Learning to tell the difference between forks, where to find fresh basil and how to say mis en place in Mandarin are not your typical Olympic training activities. But they are just some of the exercises the restaurant staff is learning at Maison Boulud, the new Beijing outpost from chef Daniel Boulud, which will open just in time to welcome the expected influx of tourists for the Summer Games.
Housed in a former U.S. embassy building, the restaurant marks Boulud’s first foray into the international scene (it joins his four locations in New York, and one each in Palm Beach and Las Vegas). “An offer to create a restaurant in this kind of setting doesn’t come along every day. I was immediately seduced by the space,” says Boulud.
The grand, turn-of-the-century building is a star attraction of the new Legation Quarter, a development centering on the historic embassy buildings behind Tiananmen Square. Alongside Maison Boulud will be boutiques, an arts center, a branch of the London nightclub Boujis, an underground theater and several other haute eateries, including the Milan-based Michelin-starred Ristorante Sadler.
To redesign the historic space, Boulud tapped Parisian design duo Patrick Gilles and Dorothée Boissier, of Gilles & Boissier, who worked on New York City’s Gramercy Park Hotel. They preserved the exterior, while reenvisioning the interior as a stately manor house complete with a dramatic double staircase and sitting rooms. In a nod to the Beijing penchant for private dining, multiple rooms and a separate bar area were installed on the second floor. And everything from the hand-carved wooden chandeliers to a mural of a Versailles fountain was “Made in China” by local craftsmen.
In keeping with his new restaurant’s location, the menu Boulud created is a balance between Chinese, American and French cuisines. “I conceived Maison Boulud especially for Beijing,” says the chef. “You’ll find references to the things I do at other restaurants, but it isn’t a copy of anything I’ve done before.” Among the dishes to which diners can look forward are Alaskan king crab with yogurt sauce and a touch of chili pepper, as well as a suckling pig served with daikon charcroute and a creamy mustard sauce.
Sourcing the ingredients has been the task of Boulud’s on-site executive chef, Brian Reimer, who has spent the past seven months in Beijing. Not only has he faced a language barrier — “I’ve learned a lot of things thus far, but Chinese has not been one of them,” says Reimer, who relies on a Chinese sous chef-slash-translater — but he admits that opening a restaurant in China has presented unique difficulties. “Everything you take for granted in the U.S. has been a challenge,” says Reimer. “You don’t know what to expect here, and no matter how much time you have to plan, it’s never enough.”
Meanwhile, manager Ignace Lecleir has been working with the mostly Chinese staff to meld Western etiquette with local custom. “We wanted the restaurant to be run by the people who live here,” explains Lecleir, who spent the last three years managing Boulud’s Manhattan flagship, Daniel. “Since personality was as important as past experience, we even hired people who had never worked in a restaurant before.” That meant intensive service training, with everything from hours of modeling lessons to screenings of the cartoon movie “Ratatouille.”
Luckily, Boulud himself will be on hand to make sure the official July opening and the Olympics rush go smoothly. Then it’s off to his next international project, in Vancouver, where this fall he will take over the management of the famed Lumière and open a DB Bistro Moderne next door. “I have spent 25 years serving my clients in New York City,” he says. “That foundation, built on the trust I have earned from my guests, is what makes it possible for me to go out into the world and explore new endeavors.”