Super-chef Daniel Boulud opened Maison Boulud à Pékin, his first restaurant in Beijing, last July. Last week, writer and food fanatic Manuela Zoninsein sat down with Boulud to talk Olympics, the restaurant biz, and burgers.
What dish has worked particularly well with the Beijing crowd?
The Red Wine Braised Short Ribs are a hit on the menu here in Beijing. I’m delighted [because] it means one of my signature dishes has translated well across cultural lines.
What lessons have you learned about the culture in terms of fine dining?
While the tradition of delicious food is deeply rooted in Chinese culture, the concept of fine dining in restaurants on a Western model is relatively new to China. Still, the appreciation and enjoyment of good food is so central to life here. Like the French, the Chinese take pride in and devote time to their cooking. Their lives revolve largely around food.
Chinese people, whether from the Mainland, Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan, take the pleasures of eating and drinking as seriously–if not more–than any other people anywhere in the world.
I’m sure you’ve gone out to eat in Beijing. What has been your favorite meal so far?
I believe Da Dong deserves all the praise it has been getting. It’s one of my favorite restaurants here in Beijing. They have very authentic Peking duck, and many other dishes are worth trying. I also admire [the chef] because he is always seeking new ways to reinvent traditional Chinese food without losing its essence. The presentations are fascinating.
Any plans on incorporating elements of Chinese cuisine into the Maison’s menu?
We are in fact constantly doing that here at Maison Boulud. For example, we serve our suckling pig dish with daikon, a type of radish commonly used here in Asia. Instead of relying excessively on imports, which are costly and inconsistent in terms of supply, we try to work with ingredients sourced locally. We also try to see what we can get from the surrounding Pacific Rim countries, each of which has something unique to offer. We look particularly to Japan for very good seafood.
In terms of our cooking style, the local Chinese cooks and chefs working with us here at the restaurant have also influenced us significantly. Their expertise has been a great asset and is clearly reflected on our menu.
I’ve watched dining in Beijing evolve over the last two years into an increasingly cosmopolitan scene. Do you think that was solely motivated by Olympics preparations, or will that dynamic continue?
I think Chinese culture and food are inseparable, as they are in any nation that prides itself on its cuisine. The addition of fine restaurants and other aspects of cosmopolitan life won’t fade away with the memory of the Olympic Games. China continues to develop rapidly. This is especially apparent in Beijing; as the capital, it is by definition the capital of the food culture. It has the potential to rival other top international dining destinations such as Tokyo, New York, or Paris, with all their great restaurants. This is certainly only the beginning of a new era.
Burgers are becoming really popular in Beijing. Any chance locals will get to sample your famous “Royale” truffle burger in the near future?
Ever since opening last year, guests have been asking if we would serve the burger at Maison Boulud. We finally succumbed . . . What we’re serving in Beijing is a little different from the Royale burger because we don’t add black truffle, but like the original it is stuffed with foie gras and red wine-braised short ribs.
Originally published in Daily Traveler, from the editors of Condé Nast Traveler, in March 2009.