A band played as guests walked a red carpet into DBGB Kitchen and Bar’s VIP-studded opening party last weekend. Upstairs in the first restaurant in the new CityCenterDC complex, an ice sculpture of the Washington Monument towered over platters of complimentary lobster, just-shucked oysters, and shrimp. Elsewhere, guests with flutes of sparkling wine or rosemary-lemon-vodka cocktails in hand nibbled on pistachio macarons or slices of a seven-layer duck and foie gras tourte. It was the most decadent restaurant opening D.C.’s seen in recent memory.
But all that was just the backdrop for the man of the hour: Daniel Boulud. Midway through the spectacle, the famed New York–based chef and restaurateur took the mic to thank friends and blowtorch a six-foot-long baked Alaska. Invitees crowded around like paparazzi snapping photos on their phones as if Beyoncé herself was in the center of the huddle.
Even though it was a Friday evening, when most chefs would be locked down in their own restaurants, many made a point to be there: Nora Pouillon, Ris Lacoste, Mark Furstenberg, Bertrand Chemel, Carla Hall, Patrick O’Connell, and José Andrés, whom Boulud personally waited on with an enormous plate of bread and charcuterie. They will also have a permanent home in the restaurant, thanks to plates lining the walls that more than 100 chefs decorated in red and black paint. The plates, which all have placards with the chefs’ names below, feature self-portraits, animals, messages—even an actual footprint from O’Connell. They come from big names like Emeril Lagasse and Anthony Bourdain, but mostly locals like Proof’s Haidar Karoum and Range’s Bryan Voltaggio.
The over-the-top party and crowd-sourced decor were just a part of Boulud’s efforts to ingratiate himself with the local culinary community. A rash of big name out-of-town chefs and restaurateurs have opened places in D.C. in the past year or two, including most recently Osteria Morini’s Michael White, Rural Society’s Jose Garces, and Tico’s Michael Schlow—not to mention the forthcoming arrival of David Chang, who will open one of his Momofuku restaurants in CityCenterDC next year. But Boulud is unique in the extent to which he’s gone out of his way, at least in these early days, to try to make D.C., and especially its chefs, fall in love with him.
Celebrity chefs garner no shortage of hype when they arrive in D.C. (Speculation about Momofuku reached a rumor level worthy of Kate Middleton’s baby bump in the months before the official announcement.) Still, it can be hard to get genuinely excited about someone who won’t actually ever be in the kitchen opening their 17th or 21st restaurant here, especially if it’s not an original concept. New York’s Michael White, for example, never even showed up to the opening party for Osteria Morini, which is also in New York and Bernardsville, N.J. (He was in Turkey.)
It’s not uncommon for famous chefs transplanting their restaurants to new cities (or contracting out their names and recipes) to have no ties to the local community. While some do make an effort in D.C., others are cashing in on what they see as a recession-proof city where they can make money. The boom in high-end developments only encourages them, with real estate so expensive that few homegrown chefs and restaurateurs can afford it.
Boulud at least has some personal connection to D.C. He started his U.S. career here, as a private chef to the head of the European Commission in his 20s. The chef left the District for New York in 1982 and has since expanded his empire as far as London and Singapore. But, he says, “there’s a little part of me in D.C. every time I come.”
Developers and hotels approached Boulud many times about bringing him back. But the restaurant he ultimately opened is unique in that it’s the first he’s done outside New York without a hotel partner. That’s part of the reason he opted to make it a second outpost for his more casual concept DBGB, a French and American bistro where the menu ranges from coq au vin to burgers. (The D.C. locale has about 40 percent overlap with the New York menu.)
“As much as I could have chosen to do a restaurant more—not important—but certainly more luxe in a way, that’s not what was going to make me happy. I have that in New York. It’s fine,” Boulud says. “Here, we are independent. We are not in a hotel. And for that reason, I felt I didn’t have to try to match another brand with something that might be different.”
