An Interview with David and Karen Waltuck, Chanterelle | Melissa Seley

from Gastronomica 10:4

Husband-and-wife team David and Karen Waltuck ran Chanterelle, one of New York City’s most influential restaurants, for thirty years, first in SoHo, then in Tribeca. At a time when all-male wait staffs and strict adherence to French renditions were ubiquitous, the Waltucks pioneered something else: a fine-dining restaurant where customers could feel comfortable and eat locally sourced food. In 2009, when the economy plummeted, Chanterelle’s investors decided to back out rather than proceed with a scheduled renovation. The Waltucks sold off all of Chanterelle’s inventory, from the famous oak wardrobe to the chandeliers and forks. Now David consults at Robert, the restaurant in the New Museum of Art and Design, while Karen ponders their next move.

Melissa Seley: What early influences helped shape Chanterelle?

David Waltuck: From a young age I was very interested in nouvelle cuisine. I’d read about it, thought about it, tried things. Gault and Millau, the early proponents of nouvelle cuisine, published a journal I liked, Gault et Millau, which listed the rules you had to follow. I also collected a fairly cheap series of cookbooks, very much thrown together and all in French, by Troisgrois, Chapel, Girard, Verger.

After Karen and I fell in love, we went to France and at least twice to Alain Chapel’s and Fernand Point’s restaurants. I’ve always had a romantic and romanticized idea about restaurants and cooking. Certainly about La Pyramide and the chefs who came out of there—Chapel, Bocuse, Girard, the Troisgros brothers. Essentially, you’d drive along this suburban, gritty Lyons road with lots of traffic. You’d come to a rather nondescript place and realize you had stepped into a beautiful garden. It’s cloistered, serene, and quiet.

Matthew Barney, Drawing Restraint 9, 2005. Menu cover for Chanterelle, 2005.Production still © 2005 Matthew Barney. Photo: Chris Kinget. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York

The appointments are well thought out, perfect. A number of things were happening in the food compositions, which were clearly arranged to make some point, but you couldn’t necessarily figure out what that was, so the food had an intellectual quality. It was particularly notable that the staff seemed formal, serious. At the same time there was an element of playfulness at Taillevent or Troisgros, where it was like, “We’re a great restaurant. You’re here. We’re going to take care of you. Relax. No problem.”

Karen Waltuck: There’s a story about chefs from the Point group sending a model to lunch at Chapel’s. She went to the bathroom, took off all her clothes, and sat at the table with nothing on. The waiters didn’t bat an eyelash. She finished the lunch nude. I thought, “That’s where it’s at. You don’t care what the person is dressed in or who has what.” What do I care if you want salt on the table? It’s your experience. Whatever it is, who cares?

We never said, “Oh, we’ll open a fancy schmancy restaurant.” It ended up that way because we loved the feeling of thoughtfulness. But we’re not like that. We’re Bronx kids.

MS: When you were first experimenting in restaurant kitchens, what kinds of things did you cook?

DW: I was cooking lunch at La Petite Ferme, so I was free in the evenings. Karen and I were living in this tiny Upper East Side apartment. Every few months we’d invite six people for a grand dinner. I’d make the food that ultimately became the food at Chanterelle—seafood sausage, crabs with sorrel, sweetbreads with orange. There weren’t many things I made at those dinners that I wouldn’t feel comfortable making now, in some version. Maybe I incorporate more Asian ingredients; otherwise I don’t think my style of cooking has changed much.

MS: How did your transition from cooking at home to cooking for others come about?

DW: I was at the Culinary Institute of America. A friend, Bill Katz, was doing sets and costumes for dance. In the summer of 1977 there was a benefit thrown by the Little Italy Restoration Association to raise money for the Louis Falco Dance Company and to landmark the police headquarters on Centre Street. Jacqueline Onassis was involved. Bill asked me, “Why don’t you make the food?” There were seven hundred guests. I didn’t have that kind of experience—I was twenty-one—but I gathered a bunch of my friends from school. It was fun. We used the kitchen at Lombardi’s on Spring Street and cooked all night. I boned out suckling pigs, made a forcemeat, stuffed the pigs, and roasted them. The meal was all over the place, Middle Eastern and French. After that, Bill encouraged Karen and me to open a restaurant. I’d only worked a few years in other people’s places, so it was ballsy in a way, but it didn’t feel like that at the time. It felt like, “Let’s just do it.”

MS: You started out with so little money. How did you do it?

DW: It didn’t feel fraught. We looked for a place in SoHo because it was inexpensive, still a fringe neighborhood. At first we found a large space on Grand Street in the middle of the block, up some stairs. We were moving in the direction of taking it when we had an epiphany, of self-doubt to some degree: it was like, “This is just too big.” Then we found the place on Grand and Green, a corner bodega. It was beautiful. It didn’t require much because it had a lot of character and details we just had to restore. The elaborate tin ceiling. The chandeliers we got on the Bowery. The curtains. The big windows. The columns. We signed the lease in May 1979 and opened November 14.

