NEW YORK -- David Bouley's establishment near the foot of Manhattan was recently pronounced America's best restaurant by the James Beard Foundation.
But such accolades aren't enough for Mr. Bouley (boo-LAY). The young chef wants to revolutionize American cooking. He wants to strip it of the fats, creams and chemicals of industrialized agriculture and marketing. He wants to get back to the essences -- the remembered flavor, say, of a ripe peach. He favors what might be called organic, boutique agriculture and marine harvesting. In his own cooking, this means using fresh, modest amounts of fish, fruit, and herbs instead of featuring chunks of protein, using vegetable purees instead of reduced meat stocks and keeping flavors light and distinct instead of cooking them into blurred oblivion.
Mr. Bouley's own cookery reflects a broader trend that is in keeping with technological and sociological change. Computer-literate growers and fishermen and satellite-dispatched truck delivery systems characterize a new North American generation, for whom organic produce and "a clean cuisine," like a clean environment, are important values.
Many growers of natural products find it hard to market them. For his part, Mr. Bouley finds it difficult to use all the fish that a fisherman, contracted to fish for a certain species, may haul aboard on a given outing. So Mr. Bouley must call other restaurants all over town, like a middleman, to sell the overage.
The answer to this logistical problem, he says, is to create a larger operation -- one that incorporates a serious restaurant, a bistro, a retail food emporium, a wholesale operation and a mail-order operation. That would create enough volume to establish a market for the specialty producers, from Canada to Mexico, that Mr. Bouley is linking up. If he succeeds, in the process he will also have the high-quality products on a sustainable basis that he needs for his own kitchens. The cost of the undertaking? About $6 million. Mr. Bouley is already pricing some properties nearby, almost in the shadow of the World Trade Center towers.
Mr. Bouley speaks quietly but intensely. He remembers when he was a boy, one of nine children in a Storrs, Conn., family, taking slices of homemade bread to school. His classmates would trade him anything they had to get a piece of that bread. He knew then that he wanted to convert the Twinkie generation to real food.
A long apprenticeship followed. He worked in a Storrs restaurant at 15 and used restaurant jobs to put himself through college and to live in many parts of the United States and abroad. After a West Coast project headed by chef Roger Verge failed, Mr. Verge invited Mr. Bouley to work at his restaurant in southern France. From there he worked for Paul Bocuse in Lyon, Joel Robuchon in Paris and Paul Haeberlin in Alsace -- all French masters.
Four years ago he opened his own restaurant in New York. It has a French country atmosphere. "I designed it and my brother built it," Mr. Bouley says. He went to the south of France just to get a door for the front of the restaurant, but quickly filled a 20-yard container with furnishings. "I didn't want a downtown, industrial-looking restaurant," Mr. Bouley says. "I wanted to build a restaurant [in which] people would feel they were out of New York."
Despite his accolades, and still in his mid-30s, Mr. Bouley says he is only "at the teen-ager level" of realizing his vision. "Here, I can cook for perhaps 200 people a day," he says. "I want to change the way all of America eats."
Mr. Bouley likes to talk of "the palette of flavors, the palette of experiences" that diners have stored in their minds.
Traditional cooking exhausts the digestion, he claims: "The Japanese people have understood for centuries how to eat an entire meal and never feel exhausted."
"I stopped working with butter and cream completely because I was just tired of it," Mr. Bouley says. "I want to cook like you'd cook at home. But there were different things that I was considering: the reputation of a French restaurant, the lifestyle of a New York clientele, and how much people eat out in a restaurant like this. . . .
"I didn't want to make vinegar sauces; I didn't want to make butter sauces.
"So we cook shallots in red wine for four hours until they are so sweet, they're like jam, and we pass them through a tamis [sieve]. We do that with many kinds of vegetables. We do it with white vegetables: I can make a white sauce for you that you'll think is cream and butter, and it won't be."
A salmon filet is served in a clear, hot tomato consomme. Was a yellow tomato used to give that color?
"No, that's a red tomato," he replies. "That's an ancient technique. The water in any tomato, if you take it and squeeze it, is perfectly clear. If you mash it and let it drip, you'll have clear water. We scent it with lemon grass, with thyme and verbena."
And so it goes. The Bouley circle of fresh produce, from growers he knows by name, is presented as the new American cuisine: old-fashioned, pre-Industrial Age ingredients, made available via computer-age communications and transportation, and presented simply and cleanly.
+ Los Angeles Times Syndicate