As the chef of Lutèce for 34 years, André Soltner lived through astounding changes in New York’s—and America’s—culinary culture. In fact, he was largely responsible for some of them, like the shift to fresh, high-quality ingredients and the adoption of a lighter, more modern approach to classic French technique. After hanging up his apron in 1994, he joined the faculty of the French Culinary Institute. That’s where David Chang graduated in 2000, before he opened the groundbreaking Momofuku Noodle Bar, a deceptively casual canteen that made waves with its inventive combination of Eastern and Western flavors and its repudiation of the fripperies of fine dining. Since then, Chang has expanded his fiefdom with Momofuku Ssäm Bar and Ko. One recent late-summer afternoon, the two pioneers sat down to compare notes on what it meant, and means, to be a modern cook in New York.
New York: Is French technique still the basis of cooking and restaurant culture in New York?
André Soltner: Yes. For me, there is no question. The French technique is the result of 200 years of practice.
David Chang: No question. It’s the fundamentals. Yesterday, for instance, at Ko, we were talking about making meat sauces, about classic French technique and how we might have strayed from that and evolved from that, but it all stems from the same thing. I’m going to be much more excited about getting someone who’s spent four years working at Daniel, because I know for sure that this guy’s going to have a certain skill set. And you can apply that to a variety of other cuisines, not just French. So I always say it’s the arithmetic, it’s the fundamentals. I find that there are a lot of similarities between French and Japanese food. I think they’re two countries that have really systemized their cuisine and codified it. When I was in Japan, everyone wanted to work for Pierre Gagnaire, and they wouldn’t miss a beat.
NY: So what’s better, culinary school or training in a restaurant kitchen?
AS: I think the system now where you go to school first is very good. When we went to our apprenticeships, it was based on cheap labor. We were cheap labor.
NY: And now?
AS: Now, chefs, they go to school. The problem is, when they graduate, they think they are Paul Bocuse. On the other hand, that the chef is out of the kitchen and known by name, it’s a good thing. When I started, the maître d’ or owner had the name. Now the chefs, they’re so well known that they don’t have the time to actually cook.
NY: You still cook, don’t you, Dave?
DC: I’m trying.
AS: I tell you the truth: When I had my restaurant, and you asked me to come here, I never would have done it.
NY: You didn’t do interviews?
AS: If they came to Lutèce, if they came to my kitchen, yes. I would not go out. If they asked me to go to Chicago to do a fund-raising dinner, it was, “No.” If they asked me to come to give me a prize or whatever, I said, “Only on Sundays, when I’m not in the kitchen.” I was sort of a slave to my restaurant. And my wife too. I don’t say it was right. Today, I maybe say it was wrong. Years ago, in Paris, we had no money. But when we were more comfortable, maybe twenty years later, I said, “Simone, you know, you’ve paid your dues and everything, I buy you whatever you wish.” I was thinking to buy her a ring or a necklace or something like that. “Whatever you wish, tell me.” She looked at me and said, “Take me to a movie.” For twenty years, I hadn’t taken her to a movie. I woke up. I said, “Oh my God, what did I do to my wife?”
DC: You barely missed a service; you essentially lived above the restaurant, right?
AS: Oh, yeah.
DC: I lived across the street from Noodle Bar. I could barely stand it, because you’re there all the time, you can’t get away.
NY: What about the pressure of making public appearances and opening other restaurants?
DC: You have to. The livelihood of the restaurant is dependent upon getting the word out. There’s so much more competition. You could do an event every week and not cook at all.
AS: With us it started a little bit in the seventies. You wouldn’t believe how many people offered me a deal to open a second restaurant. A second restaurant? Are you kidding? I cannot do it. I had an offer to go to Japan. It’s the difference between a businessman and a craftsman. We weren’t businesspeople.