Boulud also came in with a charm offensive. In June, he invited local chefs to a dinner at Cleveland Park French bistro La Piquette, whose chef, Francis Layrle, has known Boulud since the two worked on Embassy Row decades ago. Everyone was there: Michel Richard, Robert Wiedmaier, Eric Ziebold, Cathal Armstrong, Kaz Okochi, and a couple dozen others. The gathering indulged in charcuterie, grilled octopus and poached cod in a tomato sauce, boudin blanc, and other rustic dishes. The meal culminated, like DBGB’s opening party, with camera phones capturing Boulud lording over a baked Alaska.
“He came off really, really reserved and excited but still a little bit nervous to open a restaurant, which I thought was so interesting coming from—in my mind—the king of restaurants,” says the Red Hen chef Michael Friedman, who was in attendance. Regardless, the night was “magical,” Friedman says. “The lights were low. We were drinking heavy red French wine. Mike Isabella, you could hear his laugh across the room…It was an incredibly smart and novel idea.”
“Smart” seems to be the word of choice. Bread Furst owner Mark Furstenberg, who will be making bread for DBGB, also describes the dinner that way: “He held this little thing as a way of saying, ‘I want to be your colleague. I’m not coming in as the big-time chef from New York who thinks he’s better than you are,’” he says. “He’s a gracious man. I don’t know whether what he has done has come from his general graciousness or whether it is just smart strategy, smart politics.”
Either way, it worked. D.C.’s chefs are smitten.
“I was kind of starstruck,” says Birch & Barley and the Arsenal chef Kyle Bailey. “It’s the same thing that happened when I met the lead singer of Tool years ago.”
“I felt like a giddy school girl,” Friedman adds. “I was like giggling in the corner taking a selfie with him. It was really embarrassing.”
A grand gesture to the local cooking community—like this chefs’ dinner—is highly unusual from a high-profile out-of-towner. “It’s never happened. Never. Honestly,” says Friedman.
When I mention the dinner being unusual to Boulud, he counters “not for me.”
“I think for me that was important before I opened the restaurant to see everybody in town and say, ‘Good to see you guys, thank you, and I hope I can stand along with you,’” Boulud says. “That’s the idea. I’m not coming here to pretend anything. For me, it’s about friendship first and foremost and about respect and relationships.”
That’s part of the inspiration for the chefs’ plates on the walls, which are unique to D.C.’s DBGB. (The bistro’s New York outpost displays copper pots from fellow chefs in a similar spirit.)
Many outside operations try to pay homage to D.C. with some menu item that highlights local ingredients. Almost always, it’s a token Maryland crab dish. DBGB is no different. Boulud’s nod to the area is a $22 crab-topped burger called the “Crabbie.” The chef also says he’s interested in creating his own version of the half-smoke. “It’s bad,” he says of the Ben’s Chili Bowl original, complaining of the sweetness and quality of the meat. Attacking D.C.’s sacred cow (and pork sausage) may be Boulud’s one faux-pas so far. Announcing you can improve upon a local classic is dangerous territory—even if it might be true.
Running the kitchen day to day at DBGB will be executive chef Ed Scarpone, who’s worked with Boulud at Cafe Boulud and db Bistro Moderne in New York. Furstenberg takes this as a good sign. “Daniel has chosen as a chef someone who is really important to him,” he says, “and that’s one way of announcing ‘I’m taking Washington seriously.’”
But ultimately, Boulud’s efforts to make himself a part of the D.C. community again will come down to his continued presence. Obviously he has a global business to run, and no one expects him to move here, but local chefs I spoke to agreed that one of the worst things a transplant can do is never be around. Not only does that show a lack of respect for the local market, but in a worst-case scenario, the food and service can suffer from lack of attention and direction.
When I ask Boulud how often he might be in D.C., he doesn’t give a direct answer. He jokes about not being able to afford to buy a condo at CityCenterDC. But he says his daughter is moving to D.C., so he’ll have to make frequent visits. “I have a lot of friends here,” he says. “But my home will always be New York.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery