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Leadership lessons from Chef Daniel Boulud

By Sunny Bonnell
Posted on 07/30/23
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We stepped into a historic building-turned-playhouse in Charleston, South Carolina, to attend the Charleston Food & Wine Festival fireside chat with one of America’s leading culinary authorities: legendary Chef Daniel Boulud.

Boulud is revered in the food world. His culinary empire spans the globe, and his remarkable leadership is iconic. We fully understood why Boulud is such a Rare Breed within minutes of meeting him.

The panel included other culinary luminaries like Top Chef judge Gail Simmons–not to mention chefs Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern, Gavin Kaysen of Spoon and Stable, Jean-Francois Bruel, executive chef of Daniel, and Andrew Carmellini of The Dutch, all of whom have worked under Boulud in his kitchens or his business.

Once on stage, Boulud’s descendants waxed lyrical over his immeasurable teachings. They each offered up a beloved “Daniel-ism” like an amuse-bouche, so we could all taste these lessons for ourselves.

The similarities between chefs as leaders and business leaders are something we find fascinating. The dysfunctions found in restaurants are the same in every type of business, and the leadership skills required to run a kitchen like Boulud’s are the same needed to make any team successful.

Here are three tenets leaders can learn from Chef Boulud:

1. Don’t Work Like a Caveman

A great chef will tell you there’s one secret ingredient to running a successful kitchen–working clean. When we conduct leadership workshops where the company has severe cultural problems, we always start by noticing behavior and workplace patterns.

If the office looks like a pigsty–uninspired and unloved–it’s a first indicator of why the culture might be sloppy. There’s a difference between looking like a bright think-tank and a junkyard.

Boulud is notorious for demanding the kitchen be clean, even while cooking. The most outstanding leaders and organizations understand how you work and feel.

If you work like a caveman, stop now. If your shop gets messy, take a minute to tidy up: Wipe down your station, put your tools in their places, and get orderly.

The act of cleaning and organizing your space helps to clear your mind and regain control. It also makes for happier employees.

That messy, chaotic, disorganized circus show you’ve got running in your business? Clean up your act and help your team do the same.

2. Defy mediocrity

Many people would argue that perfection kills productivity, but we argue that accepting mediocrity is far worse.

The word mediocre comes from the French term mediocre, ‘of middle height or degree,’ from medius ‘middle’ + ocris, ‘rugged mountain.’ It means “halfway up the mountain.”

Extraordinary leadership is rooted in defying mediocrity, pursuing excellence, and climbing to the top. Chef Kaysen noted, “I had to remake Daniel’s signature dish–Crisp Paupiettes of Sea Bass in Barolo Sauce–countless times because it failed to meet Daniel’s level of excellence.” Kaysen said this shaping made him a better chef.

Countless Boulud stories were shared by his protégés, from his relentless attention to detail and insane work ethic to his brigade-like command of the people cooking his food. By striving for perfection and defying mediocrity as a chef and mentor, this mindset separates Boulud as a leader inside and outside the kitchen.

3. This is a Ballet, Not a Rodeo

Gail Simmons, food writer, and cookbook author, said one of the most valuable pieces of advice Boulud gave her was that cooking is a ballet, not a rodeo. She considers this exceptional life advice, and so do we.

Leadership is about orchestration, flow, and inspiring teams to do what you need them to do. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to look effortless.

We see countless leaders undo themselves and their teams with impatience, frantic behavior, and bull-dozing their way through life. We have spoiled ourselves into believing that greatness is instant, ruining our ability to give attention and devotion to areas that need precision and thoughtfulness. This could never be truer than when leading an extraordinary organization.

If you want your business to be well-orchestrated, refine your style. Harmony, beauty, and excellence take devotion, nurturing, and, most of all, time. That’s how you perform for a lifetime, day after day.

Sunny Bonnell profile picture
By Sunny Bonnell
Founder & CEO Motto®