Daniel Boulud and other chefs serve food to first responders after the attacks in September 2001
Gray Kunz (far left), Daniel Boulud (center), and other chefs serve food to first responders after the attacks in September 2001. (Courtesy Daniel Boulud)

Daniel Boulud on Feeding First Responders in the Aftermath of 9/11

The New York–based French chef says food was a means of comfort and strength for workers on the frontlines in the weeks following the attacks.
By Cynthia Rosenfeld
September 9, 2021
6 minute read

After working at various five-star restaurants in Europe throughout the 1970s (and for two years, as a private chef in Washington, D.C.), French chef Daniel Boulud at long last moved to New York City in 1982. About a decade later, in May 1993, he went on to establish his eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Since then, his seasonal dishes, which are rooted in traditions from his native Lyon, have earned him global culinary renown and inspired more than a dozen restaurants around the world—including nine in New York.

Boulud’s belief in food as a means for comfort extends far beyond his customers. Upon seeing the events unfold on September 11, 2001, he mobilized his staff to deliver food to frontline workers that very day. Soon, he was working alongside others from the restaurant community to make hot meals for people at ground zero 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for nearly a month after the attacks. Here, Boulud recalls the humbling experience of doing so, and how the pandemic has offered a strikingly similar opportunity to serve those in need.

“Since I first came to this city, I’ve always tried to be a good New Yorker. On the morning of September 11, I was getting ready for work. We lived above Daniel, on 65th Street. Suddenly I could hear the sirens of fire trucks and police along Park Avenue, and saw what was happening on television. Immediately, I started to call everyone on our team to make sure they were safe.

I don’t know how, but Tim Zagat [co-founder of the Zagat restaurant guides] managed to convene a meeting that afternoon, with all of us chefs around a conference table in Midtown. Danny Meyer was there, as was Drew Nieporent, Charlie Palmer, Gray Kunz, and many, many others. At that time, only Tim and [his wife,] Nina, had those connections, long before we thought in terms of social networks. ‘Firemen and police need food,’ Tim said. So we started to make sandwiches with the leftover food we suddenly had in our kitchens, because our restaurants had to shut down. The police gave us the okay to pass through the blockade around the United Nations building, and head for lower Manhattan.

I went to a police precinct and a fire station on the east side of Wall Street, near Chinatown, with my boxes of sandwiches. I offered them to firefighters, police officers, and others who came in and out from the World Trade Center to those stations, looking for a clean place [to rest]. We fed them, starting with those sandwiches, filled with chicken, smoked salmon, ham, or vegetables. I have bakers, and I had charcutiers at the time, and we improvised. The next day, we made more sandwiches. Then we had a meeting to figure out how we could make hot food for these thousands of rescue workers and others who were downtown by chance that morning, and stayed to help.

Don Pintabona [then the chef at Tribeca Grill] called a ship captain he knew, and we were soon given use of two Spirit Cruises boats, the kind that normally take sightseers around Manhattan. We got the biggest one they had—a triple-decker—and turned it into a floating kitchen that went back and forth from the Chelsea Piers to the World Financial Center marina at ground zero. We started cooking hot food on a twenty-four-hour, nonstop basis, and did so for nearly a month. Suppliers brought us vegetables and meats that we could cook, grill, and roast.

Within a day, we’d set up a buffet line over two decks of the boats. People could come aboard by tender to get a nourishing hot meal, then go back out into the wreckage again. We served every kind of cuisine you can imagine, because so many communities wanted to help. Chinese chefs cycled over balancing bags upon bags of dim sum. I remember Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] delivered a massive cooler of chili con carne that we heated up and passed around. I still meet firefighters who remember how we fed them.

One day I’ll never forget is when a van just showed up. Someone popped the back doors open, and it was stacked to the top with pizzas! They were from the owner of a pizzeria in one of the neighborhoods where many of the firefighters lived—he had all the connections to bypass the blockades everywhere around ground zero. This kind of community service was New York City at its finest.

Food really kept people together down there, and we cooked it with a sense of nurturing, with great care, and with immense admiration. We could see the transformation in those who came aboard. What we fed them gave them a lot of strength to go back out, and to do more. They were just working beyond belief.

I was so disturbed by the magnitude of the attacks. I would walk home to the Upper East Side at 3 a.m., and it felt like returning from hell to civilization. At first, everything felt surreal and scary. But within a week, we reopened Daniel. The mood, of course, was somber, but it felt good for people to gather.

When the pandemic hit, in March 2020, I again wanted to help first responders—but before that, we had to furlough more than seven hundred and fifty people, and I worried about them. By April, Mark Holliday, my business partner [in the recently opened seafood restaurant Le Pavillon], had put one million dollars toward making and delivering meals, and his team took care of the logistics of doing so. The result is our Food1st Foundation, which has helped feed emergency workers and other people with limited access to food by partnering with around thirty restaurants throughout New York City, and delivering meals to more than one hundred locations around the five boroughs. We always serve a good, healthy protein with a freshly made sauce. It’s no different from how I feed my restaurant customers: We’re delivering comfort, by cooking food with soul and substance.”