Curiosity and cooking with family made him one of the greatest living French chefs

BY Carlos Frías

Daniel Boulud is intrigued.

Even before we open the box of Cuban pastries and croquetas from Miami’s Karla Bakery, he’s asking questions. It starts with the promise of Cuban coffee. (When he’s traveling, his morning starts with FaceTime with his two youngest.)

“You know the secret for the Cuban coffee? What is the secret?” he asks.

This curiosity, particularly with food, is what makes Boulud, 63, one of the greatest living French chefs. It’s not enough that he owns 15 restaurants, including the Michelin 2-star Daniel in New York City (named one of Food & Wine’s 40 most important restaurants) and Boulud Sud in downtown Miami. He’s not out to master food but to understand it.

“I’m always excited to keep learning,” he said.

Soon the aroma of Miami’s obsidian fuel is wafting between us as I open the colada — a serving meant for sharing — and he’s holding out his thimble-sized cup for his first hit. He toasts, sips, considers the flavors.

“Mmm. Did you put in rum? It’s amazing,” he said. “It feels like there’s rum in it. I taste the coffee very much, but I think that complex combination — and it’s only sugar and coffee — it’s very unique.”

The secret, of course, is sugar. Not necessarily a lot of it — but added at the right time.

Pour the first few drops from the gurgling Italian coffee maker into eagerly waiting spoonfuls of sugar, whip to a peanut-buttery paste, then slowly pour in the rest of the coffee. The elixir becomes a sort-of coffee-flavored simple syrup that carries the caramelized flavor of the cane sugar.

“That’s what I’ve heard, but I’ve never done it — those few first drops and then whip it. I’m going to try to do it today,” he said.

Boulud cannot get enough.

“I’m a crazy coffee guy,” he said. “I drink too much coffee, actually. But I think every Sunday I’m going to make a little Cuban coffee for myself.”

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He’s taken a particular interest in Cuban cuisine since he hired chef Gabriella Valls, the granddaughter of Felipe Valls Sr., who founded the landmark Miami Cuban restaurant Versailles.

Food and family is something familiar to Boulud, a married father of three, including a 4-year-old and a 17-month-old. They live one floor above his New York restaurant Daniel, and his 4-year-old son, Julian, is a regular in the kitchen, high-fiving the line cooks.

Mornings start with a 4½-minute farm-fresh egg a la coque with Julian. (The whites just set, yolks runny and perfect for dipping toast.) And on the weekends, he and his son cook something a little more involved, usually a brioche toad-in-the-hole. Soon, he says, he wants to introduce Julian to more varied egg dishes like huevos ranchero.

“Breakfast is very religious at home,” he said.

Boulud grew up this way himself, in the kitchen with his mother and grandmother cooking, and helping his father with curing hams, salmon and charcuterie on their family farm.

And for his father’s 90th birthday in July 2018 he hosted a feast. He invited more than 75 people to their hometown of Saint-Pierre-de-Chandieu, 20 miles southeast of Lyon, to roast an entire side of beef rib, a cote de boeuf a la francais.

“Cooking at home, there’s nothing more important than that. The preparation, for me, is half of the pleasure of having friends at home for dinner,” he said.

His greatest challenge was being away from family. A bit of a troublemaker (“I can’t tell you all the trouble I got into,” he said), Boulud left school at 14 and told his parents he wanted to be a chef. He was frustrated, too, at a local vocational high school that focused on training cooks.

But a countess (yes, we know how fancy that sounds) who knew the family from the food they sold at the farmers market helped place Boulud into a 2-star restaurant. He started living on his own in Lyon at 15, learning under the tyrannical French brigade, where making a mistake might mean a whack to the head with a frying pan.

“I call it my Tour de France,” he said. “That was worse than military [school], I tell you.”

Boulud spent the next decade cooking in Michelin-starred kitchens until landing his first executive chef job at 23 in Denmark. He emigrated to America at 25, and has now spent most of his life in the United States.

Cooking in kitchens that felt like family — often kitchens headed by women — influenced his sensibilities as a chef, he says.

Family recipes — and passing down that knowledge — are a treasure to him. That’s why he plies Valls, his chef at Bar Boulud NY, for reconnaissance on her family recipes for Cuban pastelitos, croquetas and Cuban coffee.

It explains why his eyes twinkle when we open the box of Cuban snacks. He considers them one at a time: pastelitos with three different kinds of filling -- beef, guava and cheese -- tucked next to half a dozen ham croquetas.

“I’ve never had the full tasting,” he says.

He asks for a knife and carefully cuts open a ground beef-filled pastelito, looks at it in cross section, examining as much as admiring the pastry making skill.

“I love it. Sweet. Savory. The dough is perfectly cooked,” he says. “It’s the perfect balance of sweet savory.”

He wants to know it all. What makes these particular pastelitos from Karla a tumeric yellow? He wants to know the kind of fat — is it butter, is it beef fat? — used in meat pastelitos. When he rips open a cheese pastelito, he holds it to his nose and inhales deeply.

What kind of cheese is this, he wants to know, cottage? Ricotta? He takes another bite.

“Did you get the cheese? Do you want some?” he says offering another wedge.

The guava pastry reminds him of a Miami interpretation of pain au chocolat, he says.

“This has quite a lot of character and taste. I understand why people are in love with this,” he said. “It’s delicious.”

No, he admits, you won’t find that in France.

He finishes with a croqueta — and, of course, he wants to know everything that’s in it.

“I’m going to make some for my mother. I’m going to ask Gabriella the recipe for the Versailles croqueta,” he says. “Oh, those are good.”

A little more coffee and it’s the perfect South Florida scene — all that’s missing, sitting here in his Miami restaurant, is standing outside a ventanita. Definitely on his next trip, he says.

“A shot of coffee, a shot of croquetas. ... The sun hits you. It’s like a real Miami moment,” he said. “You do the same thing in New York in December, it wouldn’t be the same.”

Carlos Frías is the James Beard award-winning Miami Herald food editor. Contact: 305-376-4624; @carlos_frias