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From Frisée to Finance, It Has to Be Perfect

IN the middle of the kitchen at Daniel, a four-star restaurant on the Upper East Side, a set of steep stairs leads to a cozy little nook known as the skybox. It has one lacquered-wood table, room for four diners, a television and two large windows overlooking the action below. The space feels like the eating quarters of a yacht set in a tree house.

Mr. Boulud, second from left in foreground, is trying to balance thrift and quality for this site, his 10th restaurant.

The skybox is available to customers by special request, but on a recent afternoon, the chef and co-owner Daniel Boulud is sitting here in a white, double-breasted chef’s coat, ready for the latest round of taste tests for a restaurant called DBGB. His first foray into casual fare and his 10th restaurant, it is slated to open on the Lower East Side in about two weeks.

First up is a small dish of escargot and tomatoes topped with a puff pastry, which is set before him by Jim Leiken, 34, who will be in charge of DBGB’s kitchen.

“Did you hear the music?” Mr. Boulud asks as he studies the plate and grabs some silverware.

“Yeah, it sizzled,” Mr. Leiken replies.

Mr. Boulud chews for a moment, and then there is silence.

“I’m still not convinced,” he finally says, speaking with the sort of French accent that sounds authoritative in any discussion of flavor. “I mean, I love escargot and garlic, and all that. But I’m still thinking of doing a custard on the bottom and then a purée of escargot and then the puff pastry so you have almost a reverse tart.”

Known for his sumptuous menus and seamless service, Mr. Boulud — the name, brain and palate behind one of the country’s gold-plated dining empires — has already taken a bow for just about every round of applause that the industry has to offer. With the Dinex Group, a management company he co-founded, he and a team of managers and accountants oversee an operation with more than 900 employees in markets as far-flung as Beijing and Vancouver.

They have not misfired yet, but Mr. Boulud and his cadre might be trying their trickiest maneuver to date, creating DBGB at a moment that is smiling on fast food and little else. In this environment, you could forgive the man for cutting a few corners, or scaling back his ambitions.

But during Round 8 of recipe tests, on Tuesday, he refuses to grade on the curve. He stoically appraises entrees and appetizers in what feels like a marathon episode of “Top Chef” — except that this judge has helped conceive the dishes and never seems very pleased by the results.

The lamb ribs confit with roasted lamb leg and spring beans? “Maybe a little more herbs in it,” he suggests. The Maryland lump crab cake with a curry sauce and pickled radish? “More crab, less garnish.” The passion fruit crepe with mango slices? “We’re still not there.”

We sit across from Mr. Boulud, shamelessly pillaging the leftovers and thinking: huh? Each dish seems head-spinningly yummy, but Mr. Boulud summons enthusiasm only when he tries a sausage called the Vermonter, and he cracks a smile only after a forkful of beer-battered haddock beignets.

“I think it’s good,” he says, like a man enjoying a guilty pleasure.

A SELF-DESCRIBED “psycho” when it comes to details, Mr. Boulud, 54, had planned a Paris-meets-Texas diner before anyone had heard of credit-default swaps. The concept evolved a little, but not the price point. Homemade sausages and hamburgers will be the centerpiece at DBGB, and the average bill for a three-course meal will come to about $32, the price of an appetizer at Daniel, his flagship.

He brings to this enterprise something like home-field advantage, opening in the city that made him a culinary star. With that comes buzz; nearly every week, news about some element of the layout, design and construction of DBGB pops up on the most trafficked restaurant blogs in Manhattan.

But by Dinex Group’s own calculations, DBGB must generate $4.5 million a year in revenue to be profitable, not easy in a time that a spokesman for the National Restaurant Association called “the most challenging the restaurant industry has seen in several decades.” A consumer marketing firm, NPD, issued a report a few weeks back stating that national restaurant traffic had dropped for a second consecutive quarter.

“And there will be at least one more down quarter, maybe two,” says Harry Balzer, an NPD vice president.

In New York City, it’s been ugly at nearly all price levels.

“Does the word ‘bloodbath’ meaning anything to you?” asks Clark Wolf, a Manhattan restaurant consultant. “The fact is that if you built your restaurant business on all these Wall Street guys getting ridiculous bonuses selling stuff that turned out to be worth nothing, your business is in trouble.”

More than a few well-regarded New York restaurants, like Fleur de Sel and Bar Q, have closed in recent months, and many others are gasping. Gone are the days of private-room parties for 30 people, at $80 a head, with a few $1,500 bottles of wine.

Mr. Boulud isn’t the first to try to extend a gourmet brand from the high end to the affordable. He is hardly the most daring of those brand-extending chefs, either; his dishes are contemporary spins on French food, which he translates for Americans using ingredients rarely used in France, like Meyer lemons and risotto.

But nobody expects trailblazing invention from him, the sort associated with other French maestros. What distinguishes Mr. Boulud from his peers is that he emphasizes both hospitality and cooking.

“Daniel’s gift is that he’s actually interested in the people who are eating his food,” Mr. Wolf says. “It’s about his customers instead of his ego.”

