David Bouley worked in restaurants around the world before opening his own in 1987. Located in TriBeCa, Bouley earned a myriad of awards and recognition and is the only restaurant to achieve a 29 out of 30 food rating in Zagat Survey. After 9/11, he opened “Green Tarp” at Ground Zero to feed relief workers 24 hours a day for four weeks. He has combined his love of French and American cuisines with that of Japan to open both a sushi section of Bouley Bakery and to work with the famed Tsuji Cooking School in his cutting-edge test kitchen.
You have been very involved with Japanese cuisine and the Tsuji Cooking School in your test kitchen. What are the most important things you’ve learned from the collaboration?
Eight years ago I had an opportunity to go abroad and cook for the royal family of Thailand. I spent 2-3 weeks beforehand with Mr. Shizuo Tsuji. We started with the basics: salt, types of fish, dashi, miso. I was fortunate to get this preliminary understanding – it was Japan’s Culinary Culture 101! Over the years I was able to build on that knowledge, learn more and go deeper into topics like the preparation for Kaiseki, regional cooking (we even studied Okinawa), miso…we made 70-100 dishes in a week with Mr.Tsuji in the test kitchen because understanding the basic elements of anything is key.
What is the most important aspect of cooking to you?
To be a chef you must star t out by gaining an intimate relationship with the products you are using and building solid technique to use them. Once you have these two things, you can go off and be creative.
What do you think of the recent popularity of Japanese food and Japanese knives?
Increased interest in Japanese food is a great thing in the fact that it makes it easier for us to get fine quality artisanal product from Japan now, but you still need the proper knowledge to use those ingredients, in the same way that you need to know how to use a tool like a traditional Japanese knife. I had four days of intensive training in Japan when I started using Japanese knives and was lucky enough to visit knife makers and see how the knives are made. This type of comprehensive knowledge is important.
Which is your most often used knife?
I use carbon steel – they remind me of the old style. The single-edged traditional Japanese knives are perfect for what they are designed to do. Take the Yanagi, for example. The one-sided blade pulls the meat up onto the long, flat edge as you slice and you can make a cleaner cut with less crushing of the cells of the food.
Do you have any advice for chefs who are thinking about buying their first traditional style Japanese knife?
The Usuba,Yanagi, Deba – if you are going to use a tool, you should learn how to use it. Read about the tool, learn how it works, what it’s made for. You have to learn to use a tool – a knife, a motorcycle, a product – to its full potential as it was originally designed. The well designed knife already knows what to do. You must learn to let the knife do its own thing. Then you will appreciate that knife. When buying knives you must understand yourself and your interests.You should know what your job is and understand what your knife has to do.You don’t need the most expensive knife; you need to learn how to use the engineering for what it was made for – and enjoy the ride!