by Eric Barton | February 27, 2020

Chef Daniel Boulud Thinks Floridians Should Eat This Everglades Delicacy (P.S. It’s Not Gator)

We sit down with this Michelin-starred chef to chat all things Florida, fine dining and slimy creatures. (Yes, you read that right)

Chef Daniel Boulud stirs an espresso. Photography by Jeff Chouw

Technically, Floridians can’t claim Daniel Boulud as one of our own. He was born in France. He made a name for himself in New York City. And he still calls the Big Apple home.

But he’s had restaurants in the Sunshine State for nearly two decades now, with Café Boulud in Palm Beach often ending up on award lists and Boulud Sud among downtown Miami’s favorites. So, let’s consider Boulud enough of a Florida expert that we should be asking him to weigh in on the state’s most important dish.

Raised on a farm outside Lyon, Boulud now has restaurants from Montreal to Singapore and a couple of Michelin stars to his name. He was in Miami recently for the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. A few hours before he was to cook at the event’s headlining dinner, we sat down with him for a chat. We talked about the loyalty of his customers here, his favorite spot for a Cubano and Florida’s most identifiable foods.

One of his answers here might surprise you, as it did us. Frog legs. As in, amphibians, raised in the Everglades and served in his restaurant in New York City. We’ll let him try to convince you.

Chef Boulud’s spin on Florida frog legs. Photography by T. Schauer
The current issue of Flamingo magazine has a theme of iconic Florida. What do you think of as our most notable fare?

DB: We’re mentioning the Key lime pie, and of course, that’s iconic. But you know, Key lime pie is also something not so north in Florida, it’s more south in Florida. 

I have had many, many interpretations of Key lime pie, including interpretations that didn’t look like a Key lime pie—or felt like one. It’s a very creative subject for pastry chefs to be able to reinterpret the texture, the taste, the composition, in many different ways. And sometimes it can have a combination of creamy, and also icy. But sometimes the best Key lime pie is the one you find at the supermarket down in Key Largo.

We asked our readers what they considered Florida’s most iconic dish, and Key lime pie won by a landslide.  

DB: Of course. Then if you have more money, you can go for the stone crab. Although the stone crab is mostly coastal. There’s a restaurant in Miami here that made a world reputation out of it. But to me,when I think of Florida, I think of seafood, and so it’s always red snapper and grouper and shrimps, as well even frog legs, strangely enough. 

Frog legs?

DB: We have a farm in Florida, in the Everglades, with frog legs, and they shoot them to New York to us all the time. And it’s very special.

How do you do the frog legs?

DB: The frog legs, sometimes we make soup with it. So you debone them and then you make a stock with the bones. Frog leg goes very well with mushroom and either butter or cream, and you know herbs and garlic, and if you can add an element that gives a kind of earthiness to it, that goes well. And frog legs sometimes like to be spicy. We make them into little drumsticks pulled from the bone, and then we dip them in breadcrumbs and fry them and serve them with a vadouvan dressing. 

That sounds good.

DB: But so the one thing I don’t do, and I heard people eat here, is alligator. I think it’s a no. I haven’t tasted an honorable version of alligator that made me think that alligator is a good meat to look for. 

It seems more for the kitsch of it.

DB: Yeah, I think so. But I had a friend who had a farm, a big farm in the center of Florida, and he brought me wild boar in New York. One time he brought a whole wild boar broken up into pieces. And we cooked the wild boar in many different ways, and that was kind of interesting. I think Florida should know what’s inland and how much there is to use there. 

What do you absolutely have to eat when you come here?

DB: I love the Cubano sandwich. Every time I come to Miami, I have to have a Cubano, and I like to go to Versailles because it’s such a classic. And also, I love the family who run the restaurant. One of the daughters worked with me in New York, Gabriella Valls [granddaughter of Versailles founder Felipe Valls Sr.]. Gabriella is a young chef, very ambitious, very energetic, very talented. And she could take the easiest way to get into the business, but she wanted the hard way, working on the line and pushing every day to make sure that she’s challenging herself. I was asked if there was any young chef who could be qualified and retained for a scholarship to Blackberry Farm in Tennessee. I asked Gabriella if she would like to do that, and she went to do Blackberry Farm for six months, learning gardening, butchering, jam making, including also cooking there. She’s going to work at my restaurant DB Bistro Moderne in New York.

You opened your first Florida restaurant in Palm Beach nearly two decades ago, and in the restaurant business, that’s a lifetime. 

DB: And especially, back then, Palm Beach was kind of, you know, a lot of restaurants were known for being good but not that good. 

What have you learned about dining in Florida? How different is it from other places you’ve owned restaurants? 

DB: Well, in New York we have a lot of regulars, but they don’t come on the consistency of regulars who come down here. When I opened Café Boulud 18 years ago, there weren’t that many good tables in Palm Beach. So we have a lot of regulars that come, and they view it as an extension of their home. People are very adventurous about food there. They’re interested in wine. They’re interested in food. 

Yours was one of the first restaurants in Florida that was really talking about elevating simple ingredients. On the breakfast menu, you had these grits . . .

DB: Oh yes. The grits were from the Carolinas. They have a really nutty flavor and texture. I will say, in New York we have customers coming from all over, but there’s a lot of New Yorkers as the base of customers. In Palm Beach, most of our customers come from all over. The entire eastern corridor is represented in Palm Beach. We know how to make a very good club sandwich. We know how to make very good grits for breakfast. Sometime we do barbecue, because somebody offered me a big barbecue smoker from Texas. The thing was like 250 pounds, and I shipped it down to Palm Beach because you cannot burn wood in New York in the middle of the street.

How different is Miami from other places you’ve worked?

DB: Well, we have been here at the JW Marriott Marquis for 12 years. But then when we did the renovation about five, six years ago, we decided to do Boulud Sud. The food is about the Mediterranean. It’s a sunny and light and flavorful, spiced and vegetable-driven cuisine, and also seafood-driven. 

What are your customers like in Miami? What have you learned about the scene here? 

DB: In Miami, they have it all today. From the South American register, from Mexico to Argentina, and anything from the Caribbean. It’s already well-represented here. I mean, there was already a culture of food. There was already a culture of having a good time around the table, and I think that’s still very strong in Miami. And a lot of things have closed and things keep reopening. Miami has always been about transient and novelty, in a way. It’s not like every restaurant has been here for 25 years and is still kicking.

Miami’s new, trendy restaurant might close while you’re driving there.

 DB: Yeah, exactly. You’d better check fast. 

Any other Florida spots you’re considering? 

DB: I was one of the first New York chefs to come to Florida. I was a consultant at The Biltmore in 1986, ’87, when I was at Le Cirque.

Orlando must be calling, right? 

DB: Yeah, of course. I mean, I love Orlando, but there you have to be cautious. Where and how big do you want to open? Because not everybody can make these mega restaurants work, because it’s a challenge with the staff and service. It’s a great town because there’s almost a guaranteed traffic. But you have to have the right formula and the right concept. 

I would say also Naples has grown well, and it’s a very affluent town nowadays, more resort-y, a little more residential. They are savvy diners there, a lot like Palm Beach. We’ll see. I love Florida. I need to open one or two more restaurants so I can have my sports car and fly between them.