IN late April, DBGB is a clamorous construction site near the corner of the Bowery and Houston Street on the ground floor of a new apartment building. You need to look under the plastic wrap that covers all the kitchen equipment to guess that a restaurant is being fabricated here. The dining room is a vast, concrete expanse. Men are drilling holes in the wall and ceiling, cutting sheets of metal, taking measurements. The leather banquettes are weeks from arrival, and there is still discussion about the design of the bar stools.

“It’s always like this,” says Dorothy Hom, who works for the company contracted to build DBGB. “It doesn’t look like a restaurant until right before you open the doors.”

Despite the name, which nods to CBGB, the famous punk rock club a block to the north, the restaurant’s design pays tribute to the area’s history as the restaurant supply center of New York. The walls will be lined with shelves and stocked with glasses and plates as well as pots and pans donated by great chefs from around the world. The kitchen is on the other side of the shelves, giving diners a semi-obstructed view of the cooking.

There is a weekly meeting here on Tuesday mornings, with Ms. Hom; Thomas Schlesser, the restaurant’s designer; Brett Traussi, the Dinex Group’s operations director; and Colin Alevras, DBGB’s sommelier. An agenda for the meeting is handed out, though it’s hard to hear anyone speaking over the din of saws and hammers.

You can hear enough to grasp that creating a restaurant is an endless series of decisions — the first few large (menu, location) and the next 7,000,000 tiny (where to hide an electrical cord). If there’s a guiding principle, it’s a preference for econo-class over luxury, without stinting on quality.

“This is a much smaller dishwasher than we’d like,” says Mr. Traussi, during a tour of the unfinished kitchen. “We also used a pot sink that was left over from the renovation of Daniel last year, and some old bar equipment, too.”

Plenty of decisions about DBGB are made on site at these Tuesday-morning meetings, but just as many come from the offices of the Dinex Group. Situated on the fourth floor of a Midtown building near Bryant Park, it has the open-air layout and décor of a dot-com start-up.

Many here are engaged in old-fashioned number-crunching — and there are plenty of numbers to crunch. After DBGB opens, there will be five New York restaurants, all of which are owned outright by Mr. Boulud and his partners. With the other restaurants — two in Vancouver, one each in Beijing, Palm Beach and Las Vegas — the company has management contracts with a variety of terms.

“When we manage a restaurant, we start making money from the first day,” Mr. Boulud explains. “When we own a place, it’s often five years before we earn the first penny that is clean of debt.”

Each restaurant is assigned a bookkeeper to track payroll and food costs. Alarms ring whenever gross margins drop below 10 percent. The chefs in each restaurant, all of whom Mr. Boulud has trained, have wide latitude when it comes to spending on ingredients, but if margins sag, forensic accounting will ensue.

“A few years ago, at Cafe Boulud, we couldn’t figure out why margins were so bad month after month,” says Lili Lynton, one of Mr. Boulud’s two partners. “Even the chef was baffled. We looked at everything and we finally realized — it was this reduction sauce, a really expensive reduction sauce, with truffles and mushrooms, which was in a bunch of dishes. Who would have thought? We figured it was the fish or the chicken or the meat. It was like a game of Clue, and the culprit was the gravy.”

A LOVE for minutiae is apparently a job requirement in this company. Consider the “mustard caddy,” a relish tray for DBGB that has taken months to design and is still a work in progress.

“Here’s the latest prototype,” says Michael Lawrence, assistant director of operations, sitting in a Dinex conference room. He has just retrieved an unadorned, dark-stained box, about 6 inches square and 4 inches deep.

“This is based on a sketch that Daniel drew — he’s a pretty good draftsman — and then we have a guy in upstate New York who will make them,” he said.

The idea was to build a snug little home for the collection of bottles, which will include two or three types of mustard, as well as ketchup, salt and vinegar. The box had to be durable, too.

“We were in here the other day slamming this box on the floor,” Mr. Lawrence says. “We also soaked it in water because these things are going to get wet.” He looked at the box with a bit of pride. “It warped a little but it stayed together.”

Mr. Lawrence has also taken the lead in choosing background music for DBGB, which he’s doing with Ear Networks, a company run out of the Hell’s Kitchen apartment-home office of Robert Drake, a sound engineer. The two have been fine-tuning the playlist for weeks, choosing from 45,000 songs in Mr. Drake’s library.

A few days after the mustard-caddy discussion, Mr. Lawrence invited a reporter along for a visit to Ear Networks, where he and Mr. Drake would designate tracks as “lunch,” “dinner” or “late night.” Generally speaking, the quiet stuff is lunch music — because nobody has been drinking — with livelier songs at dinner, and becoming more boisterous as the night wears on.

Mr. Drake clicked his mouse, and “Cowgirl in the Sand” by Neil Young blasted from the speakers.

“Late night or dinner?” Mr. Lawrence asked, shouting over the song.

“You tell me,” Mr. Drake said. “I was going to put it for dinner.”

“Yeah, it’s dinner, you’re right.”

In the end, DBGB will have a library of 4,000 songs and a sound system that can control the volume in different sections of the room.

