I’ve never been a foodie, but in the late 1980s and 1990s I was a restaurant gadabout, thanks to an extended gig as publicist for the Zagat Survey guides. I was exposed to some of New York’s finer eateries and uber-chefs, including recurring visits to such storied spots as Lutece, Quilted Giraffe, Le Cirque, Le Bernardin, Chanterelle, Grammercy Tavern, Montrachet, Daniel, and more.

While the rarefied food was always enjoyable, I sometimes felt that it was wasted on me, especially multicourse offerings and tasting menus with elaborate preparations or exotic adds like figs and avocado oil. At one such endless dinner at Le Bernardin, my wife and I kept passing our plates of raw and slathered fish to another couple so as not to appear ungracious to our server for comping us so many extras.

And then there was Bouley—David Bouley’s farmhouse-like French outpost in Tribeca, gourmet to the max but without pretense or intimidation. From its simple, organic ingredients and intense flavors to the unharried pace of service and apple-infused country ambiance, Bouley proved on every visit the magical, transporting power of a great restaurant meal. Even a food hick like me was made a believer.

I first dined there around 1990 after Bouley (pronounced Boo-lay) surpassed Andre Soltner’s formidable Lutece with the highest Zagat food rating (soon it would become the most popular as well). Bouley had already become New York’s “it” restaurant after the 1987 stock market collapse, especially among Wall Street bankers and lawyers who often chose the restaurant for their celebratory deal dinners and wine auctions. What struck me about the place was that you could spend four hours at table, consuming dish after inventive dish, totally unaware of the passage of time and still never feeling full, even when they brought out the airy goat cheese soufflé and homemade chocolates. Getting up to leave was like an act of levitation.

Food critics credited David Bouley’s reduction skills—bringing complex stocks and sauces to perfect concentrations, and his minimalist use of oils and fats to keep dishes light. I called it wizardry, particularly when invited to visit his brightly lit kitchen during dinner service and watch the chef deftly move among the stations, pausing to adjust a seasoning or suggest a different garnish to his devout team, while showing off his newest gadgets and equipment. Backstage chaos at The Bear it was not.

To spend time with Bouley away from the line was to be in the company of a visionary and passionate artist, whose Dirk Bogarde good looks and ever-twinkling expression were captivating. But he was also a proprietor with poor time management and operating discipline. He could wax eloquently for 30 minutes on the sourcing of a crab or peach but forget an important appointment or deadline. Once, while we were chatting in a quiet dining room that had emptied out after lunch, he slipped quickly out of the building to evade an irate chair caner who had come to collect overdue payment.

He was ahead of the curve on many trends taken for granted now, including the need for restaurant kitchens to be sensitive to food allergies and for diners to avoid processed foods. He championed Asian gastronomy and touted the wonders of Wegmans supermarkets 25 years before New Yorkers recognized the name. And he advocated for wellness menus with plant-based foods, which, years later, turned into a lecture series called “The Chef and the Doctor” that included input from physicians and nutritionists.

Bouley closed his original restaurant at the height of its popularity in June 1996. As a coda, I convinced a New Yorker writer to cover the moment, attended by Bianca Jagger and other big shots, for a blow-out “Last Supper” that brought down the curtain. His goal was to create an ambitious culinary emporium that included a cooking school and nutrition center, but he settled for a series of follow-on restaurants, Bouley Bakery and Danube. While neither reached the heights of his earlier namesake, both drew critics’ raves and loyal followings. (Highlight memory: while I was having dinner at the Bakery one evening, the woman at the next table broke her tooth on a pistachio shell inside one of the restaurant’s signature breads; the maître d’ gave her a tiny gift box to deposit the cracked tooth, and she finished her meal chopping happily on one side.) His legacy was further enhanced when he helped lead efforts to keep Ground Zero responders well-fed in the months following 9/11; around the rubble-strewn debris field, they called him King of the Pile.

Bouley, who died February 12 from a heart attack at 70, never achieved the commercial success of his rock-star-like peers Eric Ripert, Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, or Jean-Georges Vongerichten. But he broke the mold of what four-star cuisine should taste like, led the movement in farm-to-table restaurants, and made haute dining relatable to non-food snobs. Who else could have gotten me to enjoy a goat cheese soufflé?

Photo by Chance Yeh/Getty Images for NYCWFF


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next