It all started innocently enough. Months and months ago, we asked chef par excellence Daniel Boulud if he’d be down to school us on the art of the French picnic. We’d go to Central Park, put out a little nosh, and take a few photos. No big deal.
Yeah, not so much. In case you haven’t heard, Boulud has kind of a reputation for going all in—a real “go big or go home” sort of character. And when I got on the phone with the chef to rap about his vision for a proper picnic, it became abundantly clear that our afternoon in the park was going to be more involved than baguettes and Boursin. Like, a lot more. Like, three-courses-and-rosé-and-the-most-beautiful-apricot-tart-you’ve-ever-seen more. He offered to have the cooks at Epicerie Boulud, his Upper West Side eat-in and take-out market, prepare the spread. I didn’t hate the idea.
And so it happened. If you’ve ever wondered how America’s favorite French chef does a picnic, look no further. Behold: Daniel Boulud’s perfect picnic, in three acts.
“Going on a picnic is about luxury—the luxury of time,” Boulud told me. In that spirit, the chef likes to casually course out the food over a long, lazy afternoon rather than putting it all out at once. “I like to start with a little aperitif and a light snack,” he said. To get the party started, he laid out some celery heart and radish crudités with a tangy, yogurt dip, and some salty pistachios for nibbling. And bread, of course: tear-and-eat pretzel bread and deceptively light cheese straws were an obvious choice. Oh yeah, a whole loaf of wheat bread that was hollowed out and filled with tiny smoked salmon and cream cheese finger sandwiches—”pain surprise” (see above photo, bottom right) he called it—because, well, what’s a picnic without sandwiches?
There was a bottle of fiery, anise-scented Pernod and, since it’s a bad idea to drink liquor on an empty stomach, a length of hard, funky saucisson sec. “There is not a single aperitif in France that is not served with saucisson,” Boulud insisted, “I must have my saucisson.” Oui, chef!
After Boulud’s idea of a “light snack” (which most humans would have considered a pretty epic meal in and of itself), it was time for “lunch.” When it comes to picnic protein, the chef leans towards something that can be served at room temperature, so a simple roast chicken with herb-y mayo, tufts of grassy watercress, and cold, roasted asparagus was an obvious choice. “You can cook and carve it the night before or the morning of, and it will be delicious,” says Boulud, “and make sure to incorporate the roasting juices from the chicken into the mayo.” Wow.
Vegetable-wise, Boulud likes to serve sturdy salads that benefit from a bit of marinating, or at least won’t suffer if they sit out: a haricot vert and roasted beet salad with goat cheese, pecans, and a red wine vinaigrette fit the bill nicely, as did a pile of verdant English peas and poached carrots mounted on top of a bright pea pesto. Boulud is insistent about setting out condiments. “I always bring small bottles of olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper, and some harissa, so people can add spice if they want,” he says. We drank cold rosé, natch (“If you can picnic by a river or stream and chill your wine in it, do,” says Boulud) and tore off hunks of crusty baguette to mop up the chicken juices.
After the last of lunch had been nibbled and cleared, it was time for dessert. The chef clarified that, under normal picnicking circumstances, one person shouldn’t be responsible for bringing all the food; delegation is key. “Tell one friend to bring cheese, and tell another to just bring a beautiful stone fruit tart, since stone fruit is beautiful in the early summer.” Boulud’s friends sound great. His team had assembled a beautiful puff pastry tart with ripe, juicy apricots that tasted like summer sunshine, and we had a trio of fromage—a nutty comté, a satisfyingly funky wedge of Fourme d’Ambert, and a rich, runny wheel that we had to chase in the heat—to snack on afterwards. Fruit, too, is a picnic-must for the chef. “Quality fruit, whatever looks good, is what a summer picnic is all about,” he says. “You want to pick things that are ripe but not too juicy. Peaches are delicious, but what a mess!”
Delirious after such an indulgent feast, I couldn’t help but recall a bit of advice Boulud had mentioned when we first talked about this whole thing: “If you’re only two people having a romantic picnic, you want to not bring too much food. Keep it light, in case you want to roll in the grass afterwards.” Judging by the spread he had laid out for the two of us, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the chef’s feelings towards yours truly were pretty unambiguous. Oh well. It was quite a nice afternoon, regardless.