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A culinary mystery on the California coast

As chef-owner of Restaurant Daniel, a Michelin three-star eatery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Daniel Boulud is more adept than most at handling pressure. Preparing to serve a roomful of foodies who’ve spent $1,250 apiece on dinner, he bounds around the kitchen, sniffing and eyeballing elements of his veal-based entrée—braised cheeks, licoriced sweetbreads and roasted tenderloin—with an attitude that borders on the blithe.

The occasion is Pebble Beach Food & Wine, an annual culinary festival on California’s Monterey Peninsula. Boulud is one of five boldface-name chefs selected to prepare a tribute dinner for Thomas Keller, the force behind Per Se and The French Laundry (both of which have been deemed three-star establishments by Michelin) and the recipient of more awards than you can shake a ladle at.

As plating begins, Boulud is approached by one of his assistants, who leans in and says something that causes the celebrity chef to stiffen: “There may not be enough tenderloin.”

The two men huddle for a while, alternately nodding and shaking their heads, regarding the plates before them with frowns of concentration. They appear to be working on mathematical problems—slice-to-plate algorithms, plate-to-person bell curves. Thinner slices, Boulud eventually decrees, is not an option.

Then, as abruptly as it began, the tension subsides. A miscalculation had been made. The tenderloin was there all along. “Ha!” respond Boulud and his assistant. “Ha-ha!”

Later, out in the dining room, the famously hard-to-please Keller takes a bite of Boulud’s veal. “The execution and presentation are perfect,” he says. “I smiled as soon as I tasted it.” Boulud doesn’t hear the compliment; he’s somewhere else, immersed in a flute of champagne. —MICHAEL KAPLAN

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