Who Stole the Squeeze Bottle? Exquisite Mayhem at Daniel

The Fourth Star: Dispatches from Inside Daniel Boulud’s Celebrated New York Restaurant , by Leslie Brenner. Clarkson Potter, 314 pages, $25.

Midway through Leslie Brenner’s The Fourth Star: Dispatches from Inside Daniel Boulud’s Celebrated New York Restaurant -let’s say somewherearound Chapter5,”In the Weeds”-I began to feel it was time for a murder. Not a real murder, of course-I don’t want anyone Inside Daniel Boulud’s Celebrated New York Restaurant to die-but a murder for narrative purposes, to juice up the story. Round about then, it needed it.

“It’s just before noon,” Ms. Brenner writes, “and Julie, the hot-apps and pasta cook, having just returned from visiting her boyfriend in Austin, Texas, wipes down her station in preparation for lunch service. ‘Somebody got an extra squeeze bottle?’ she says. ‘What?’ says David, the fish entremétier . ‘My squeeze bottle was stolen; let’s just put it that way.'”

Doesn’t that sound like a set-up to you? Why couldn’t Julie or David, just at that moment, have cracked from the strain and run amok in Daniel Boulud’s Celebrated Kitchen? I can’t tell you which kitchen it was exactly, since there are so many at Daniel, Mr. Boulud’s East 65th Street establishment. There are also corners, cubbyholes, alcoves, stairs, cellars, corridors, prep tables, garde-mangers and mise-en-places , and each is used for a different purpose in the production of Mr. Boulud’s haute-very haute-cuisine.

David, for instance, at the start of “In the Weeds,” a chapter devoted loosely to mushrooms and vegetables, “is using the poaching liquid in which he cooked some radishes to make a sauce for today’s salmon special-Roasted Salmon with Slow-Roasted Vidalia Onions, Braised Radishes, Olive Oil, and a Lemon Emulsion.”

Bear in mind that this is one of the simpler dishes at Daniel. Most of them contain ingredients so refined and so artfully put together-“unctuous roasted baby eggplants” and “zebra-striped mackerel,” “black trumpet mushrooms, walnuts, and a sauce made with three types of pumpkin,” “sea scallops, oysters, and sea urchins, with osetra caviar, pink radish, and celery leaves in a horseradish-lime water”-that you can only take Ms. Brenner’s word for it when she says that they’re delicious, which she does a lot. In the circumstances, Julie has every right to ask David for a squeeze bottle: “She has removed the germ from each garlic clove and blanched them three times, changing the water each time. That done, she turns to sautéing yellow-foot chanterelles for the risotto.”

A little farther on, “Damien, a new French garde-manger cook, has poured the baby eels into a big wooden saladier ,” while Kevin-also at the garde-manger -calls out: “Frank! You got the blinis coming, man? I need those blinis, please !” Then the phone rings.

“Yeah, what do you want?” says Alex Lee, Mr. Boulud’s right-hand man in the kitchen(s). “Can I talk to you after lunch? Okay.” The narrative proceeds: “He hangs up, spoons risotto into a plate. ‘Order tartare and a risotto, followed by a halibut and a bass.'” Frank, meanwhile, has ruined the soups; “[f]or Julie, things aren’t much better.” And Ethel Kennedy’s in the dining room!

You can see how the situation might be ripe for murder. (Indeed, on the night President Clinton came to dinner at Daniel, one of the staff remarked, gesturing toward the kitchen, “Our knives are in there , if they’re looking for weapons.”) But no: Ethel gets her meal, Kevin gets his blinis, and Julie-well, Julie is one of the more likable and memorable characters in a book so filled with chefs, sous-chefs, cooks, sauciers, sommeliers, peelers, dicers, wipers, “runners” and waiters that you’ll be lucky if you remember three or four of them by name (never mind what they did) by the time you’ve finished reading.

Please don’t conclude from this that there’s something wrong with Ms. Brenner’s book, or even that I didn’t enjoy it. I did. I just wanted it in smaller portions. Ms. Brenner spent a whole year (2000) inside Daniel; she’s a good reporter, and that she manages to make The Fourth Star as interesting as she does is no minor achievement. If, as Woody Allen allegedly once said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” then reading about food is like wishing you’d been there to eat it. It can’t really be rendered in words. And there are only so many ways to depict the chaos at the back of any restaurant-even when you’re working in two languages, as Ms. Brenner is. For every Kevin calling for a blini, someone else is crying in French, “Chaud! Chaud! Chaud!” “Aïe, aïe, aïe!” or-Mr. Boulud himself here- “Vas-y, vas-y! Arrête tes conneries!” , which Ms. Brenner helpfully translates as “Stop your bullshit!”

For the record, the fourth star of Ms. Brenner’s title refers to the highest rating bestowed on restaurants by The New York Times , whose food critic, William Grimes, has just failed to do so for Daniel when the narrative begins. You know by page 3 that this inconceivable blow to Mr. Boulud’s ego will be remedied even if it kills him (and everyone else). So there’s no real tension in the story, just chapters organized thematically around all the screaming-one on wine, one on cleanliness (very interesting), “Commerce,” pay scales and “Wanderlust” (the tendency of all restaurant workers, from highest to lowest, to hop from joint to joint).

Only occasionally does Ms. Brenner seem to understand how preposterous the whole thing is, as when David, laying out his onions “on a sheet pan lined with Silpat-a silicon-coated baking liner that professional cooks use for roasting all kinds of vegetables”-wonders out loud “why home cooks don’t use them more, since they’re available in housewares stores.” Ms. Brenner answers parenthetically: “Perhaps it’s the twenty-five-dollar price tag per liner.”

Yes, perhaps it is. That’s another reason I found myself wishing for a murder. Since the only characters in The Fourth Star whose names have been changed for their own protection are the customers, who pay upwards of $200 a head to eat at Daniel, the victim would have to be one of their rank. Do I need to add that this would be the perfect summer for it?

Peter Kurth is the author of Isadora: A Sensational Life (Little Brown & Co.).

Who Stole the Squeeze Bottle? Exquisite Mayhem at Daniel