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If New York's is the glamorous dining scene we like to pine for (and feed our insecurities by), Milwaukee is the neighbor gal who waits, patiently, for us to notice she exists at all. Milwaukee has a great culinary scene—fine restaurants like Sanford and Paul Bartolotta's empire of Lake Park Bistro and others, a hearty scene of old German and Italian places like Chicago used to have—and we pay it far too little attention.
So it may sting a bit that the legendary Daniel Boulud, who has four Michelin stars in New York (three for Daniel and a fourth for Cafe Boulud), is skipping us over for a dinner on October 22 at Milwaukee's vintage Grain Exchange. Boulud's team will cook a five-course meal, introduced by Bartolotta, who's led a parallel life to Boulud for a quarter century—according to Bartolotta, he staged all over France in the early 80s at places where Boulud had gone before him, and when Boulud took over Le Cirque, its owner, who was Italian, tried to hire Bartolotta to work with him because "he's French and I want to make sure he's got some Italian behind him."
Bartolotta declined and made his name opening San Domenico instead, before coming here to Spiaggia for several years in the early 90s. The two were already friends when they finally became colleagues, both opening restaurants at the Wynn in Las Vegas. Despite their long friendship, this will be Boulud's first visit to Bartolotta's hometown, and a rare touchdown in the midwest for him. I spoke to Boulud about his upcoming visit by phone; the dinner will be $150 per person, which includes an autographed copy of his new book, Daniel: My French Cuisine; reservations can be made at 414-727-6980.
Michael Gebert: Have you been to Milwaukee before?
Daniel Boulud: I'm ashamed to say, no. I'm very excited, I've been talking about Milwaukee with Paul Bartolotta for a long time. I've been to Detroit many times, I've been to Chicago, but the two places I've wanted to go are Milwaukee and Minnesota, because [Cafe Boulud executive chef] Gavin Kaysen is from Minnesota. So Minnesota is next after Milwaukee.
I just read an article in the Wall Street Journal that was about what you eat when you travel, and mostly that was about Asia, where you have a number of restaurants. Do you ever get out in the midwest, do a road trip and eat in diners and that kind of thing?
Yeah, of course. I hope to get to some places that are really local dives. I leave it to Paul and his family there. I want to see the German markets with all the smoked meats, that could be interesting. What do you recommend?
[We talk about custard and German restaurants for a minute.]
There's a lot of good products from Wisconsin, both meat and, of course, it's a huge dairy state. Do you ever use any of the Wisconsin cheeses in your restaurants?
Absolutely, we have cheese, we have the fantastic . . . do you know the Uplands cheese company? Mike and Carol Gingrich. That's the one we use the most, do you know it?
Yes, I've been there. So how did this dinner come about?
Paul is a longtime friend, we worked together in Vegas for six years when I was at the Wynn, and we have been close friends for many, many years when he was in New York as a young chef and he was at San Domenico. So Paul, in a way, if I had an Italian brother he would be Paul. I'm going to feel at home there, with all the brothers and sisters and family.
This is a book tour stop for your new book, Daniel: My French Cuisine. You've had several books; what's this one in particular about?
Well, all the books before I was trying to be, I think, approachable. To make people be more comfortable with cooking and doing more of a home interpretation of the inspiration we have in the restaurant. And this book is more about Daniel, the restaurant Daniel. Have you seen the book yet?
I haven't, no.
Ah . . . There's many essays on different subjects of seasoning, of cheese, on truffles, and there's about 80 to 100 recipes from Daniel, so it's really from everything we have done in the last four of five years. It's not going back 20 years, although this happens to be the milestone [Daniel's 20th anniversary], but it's an addition to the celebration of the milestone.
It's also about my French cuisine. I am French, deep inside, but I've been in New York longer than I've ever been in France. I think like a French chef, but I don't always cook like a French chef. I think the food is sometimes very French, and sometimes inspired by the ethnicities we are surrounded by in New York.
What are some of the influences that you think have gotten into your food from being in New York that you wouldn’t have gotten in France?
Well, in France we're pretty well versed in many things. You know, the Spice Road wound up in Europe, and part of it was in France. So when we use Indian spice in our cooking, it's because in the 1800s they were already bringing spice to France. But for example, in Milwaukee I'm going to do a salad, which is a lobster salad with biryani masala, fresh coconut chutney, and spiced sheep yogurt. I think the salad is interesting because of the seasoning of the lobster, it has an application which is not really French, but with complexity with the yogurt and with the biryani masala.
Do you feel like you've picked up influences from having so many restaurants in Asia?
There is sometimes a little bit of that, but I think the Asian influence comes more from being in New York. We have young chefs from all over and we are exposed to a lot of Asian food, Asian ingredients, Asian suppliers, but always with a balance where the wine has to play a big role into the dish, or into enjoying the dish. So I always try to have a fine balance between the ingredients and how we use them, and I think it's more the French in me in that. I will never make a dish too spicy, I will never make it too acidic, I will never make a dish too contrasting for the wine. I think it's important to have a dish where the combination of both are in harmony.
Now, in Chicago, probably the only thing we like to hear more than what a New Yorker thinks of us is what a Frenchman thinks of us—
Ha! Well, Chicago is, how shall I say . . . when it comes to cooking, and when it comes to representing America with distinguished talents, Chicago has always been—especially in Europe, and especially around the world, you go back to the days of Jean Banchet. I remember, when I grew up as a young chef, when you'd ask what was the best restaurant in America, and everyone would say, oh, Jean Banchet [Le Français] in Chicago. And today, you ask who is the best chef in America, and everyone will say, oh, Grant Achatz in Chicago. So I think the tradition continues! I am very inspired by Chicago, I am inspired by Paul Kahan, I'm inspired by Grant, I'm inspired by many of the personalities who have done amazing work in Chicago.