Like many a northerner, Jim Leiken packed up his life in New York to head south to warmer pastures. Alright, the weather wasn't the only determining factor-- this New Yorker was offered the executive chef position at Cafe Boulud at the Brazilian Court, Palm Beach. With just over a year into his new post, we figured we'd check in to see how Leiken is settling in.
Leiken: I would like to say that Daniel made me an offer I couldn't refuse, but it's not quite that simple.
Winter of 2010/2011 in New York was extremely long, with a snowstorm every week until March, and it was one of those winters that just stretched on and on and on. My wife and I had gone to northern California for a wedding in early April, and it was absolutely beautiful - blue skies, fresh air, birds singing, the whole nine yards... We flew back to New York on the redeye, and when we landed it was just so cold and gray and dreary. I think at that point we decided our days in New York were numbered. We had lived in New York for about 14 years at that point, and were talking about having kids, and knew we didn't want to raise them in the city, but we didn't have a really compelling reason to pack up and leave. So while Florida was definitely not on the radar, when Daniel came to me a couple of months later and offered me the position, my wife and I said, well, why not? Two weeks later, here I was, and the rest, as they say, is history.
With just over a year into Cafe Boulud, how has the restaurant changed since you took over?
In some ways a lot; in some ways not at all. Most of what I've concentrated on is trying to re-emphasize the French inspiration at the root of Daniel Boulud's style of cuisine, while keeping our food up-to-date and relevant. You won't find a lot of gimmicky, trendy things on our menu; we like to focus on sourcing excellent quality ingredients and treating them with respect. At the same time, we're always pushing ourselves to keep refining our sense of presentation and technical skill. I only have a few cooks left from when I started 15 months ago, so my sous chefs and I spend a lot of time trying to teach them and bring them up to the level we expect.
How has your style changed since the move?
At DBGB, the restaurant I was at in New York, the style of food was a little more freewheeling, a little more casual. My sous chefs and I would look at a piece of fish or a piece of meat and say, "How would I want to eat this if I was coming in to this restaurant tonight?" We had a lot of fun, and made a lot of food we were very proud of and still are. At Café Boulud, we wear a lot of different hats - we are a great brunch spot, you can come here for a casual but elegant $20 lunch, or you can come in for a pull-out-all-the-stops dinner with truffles and caviar. I have to be able to make everything from a really great cheeseburger to dover sole filleted at the tableside. I started my career with Daniel at Restaurant Daniel in 2001, and have been cooking at successively more casual parts of his empire since then (four years at DB Bistro and another two at DBGB). What's nice at Café Boulud is I'm able to put all that experience to work under one roof.
Rumor is you make a great burger. What are you currently working on?
We're currently working on a lot of new dishes for the fall and winter menu - we generally use the $35 prix fixe menu that we have at night to road-test, tweak, and refine ideas that eventually will make it onto the menu (or not). For example, I really enjoyed working with pompano last season, so we're putting together a new dish with it for the season that looks to southeast Asia - it will have lime, green papaya, cauliflower, and a crispy rice-flake crust. So tonight we're running a 'first draft' of it on the prix fixe with black sea bass, since the pompano isn't in season yet. We've been asking Palmetto Creek Farms to store up a stock of pig bladders for us so we can try doing poularde en vessie - it's a classic French dish of a whole chicken studded with black truffles steamed in a pig's bladder. We know it's not for everyone, but as chefs, we get pretty excited by things like that.
Pig's bladder? That's, most certainly, not on your typical menu.
It's an old Alain Chapel dish, but it always piqued my interest. I'll keep you posted.
What is Daniel's involvement in the menu and restaurant?
With 14 restaurants and counting, Daniel is obviously not in the kitchen every day, but I'm in touch with him every week or so. We just talked about ideas for the fall menu the other day - he's definitely more of a mentor than someone who will tell you, "ok, you have to put x,y, and z on the menu this week." The nice thing about working for Daniel is that as a chef, you have a lot of trust and a lot of freedom. Most of us have worked with him long enough that we always have an imaginary little Daniel sitting on our shoulder, our culinary conscience, if you will, helping keep us on track.