For restaurants, music is one way to influence who shows up, or at least who comes back. You can aim at a demographic group by playing music that was beloved by its members when they were about 15 years old — the age when fandom typically leaves its most vivid tattoo. By that logic, DBGB is not exactly laying a welcome mat for the just-out-of-college set. There is little in the playlist that was recorded in the last 10 years.

That is no accident.

“It’s hard to get a liquor license around here, as you may know,” Mr. Traussi says, “and one of the things I heard when I canvassed people who live here is, ‘You’ll get kids in trucker hats and they’re never going to eat food and you’re going to turn into a bar before you know it.’ I think that’s an important concern. We’re not looking for that kid, right out of school who is 22 or 23. I think music is an important way to run a food-centric restaurant rather than a bar-centric restaurant.”

THE high-energy, persnickety style of the Dinex Group flows directly from the top. Mr. Boulud has a hard time ignoring the tiniest imperfections, and a harder time taking a day off. He describes the latter quality as a quirk that he really needs to work on.

Standing on East 65th Street near Park Avenue, on the sidewalk beside Daniel, he gestured to the apartment where he lives with his wife, Michelle. (The couple have a college-age daughter, Alix.) The apartment is almost directly above the dining room, a lifestyle choice that only a workaholic would make.

“I’m crazy,” he says with a shrug, pointing to where he lives. He spins one hand as if it holds a screwdriver. “I’ve got to fix myself.”

A 5-foot-6ish guy with the good looks of an anchorman and the eyewear of an architect, Mr. Boulud is an affable glad-hander when he’s working the front of the room, with an amazing ability to remember names and a warmth that can’t be faked. In the kitchen, he is serious and intense. He’s never been tantrum-prone like Gordon Ramsay, the British chef and reality-TV star, but he has said he’s capable of a good 10-second outburst.

He doesn’t seem particularly comfortable talking about himself or the source of his exacting standards. What he will say is that he’s been the same way since childhood, growing up on a 50-acre farm outside Lyon, France. He and his family raised chickens, goats and guinea fowl and grew vegetables and grains.

The farm taught him the fine art of frugality, a skill not normally associated with artistes of the kitchen. Everything was either consumed or repurposed, he recalls. If there was soup left over from dinner, you threw in some vegetables and bread and fed it to the pigs.

“A lot of chefs don’t have a natural sense of economy,” he says. “I was with one guy the other day and I had to show him how to peel a turnip, because the way he was peeling turnips, he was throwing half of it in the garbage. It’s not about being cheap. It’s about being proper.”

Mr. Boulud ran his first restaurant in Denmark, in 1980, and was executive chef at Le Cirque in Manhattan from 1986 to 1993. When he decided to light out on his own, Ms. Lynton, a longtime friend of Mr. Boulud’s wife and then a researcher at a Wall Street brokerage firm, offered to help put together a business plan and look for investors.

At the time, she was married to a man with a very wealthy uncle named Joel Smilow, who in 1992 retired from a business career that included plenty of leveraged buyouts and a stint as the president and C.E.O. of Playtex.

“I call myself a retired brassiere salesman,” says Mr. Smilow, now 76.

Already an active philanthropist, he was looking at the time for new investments that met two criteria: the venture had to be profitable, and it had to be fun. Mr. Smilow decided that Mr. Boulud’s venture would fit the bill if, and only if, he was the sole backer.

“I felt like if there were six investors, they wouldn’t get along with each other and they’d make life hell for the guy they were backing,” he explains. “That happens more often than not when it comes to restaurants.”

Mr. Smilow chipped in the roughly $2.5 million needed to open Daniel in its original location, on East 76th Street near Madison Avenue, the current home of Cafe Boulud, and he has bankrolled every subsequent opening or, in the case of DBGB, helped guarantee a bank loan. Naturally, Mr. Smilow gets the visiting-potentate treatment at all Boulud restaurants, not to mention bragging rights.

Years ago, Mr. Smilow attended a dinner party at a friend’s house in Florida, and the guests included Preston Robert Tisch, then a co-owner of the New York Giants. After the meal, over a cup of coffee in the living room, the two compared investments.

“Bob was a friend of mine and I said: ‘Bob, in a certain way, I think the same joy and pride you get by being co-owner of the Giants is what I have in my partnership with Daniel and the restaurants. The only difference is that every night we’re in the Super Bowl. And every night we win.’ ”

NOT surprisingly, the Dinex Group has a very precise idea of how busy DBGB must be. It needs to fill each of its 140 dining seats twice on high-traffic nights (Thursday, Friday and Saturday) and 1.25 times on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Anything in excess of those numbers — say 2.25 seatings on a Saturday night — is money in the bank. There are similar calculations for lunch.

Seated in his skybox at Daniel on Tuesday, Mr. Boulud finished his nibble-a-thon with a thumbs-down for a crepe with a brownielike chocolate center. (“It needs to be muddier.”) Then he tried to sound upbeat about his chances for succeeding in the worst economic environment in generations. Mostly, though, he exuded the uneasiness of a man who is unwilling to take much comfort in the winning streak of his past.

“It’s indulgence on a dime instead of indulgence on a dollar,” he said, summing up DBGB. Then he laughed and added, “Let’s hope we have it right.”