BEHIND A DISCREET, FROSTED GLASS DOOR ON Manhattan's Upper East Side, the patrons at Restaurant Daniel are being pampered like royalty. Which, being royalty, some are inclined to expect. Queen Noor of Jordan occasionally drops in for the white truffle risotto—or has a chauffeured limousine pick up an order to go. The Duchess of York favors the lobster ravioli or the black sea bass wrapped in a crispy potato skin.
Since May 1993, the titled, famous and the merely well-heeled are making New York City's newest four-star restaurant one of the toughest reservations in town. Daniel has emerged as a favorite haunt of Manhattanites Bill Blass, Bill Cosby and Woody Allen. Richard Harris is a frequent visitor. Robin Williams dropped into the kitchen one evening and stayed to lend a hand. And whenever devotee Gérard Depardieu is in New York, he comes and goes, like the staff, through the back door. "For me, I wish it was a secret," wrote Robert Redford in a guest-book comment to chef and owner Daniel Boulud. "For you, I'm glad it's not."
Behind the kitchen door, the dining room's hushed elegance gives way to a scene as frenetic as an episode of ER. "It's like a fast car," says Boulud, 40. "If you buy a Ferrari and you drive 30 miles an hour, it's not a very good car to drive. But if you go up to a certain speed, then it drives very easily."
"It's a very good training ground," says Boulud's right-hand man in the kitchen, Alex Lee, 31. "Once you step through these doors, it's probably not going to be as stressful anywhere else."
Boulud sought out his own training ground at 14, when he left his family's farm outside Lyons, France, for a restaurant job in town. After working with legendary chefs Roger Vergé and Michel Guérard, he came to the U.S. in 1980 as chef to the European Economic Commission and by 1986 was named executive chef at Manhattan's Le Cirque—a restaurant, Bouiud notes, "that was famous for being famous, but not so famous for its food." Within a year, Le Cirque had won four stars from The New York Times. Boulud's departure in 1992 to open Daniel shook up members of New York's dining elite, and wounded Le Cirque owner Sirio Maccioni has yet to set foot in Daniel.
At home, cooking for the Best Chef in America, as he was designated last year by the James Beard Foundation, can be almost as daunting as cooking under him. Boulud's wife, Michèle "Micky" Palmer, 36, quit as a collaborator with Boulud on a food newsletter after the birth of their daughter Alix, 5½, and took on, among other things, the job of preparing meals for her perfectionist husband. She soon had to establish some ground rules. "I said, 'Listen, you've got to stop commenting or I'll stop cooking,' " says Micky. "So now he says everything I cook is wonderful."
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