When did you start cooking?
I started cooking in 1997. I had recently graduated from college, and didn't know if I wanted to commit another 2 years to cooking school at the CIA. I took a 5-week 'master class' at the New School in New York City that was a very introductory survey of a very broad subject. At the end of the class, if you wanted to do a restaurant externship, they would find you one. I worked for three months at a high-end Asian fusion restaurant called March on the Upper East Side, and from there found a job through one of the cook's girlfriend. And that was that.
We do realize it is hard to compare, but what are the main differences you see between the south Florida and New York dining scenes?
I think it's a lot harder to source ingredients here than in New York. Up there, because of the sheer volume of people, and the concentration of ambitious and demanding chefs, that there are dozens of companies who offer things that you have to really fight for down here. In New York, I could call up any of four or five fish companies and have rouget (red mullet) in my kitchen within hours. Down here, you have to call four or five different companies just to find someone familiar with it, and then it's a special order you can only get in once a week. You have to fight a lot harder for the quality you expect and the products that are out-of-the-ordinary. We have some great local fishermen that get me stuff as good and fresh (if not fresher) than anything I've seen in the city. And Swank Farm in Loxahatchee grows greens and vegetables as pristine and flavorful as anything in the Union Square Greenmarket. But we also have to fly in a lot of things like game and wild mushrooms.
Which part of New York are you from?
Originally from Westchester County, about 30 minutes north of the city. But I lived in the city since 1997.
What are your favorite places to eat in New York?
My wife and my favorite restaurant was a small Italian restaurant around the corner from our apartment called Via Emilia. It was just really nice, simple food, homemade pastas and interesting salads, but always made with a lot of love. The place was not flashy at all, just really low-key with delicious food and good service.
Favorite places in south Florida?
My wife and I had twins late last year, so that has pretty much killed our social life down here before it ever got started. We live near Havana on Forest Hill, so we get late-night Cuban sandwiches now and then. We like John G's in Manalapan for brunch, along with just about everybody else in Palm Beach County. I really like the crispy orange beef at Uncle Joe's on Northlake. Mostly, we enjoy having a backyard and nice weather, so we can actually grill things. There is a rumor I might get a new smoker for my birthday in November.
If you could have one last meal, what would it be?
Hot dogs from Walter's in Mamaroneck, NY. You're driving down Palmer Avenue in the middle of the suburbs, when you see this copper-roofed Chinese pagoda on the side of the road, with a line of people 30 or 40 deep on a spring weekend. They split the dogs lengthwise and brown them on a griddle with butter, then serve them on a toasted bun with a homemade mustard-relish. My dad started taking me there when I was, like, 5 years old. I go back every time I go to visit my parents. Can't wait to take my kids there.
What is the worst thing you ever ate?
My wife and I were in Lyon, France, for one night on the way to somewhere else. It was a Sunday in August, and everything was closed. We wound up at some tourist restaurant, and I ordered a hachis parmentier, which is kind of like a French shepherd's pie. The cook burnt it and scraped off the burned part, but it still tasted like charcoal, but was at the same time completely unseasoned. In the capital of French gastronomy, it was such a huge disappointment.
If you were stranded on a deserted island which three things would you bring?
A fishing pole, a raft, and a satellite phone.
Which food trend do you find to be most irritating?
I know there are some people doing interesting things with it, and no disrespect to them, but I was kind of over the food truck thing as soon as it started. I think a few talented people had the idea, and then everyone and their brother kind of jumped on the bandwagon. And six months later, there is a food truck reality show on TV. For me, personally, if I want to eat out, especially food that someone has put some time and effort and thought into, I'd like to sit down and eat off a plate, not stand on a sidewalk breathing exhaust fumes.