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At Art Basel, Michelin-Starred Chef Daniel Boulud Goes Back to Square One With Artist Vik Muniz

December 5, 2019, 5:00 PM UTC
With two Michelin stars, five James Beard awards, and restaurants all over the world, Boulud is generally not in the position of having to impress his guests. But the stakes at Art Basel are higher. Tasos Katopodis—Getty Images for Ruinart
Tasos Katopodis—Getty Images for Ruinart

Art Basel Miami Beach draws art lovers and hangers-on from all over the world, but it’s not often that an artist showing work there engages with a fan for more than a selfie. Or that the fan is a two-star Michelin chef. Or that the artist and the fan spent a weekend together in an abandoned house in Sarasota before heading down to the festival. 

Such is Daniel Boulud’s appreciation for Vik Muniz, a São Paulo–born artist who works with unconventional materials—chocolate syrup, dust, fallen leaves. This week, Boulud, the French-born chef lauded for his namesake fine-dining restaurant in New York, took a break from running his 15-venue, multimillion-dollar haute cuisine business to hole up in the kitchen of his Miami restaurant and suss out how to make a moqueca, a Brazilian fish stew, worthy of his friend.

Muniz and Boulud met in 2007, when Boulud was getting ready to open Bar Boulud, the French Brasserie and wine bar across from New York’s Lincoln Center. The chef needed artwork; a friend of his knew an artist.

Vik Muniz attends Ruinart x Vik Muniz Art Basel Miami Beach Champagne Fête at Miami Beach Botanical Garden on Dec. 4, 2019.
Tasos Katopodis—Getty Images for Ruinart

“My assistant was working with his assistant, but then Vik said, ‘No, the two of us have to do this together,’ so we organized a dinner party,” Boulud recalls, rolling up the sleeves of his chef’s whites to filet a yard-long red snapper. They organized a dinner party at Muniz’s studio in Brooklyn. (Muniz splits time between there and Rio de Janeiro.) Cindy Sherman came, so did David Byrne. “I made all the food, I brought a lot of good wine, Vik also had his own wine,” says Boulud. “Between a dozen people, we went through 25 bottles.”

Things happen at a dinner party like that. “Vik took a little bit of wine and made a stain on a napkin,” Boulud says. “He started making stains with vintage Burgundy, with Bordeaux.” A lightbulb flicked on in two heads at once: Here was the art that would hang on the walls of Bar Boulud. It still does, circular splotches in varying shades of burgundy, framed and illuminated by track lighting. Their next collaboration took place in 2015, when Boulud made a moqueca for a New York City art event honoring Muniz, riffing on a recipe that he learned while vacationing in Brazil decades ago. Eight hundred guests were in attendance, many of them Brazilian.

“This was the most daring thing to do because this stew is almost like their national dish,” Boulud says, spooning a marinade of palm oil, garlic, and ginger over the fish. “I was cooking in the side chapel of St. John the Divine,” where the event was held. Why put himself up for such a high-pressure gig? “As I got to know Vik, and see the breadth of his work, the creativity process behind it, I was blown away by his genius.” Sliding the fish into a pot of sizzling onions and peppers, he continues, “His art is almost like a form of recycling. How do you repurpose something to create art?”

Food being plated during Ruinart x Vik Muniz Art Basel Miami Beach Champagne Fête at Miami Beach Botanical Garden on Dec. 4, 2019.
Tasos Katopodis—Getty Images for Ruinart

Muniz was ruminating on the idea of repurposing materials from the natural world with his latest job: serving as the 2019 artist in residence for Ruinart, France’s oldest Champagne house, founded in 1729. He used blackened wood, charcoal, and leaves that had fallen from Chardonnay vines to create images intended to evoke how time and the elements change wine, people, and, sure, the world writ large. When Ruinart’s powers that be asked Muniz who he’d like to prepare the food at an Art Basel Miami Beach sale of his work (proceeds of which went to a Brazilian organization fighting to protect the Amazon rain forest), Muniz offered one option.

“He’s a kindred spirit,” Muniz says of Boulud. “We both have this puckish personality. He’s very positive, he’s a doer. You’re going to hear a lot about us doing things together.”

It’s not just altruism or fanboy-osis that made Boulud agree to whip up another moqueca (this time for 500 guests, including the models Karolina Kurkova and Joan Smalls). “Because I have a restaurant in Miami, Art Basel is a part of my life,” Boulud says, pouring a can of coconut milk into the pot. “It’s crucial to have a presence at this event,” where collectors of art convene with aficionados of other things—fine wine, watches, cars, cuisine. Plus, the gig gave him and Muniz an excuse to rendezvous in Sarasota and go to the Ringling Museum, where they posed for photos in front of paintings of the circus (arms aloft, grinning wide) and stuck their heads in cardboard cutouts of carnies. “It was just for fun,” Boulud says. “It’s the type of thing you do with a good friend.”

Cocktail hour at Ruinart x Vik Muniz Art Basel Miami Beach Champagne Fête at Miami Beach Botanical Garden on Dec. 4, 2019.
Tasos Katopodis—Getty Images for Ruinart

He dips a spoon into the pot and deems the stew in need of more heat. A sous chef hustles over with a ramekin of sliced Fresno chiles. “I like to do things that are not always conventional to what we do,” Boulud says, scattering cilantro leaves over the pot. “Does everything I do represent my restaurants? No, but this represents the relationship between me and Vik, how I love his country, how I love the food of his country, the people of his country, and his art. And I love the fact that he created art around something so incredible as Ruinart.”

He squeezes a half a lime into the pot, takes another taste, and nods decisively. “Et voilà, it’s homey, perfect. Now all we need is some Champagne.”

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