05/09/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
At Bouley, one of New York City's top restaurants, the most sensuous dish isn't the honey-glazed duck or halibut in thyme oil, but the hazel-eyed genius in the kitchen, chef David Bouley. Alas, encounters with him are elusive: A mad perfectionist, Bouley, 40, boils and toils 15 hours a day, six days a week at his pricey (dinner for two: some $200) French eatery. Says food critic Gael Greene of the restaurant: "Being seduced by a tremulous scallop, it's always astonishing to realize the chef is also an incredibly handsome man."
Growing up one of nine children of an entrepreneur father and an education professor mother in Storrs, Conn., Bouley was weaned on fine cuisine by his French-born grandparents. He later earned his stars at restaurants in France. Now, he explains in a sotto voce purr, "I want to supply my customers with nurturing love."
That devotion keeps regulars such as Woody Allen and model Paulina Porizkova coming back; Warren Beatty once felt expansive enough to hug Bouley after a memorable 12-course meal. And, allows the chef, "a lot of women will come into the kitchen and ask if I want to get married." No one has gotten lucky yet, though après soufflé, Bouley usually has a date on his arm (Bernadette Peters is an old flame). When not riding his Harley for relaxation, he sweats out stress in his Manhattan apartment with a personal trainer. But physical perfection isn't the point. "Beauty is like food," he says. "Any beautiful dish that doesn't taste good gets boring very quickly."