Skip to Content (Press Enter)

English / Français

There's a compelling story to be told about the dilettante who, when granted access to the remodelled kitchen of one of the towering figures of gastronomy during a Pro-Am inter-borough kitchen swap, manages to pull off a meal that's both carefully planned and suavely executed. I dirty the master's pots and pans in his elegant Upper East Side apartment, just one floor above Daniel restaurant, the posh mothership of the Boulud empire, and find enlightenment among his well-ordered cabinets and curated condiment stashes. He, much-Michelin-starred French legend and Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur with a new baby boy, crosses the East River to my Brooklyn kitchen. But this isn't that story. Rather, it's a tale of near disaster, indecision and anxiety, of pots gurgling late into the night and an obscure Provençal recipe involving a flock of sheep's feet.

Clearly, cooking French food for one of the kings of French cuisine constitutes a suicide mission. Obviously, it was imperative to stick to things I'd made many times before. Keep it simple! I counselled myself. And yet, I couldn't quite shake the idea of making pieds paquets, a rustic, homely and hard-to-source assemblage of wobbly little bundles of sheep's tripe stuffed with cured pork and garlic, and simmered for many hours in a sauce of tomato and sheep's trotters. The fact that I'd never eaten a proper rendition of it – let alone tried making it myself – did not worry me as much as it did everyone else I talked to.

Chef Home SwapEats, shoots and leaves: the author and chef Daniel Boulud captured shoulder to shoulder in Boulud's newly renovated Manhattan kitchen.

After work on the evening before the big day, I drive out to the farthest ends of the borough of Queens, looking for one of the only halal butchers in New York City with the requisite sheep bits I need. Nearing midnight, I set my trotter sauce to simmer and watch and rewatch online videos of French grandmothers tying up paquets of tripe. I'm not so handy. My misshapen bundles fall apart. I drink shots of marc de Bourgogne for courage and promptly cut my finger with one of the knives I'd had professionally sharpened for the first time in years. Lunch is 12 hours away and I haven't begun clarifying the veal jus I'd lifted earlier in the day from Restaurant Daniel's walk-in downstairs (there are some serious benefits to cooking for people with entire brigades at their disposal). The stock will become the jellified base of the oeufs en gelée (eggs in aspic) I plan to serve as a first course. (Clearly, I'd doubled down on the old-school-French approach. When doing something crazy it's best to go all in.)

By the time the sun comes up, the gelée is in the fridge, cooling in little moulds around poached eggs, a ring of thinly sliced speck and a bit of tarragon. The tripe bundles are still soaking up the trotter-rich sauce, and I haven't been to bed. I make an egg for breakfast for my three-year-old son, William, and avoid any questions about the pot of bones or why Dada smells of coffee, brandy and fear.

 Chef Home SwapLeft to right: A sneak peek at Boulud's top drawer knife collection; even the artwork hanging on the wall in the French chef's kitchen is a cut above; the author's copper pot brings a new element to his kitchen.

Andy, my friend and editor at TastingTable.com, meets me at the Union Square Farmers' Market to help me pick out salad components: leaves of purple mustard, a thick-skinned succulent I'm too stressed to hear the name of, pink-tipped radishes and a handful of apple mint with its little fuzzy blue-grey flowers. "It's going to be all right," Andy says, unmistakable worry all over his face. He advises me to go home, grill some garlic-rubbed bread and take a shower.

Sound advice I've got no time to heed. After one disastrous missed exit on the way to Boulud's, trays of tripe and trotters precariously balancing on the passenger seat as I speed up the FDR freeway, I arrive at his apartment only an hour late.

Bon, it's fine. Boulud is welcoming and warmly reassuring. In his wisdom, the chef has phoned his friends to suggest they take their time. I need to get the oeufs into the fridge before the gelée melts, but first I need to figure out which sleek white surface is actually the fridge. After a few frantic tugs on the wrong handles, I find the magic door and note the first difference between pro and amateur kitchens: You don't need a cluttered refrigerator when you've got a world-class walk-in an elevator ride away.

Chef Home SwapClockwise from top left: Boulud doesn't miss a beet when it comes time to plate his dish; figs before they're tarted up; Boulud's vintage cookbooks are food for thought.

Boulud's lovely and patient wife, Katherine, strolls by, expertly cradling both their sleeping newborn and a selection of salad plates. I fumble through a cabinet full of baby bottles in search of a salad spinner. Sizing up my condition, Boulud suggests a one-two punch of ristretto espresso and a shot. "Cheers," he says, kindly offering a glass of Boulud-branded Scotch from Dalmore while removing stray mustard-green leaves from my hair.

The kitchen is fashionably spare but impressively tricked out, once you know where to look: gas and induction ranges, hidden warming trays, a plancha and grill, stacked Gaggenau ovens with space-age knobs. There are enviable storage solutions, like the sliding translucent panel behind the Dada sink, revealing a set of knives and spice jars. But the labour-saving feature I'm most jealous of is the pair of hyperattentive, unflappable speed-demon cooks from the Boulud culinary team who've come up to pitch in.

Chef Home SwapLeft to right: Laguiole knives looking sharp; Boulud's mise en place.

AJ and Mary expertly turn and boil the potatoes to serve alongside the pieds paquets and pull a series of gizmos from an astonishingly well-equipped go-bag of cheffy essentials. Meanwhile, Boulud casually arranges handsome stacks of vintage French cookbooks around the room – because even when he's not in charge of the menu, he is constitutionally unable to stop perfecting things. I relax enough that when the phone in the kitchen rings, I pick up, unthinkingly, and reply, "Boulud residence!"

