Zagat’s top-rated New York restaurant for two years running, followed by Café Boulud and DB Moderne. Among numerous other awards, he has been named “Chef of the Year” by Bon Appétit, and has received Gourmet‘s Top Table award. He lives in New York City.

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