In pursuit of another story recently, I had the chance to sit down with David Bouley, the brilliantly creative chef who has staked out a corner of Tribeca as his own laboratory for refined French fare, pretty patisserie products, Austrian explorations and authentic Japanese food. His downtown empire is constantly in a state of flux, so the tiny space that used to be called “Upstairs” will become Bouley Studio and the former French-Italian hybrid Secession (in an even older incarnation, it was the Austro-Hungarian Danube) will soon open as Brushstroke, a kaiseki and sushi restaurant done in collaboration with Japan’s Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka.
The chef had just returned from Japan and was raving about the fantastic vegetables he encountered in Kyoto: turnips, carrots, daikon, cabbages and round eggplants. “Kyoto eggplants are the best,” he told me, “you can eat them like an apple.” Of course he brought back seeds and will try to grow them here in New York. We shared a moment of worry about the Tohoku earthquake, and the chef reckoned that the record closeness of the moon to the earth at the time could have been a factor in that natural disaster.
Walking through the Brushstroke as it was being readied to open felt like being in a Japanese woodworker’s atelier: the long, narrow room was filled with rough-hewn wood set at asymmetrical angles, glowing light and busy Japanese workers. The artisans and many of the materials for the restaurant are from Japan, and the room (like the food, I hope) promises to be stunning.
But what I really wanted to show you was the famous foyer to the flagship Bouley. In the restaurant’s first incarnation of the late ’80s, a dreamy country-French maison filled with flowers, the chef placed crates of apples in the entrance. According to Bouley, they, like so much of what he does, harked back to his childhood in Connecticut. Bouley explains, “The apples and quinces smelled so good at my grandmother’s farm. My brothers and my sister and I used to hide among the quinces, and my mother and my grandmother both put quinces in with the sheets and towels. We grew up with that, and having a real connection to what was happening outdoors.”
The tradition of always having fresh apples in his restaurant foyer, however, actually began as a mistake. The chef had gone to the theater and in his haste, left some crates of apples there. When he returned, the scent was so magical that they became a fixture. At the current Bouley—more sumptuously attired in rich silks and velvets, and hung with vibrant paintings of the southern French countryside—the foyer presentation, too, has undergone a makeover. Bouley had high-tech stainless steel shelving constructed for his apples, 3,900 in all. But it is the foyer during the fall Concord grape season that really makes people stop in their tracks, says Bouley, as they take in the rich, musky scent with amazement. “They step in, they stop, and they just look around,” he says. That alone is worth a trip come October.