While I'm par-baking the almond-flour pie crust for dessert, fiddling with the oven's knobs to dial in the right mix of steam pressure or magnetic lasers or whatever it is these elegant machines run on, the guests arrive. Good news: They seem nice! Bad news: One of them, Guenter Seeger, is another Michelin-starred chef! Introductions are made, champagne is poured. I drain my glass in a corner of the kitchen and chop some preserved lemons into a hastily conceived vinaigrette.

Chef Home SwapTasting and adjusting the daube's seasoning.

Now the moment of truth: Using a little needle AJ pulled from her magic bag, I delicately unmould the jellied oeufs and victory snatched from the gnarly fangs of certain defeat! – they do not break into puddly messes. The sheep's trotter sauce is slick and tasty, and the guests are eating it and laughing (the wine helps). Boulud picks up a trotter bone and sucks out its hidden reserve of marrow, licking a bit of sauce from his fingers. It's a scene I won't soon forget.

The tarte is still cooking in the oven but I'm so light-headed with the triumph of avoiding total failure that I can barely keep up with the conversation around the table. Whatever its technical shortcomings, the meal went off without a hitch and nobody complained about the weird francophilic experiment of a haggard wannabe grandmother spooning sticky feet-sauce over lumpy tummy bundles.

Chef Home SwapRoasted beets in salt.

Restored by a much-needed one-hour nap back at my Brooklyn brownstone, during which I dreamt of opening a pieds paquets shop on a fragrant hill in Provence, I awake to the unfamiliar buzz of well-choreographed activity in my kitchen. Descending the stairs, I find Daniel Boulud – open-collar checked shirt, dark-blue apron tied at the waist – rolling dough into neat cocotte lids with my son at the head of our long pine table. AJ and Mary, magically transported from Manhattan, are running around the kitchen island, unpacking whole fish, massive slabs of pork belly and piping bags of crème Chantilly. My fireplace grill is lit and crackling. There is bread everywhere and candles on the farm table and bowls of the most amazing Spanish anchovies I've ever tasted. Someone has hidden my toddler's toys and replaced them with magnums of champagne set on ice. Restaurant-prep French is exchanged in busy, hushed tones. My kitchen has been transformed into the loveliest rustic-chic pop-up restaurant. And I'm not dreaming.

Chef Home SwapGuess who's coming to dinner? Friends and family gathered around the author's long farm table, enjoying a Boulud-cooked meal.

Having fumbled my way through lunch a few hours earlier, it's amazing to watch a Boulud production at close range. I'd hoped he would make use of the wood-fired Grillworks grill, the centrepiece of my own recently remodelled kitchen, and here he is grilling pork belly over the coals, freestyling as he goes. As my guests arrive, the chef pulls a tray of multicoloured water balloons from the freezer. He peels back the balloons and voilà: perfect orbs of ice for the cloudy funk of Corsican pastis. Andy, who's come to celebrate the success of my salad, looks at the ingenious ice trick and shakes his head in disbelief.

Chef Home SwapA pine nut tart and ice cream.

There's a moment when Daniel Boulud is cooking dinner in your kitchen when it occurs to you that Daniel Boulud is cooking dinner in your kitchen. This happens when the chef stands up to introduce his first course, an elegant composed dish of smoked sablefish on a swirl of crème fraîche with fresh wasabi and a little beet and caraway aquavit gelée which he calls a kind of Scandinavian Jell-O shot. "This dish we're having has nothing to do with anything, really," Boulud says casually. "We're in Brooklyn so I thought of Acme, the smoked-fish purveyor, and beets. And because I once lived in Copenhagen I thought of the caraway and aquavit." It's a beautiful dish, refreshing and transporting. We're all immediately somewhere – not quite Brooklyn or the Upper East Side but a happy place called Bouludland.

Chef Home SwapChild's play: Boulud and young William Sachs work together to seal the edges of the daube pot with dough.

A few more courses come and go, along with magnums of '94 Clape Cornas and toasts to our obscene good luck. The crust of the cocottes is broken off to reveal a daube, the classic Provençal stew served with a dollop of polenta and a thick slice of pork belly grilled in the fireplace and rubbed with persillade. A charlotte is topped with paper-thin slices of pear, ginger and a great crown of that crème Chantilly alongside whole poached pears. The music is turned up. Someone swipes the pastry bag and pipes crème into Boulud's mouth.

Chef Home SwapPoached pears in caramel.

A storybook dinner party, a food-nerd fantasy played out over many courses, and nobody wants to leave. But finally it's time for the Boulud show to pack up and take leave of Brooklyn. Having survived the self-inflicted insanity of the kitchen-exchange Olympics, I've learned to always say yes to ridiculous challenges, to dazzle friends with ice made in little balloons and to get the name of the Spanish anchovies from AJ and Mary – the only part of the meal I could hope to repeat on my own.


Up next: Check out the menu and exclusive outtakes from Chef Daniel Boulud and Adam Sach's kitchen swap

Tags

CHEFS     FOOD & DRINK    

Comments… or add another

Anna

Wednesday, November 5th 2014 10:34
Looks amazing! Would love to know the name of the Spanish Anchovies!
HTML tags will be removed
Web addresses starting with http:// will be converted to links