Article By: Fred Bouchard
DANIEL BRUCE 49
Executive Chef Boston Harbor Hotel
Director of the Boston Wine Festival
Few dispute that the Bay State’s gold standard for wine dinners is Boston Harbor Hotel’s Boston Wine Festival. Now planning its 21st season the man at the helm is the same tirelessly creative guy who co-founded and still directs that pre-eminent series – Executive Chef Daniel Bruce. A native New Englander, Bruce graduated from Johnson & Wales in 198O; among early feathers in his toque in Manhattan were stints as sous chef at Le Cirque at 25 and as executive chef at The 21 Club at 27. In 1992, he was awarded Chef of the Year for Boston by “Chefs in America” and was named a “Boston Hotel Chef in America” at the James Beard House. He has appeared on many national television shows, including “The Today Show”. After we toured the new Rowes Wharf Sea Grille (in the space of BHH’s former Intrigue Lounge), Bruce candidly discussed 2O Festival years, redefining his palette (and palate), the challenges of maintaining artful consistency without mediocrity, and the opening of Washington and New Orleans editions of his Meritage Restaurant.
KEEP it FRESH I don’t think in terms of matching a wine with a particular dish so much any more. I certainly try not to use any dishes I’ve used in the past; keep it new, keep it fresh. But at the same time,
I think my style of cuisine is always evolving. I like to look back historically on what I think I’ve done well and try to improve upon it. I haven’t tried simply not to repeat dishes, but to stay fine-tuned to the wine we’re drinking. That’s my departure point.
KEEP it MOVING Along the same lines, I don’t invite winemakers back in consecutive years; it may be two, three, or up to ten years between visits. Often the wines may have changed completely. Still, through it all, I’ve developed some wonderful friendships with many winemakers and their families over the years. The Phelps Family, and [its late CEO] Tom Shelton, and Daniel Baron of Silver Oak have returned repeatedly.
Joe Heitz, who passed away in 2OO2, came in our first year of the Festival.
We had a long and fruitful relationship, which continues with his daughter Kathleen. John Williams of Frog’s Leap is a very good friend of mine, so is Jean Trimbach. I realized recently, just how many winemakers I number among my personal friends.
NEW VISION When I used to focus on the wine matches, it was ‘what can I do to bring the wine and food together?’ or ‘here’s the wine, here’s the food, what will work with this?’. I’d start thinking about creating a dish that had texture and balance, and a flavor profile that would enhance the wine; whether contrasting, parallel or compatible flavors. I started moving away from that a few years ago. It was not at any particular moment, but I began to think of the wine less as a separate entity and more as an ingredient in what I’m creating.
GO WITH the FLAVORS Things sort of clicked at that point. (I think I’ve always had an ability to match wine and food because I work with subtleties in the food and never overpower the wine. So now, I don’t plan the menu until a day or two before the event. That may seem a scary proposition if you’re preparing fifty dinners, but in fact it’s very comfortable for me to work that way. It’s intuitive, a natural progression. It’s not work for me, it’s how I create. Guests ask me, ‘How did you come up with that combination?’ and it’s hard for me to articulate. It’s hard to explain it, never mind teach it.
NAWLINS FOODIES People come in with certain expectations; they try the crayfish and may say, ‘Well, this isn’t jambalaya!’ We do use local ingredients, but with wine-friendly techniques, and it has been successful. The staff is executing it well on a day-to-day basis. New Orleans people are serious about food. They live and breathe it. They’ll tuck into a five-course meal and be talking about tomorrow’s lunch! I think, ‘Are you kidding me?’ For a chef, it’s perfect.
Next year, we’ll open in DC.
EXOTIC PRODUCE It’s easier to find nowadays. If we had to stick to New England produce year ’round, we’d be very limited. Reviewing the menu with the front staff here at the Sea Grille, I could see just how far we’ve expanded in the last few years. It has curries, ponzu, lemon grass, yuzu. That type of culinary fusion was beginning a few years ago, now it’s commonplace. We’re serving stylized empanadas, rangoons, spring rolls. We’re using unusual veggies such as salsify – a little starchy, wonderful foil for seafood – in a casserole with lobster and spinach. Yes, there are still tartares, carpaccios and crudos, too!
COOKING with SPIRIT and BREW Upstairs at Meritage it’s almost always wine, but downstairs at the Sea Grille we use some spirits in the cooking. Pernod works well with seafood. Mirin [rice wine] is in a couple of dishes, and pilsner beer – Stella Artois – in another. We have some artisan beers on the list. I love Dogfish ales like Raison D’Etre, and of course we have Buzzards Bay.
OFF the CUFF I ask Bruce whether some spirits are unusable in cuisine, and toss out Fernet Branca as an example. He thinks for about two seconds, then comes back with the following. What comes to mind when you say that is that I might use it to caramelize artichokes. Think about it, you could go with the flavors. I would shave the artichokes, sauté them in a nice olive oil with a little bit of garlic and a couple of herbs, then splash it with the Fernet . . . and serve it with grilled baguettes . . .
How about that?
EYEING TALENT The economy’s played a devil’s role the last couple of years. A lot of talented people are looking for a few jobs in our business. Or you could say, there’s a better labor pool for me to work with. (We have 36 on staff here). When I meet with a candidate, I look for a couple of things. There’s this passion, I know it when I see it. Then I look for speed, organization and cleanliness. After I speak with them, I do something unique: I have them work with me for two hours, even the chefs I hire in Washington and New Orleans. At the end of two hours I can tell; the way they approach food, the way they hold themselves, the glint in the eye. Today I interviewed a guy, 23, fast with his hands, inquisitive; I knew in ten minutes he had what it takes.
KIDS in the BIZ My kids see me happy in what I do. My son has been a busboy since he was 16. He likes the money, at least, and he enjoys the excitement, the adrenaline rush. It’s appealing, almost addictive, when you’re doing the covers quickly and it’s all going well. He may not end up in the business, but at least now he’s enjoying the tips!
PHILOSOPHY, SIMPLIFIED Yes, my matching style has changed. Everyone’s career goes through changes. I guess at one point I wanted to surprise – I won’t say ‘shock’ – people. Today there’s a trend to put together ingredients through technical skill, that don’t necessarily go together. I’ve never been a believer in that. I think there are natural combinations that work well together. I’d say I’ve simplified my style over the years. You need a certain confidence to do that. Everything has to be done so perfectly, that there’s not much room for error. Take a perfectly grilled and seasoned filet of fish – looks easy, but . . .