KW: The first Wednesday was a nightmare. Everyone was in the dining room—Gael Greene, Giorgio DeLuca, Joel Dean, Sonia Rykiel. David had one dishwasher, who was also his sous-chef, and whom he thought should only work during the day. So it was just David in the kitchen.

DW: We didn’t think we were going to be busy.

KW: The stove kept going out. He’d put a rack of lamb in—ten minutes later it was raw. I was doing the books, answering the phone. At some point someone said, “You know, dishwashers could help you vacuum too.” I was like, “Oh, right. That would be good.”

I felt strongly that if somebody called, you had to take them first, you couldn’t cater to celebs, which may or may not have been stupid on my part. Speaking of being stupid about business, I also felt you had to have one table open in the dining room awaiting someone.

MS: Where did you get that idea?

KW: I felt no one should wait. We wanted a ma-and-pa place. It was a type of business with a tradition, so it was very natural. I’m outgoing. David’s quiet. He hated coming out into the dining room. He doesn’t make small talk. He’s not arrogant. Sometimes stagiares would work in the kitchen for a while without realizing he was the chef.

MS: Were you conscious about reacting against the status quo?

KW: No. We loved our New York. We loved that downtown gave us the backdrop to do what we wanted. That’s what New York is, “Do whatever the hell you want. No one cares.” In the best sense.

The Four Seasons had one female server at the time. No one else had female waiters. But we loved New York’s diversity, so that’s how we hired. I never hired full-time. I felt you needed to be happy with what you were doing with your life; otherwise, you wouldn’t be happy at the restaurant. David always said, “The bitterness gets in the soup.” We didn’t have fancy uniforms, but the silver and china were fancy. The service was elegant, careful but not snobby.

We didn’t have a dress code, which everyone had back then. People had ties and coats in the closet you had to wear. We were like, “You must be joking. What, are you going to have your menu in French? Who the hell are we? People don’t speak French. Who cares if you want your meat incinerated? I don’t care. What do I have to prove?”

The person I’d say who is interested in the same style but who has codified it is Danny Meyer [of Union Square Hospitality Group]. A lot of things we did worked themselves into the mainstream. An integrated staff. Unpretention. Cheese! There were no cheese plates at that time in New York.

DW: You know, people make fun of nouvelle cuisine as excessive big plates, small food compositions and outlandish combinations. While there’s truth to that, in the hands of a master it’s amazing. Anybody less, it gets silly. I’m pretty damn sure Ferran Adrià came up through a system whereby he learned to cook in a classical way, then went off and did his experiments. If you don’t have that, I don’t see any grounding. It’s all gimmickry.

Our concept for Chanterelle was, “We’re here to make you happy.” Yes, this is the food we cook. This is the style of service. But within that world there’s an enormous amount of variability. So you might be here for a very grand dining experience, or you might be here to socialize with your guests and you don’t want to be interrupted with a lot of fuss. Or you might be here for a business meeting or a seduction dinner. Or you might be here for a lot of reasons other than the cuisine. Obviously, food is part of the experience, but it’s not necessarily the totality.

The bottom line is, nouvelle cuisine is the way everybody cooks now, whether they call it that or not: the whole idea of a chef developing his or her own style. Of seasonality. The concept of sourcing things from the best possible places. Of plated food that looks somewhat artistic. Intense, powerful, reduced sauces. Especially the idea of not reproducing classic dishes but coming up with your own version. There’s no such thing as classic cooking anymore. People describe certain restaurants as being classic, but in fact they’re idiosyncratic and personal.

MS: Speaking of idiosyncrasy, each of your menus was an original work of art. How did that come about?

KW: The idea was Bill Katz’s, and it was brilliant. When we opened, so many artists were living in the neighborhood near Chanterelle, and then different gallery owners became part of the restaurant. We looked at the walls and realized that if we put one painting up, everyone else would want theirs up, too, so we decided to have people contribute menu covers instead. Louise Nevelson lived down the block and she would come to eat. Philip Petit was a friend of mine. Keith Haring and Robert Mapplethorpe would come with the dancers Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane. I used to sit for Maurice Grosser. When Bush was reelected it was our twenty-fifth anniversary, so Robert Rauschenberg made us a red, white, and blue fire hydrant, because that’s what dogs pee on. Bill Cosby walked in for dinner one night and asked if he could make something for us. The photographer John Dugdale was a waiter of ours. So it all happened very organically. I don’t think it was particularly conscious; it was just our lives. We changed the menus every week in the beginning, and then every four weeks for the entire life of the restaurant. The menus changed because life changes; the whole idea was very symbolic of who we are.

MS: In many ways Chanterelle was epitomized by that sense of curatorial elegance. How would you describe the restaurant’s aesthetic evolution?

KW: It just unfolded. I don’t think it had any particular path for itself. Time passes and it all just accumulates and grows richer. We were doing something we were passionate about. So were the artists who created the menus, as were the members of our staff. So there was a shared pleasure among us all about what makes life rich and enjoyable. It was this wonderful collaboration. If we decide to do something somewhere else, it will always be Chanterelle.