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40th Anniversary

In Conversation: André Soltner and David Chang


DC: I think Jean-Georges was the first. I’ve asked him about it, and he was just like, “I get bored—no, not bored, we just want to do something else.” With us, one of my guys has a great idea or we both have a great idea and we want to make it work. People like Chef here, they’ve paved the way for us to have that option. Jean-Georges and Daniel, they set the standard.

AS: Jean-Georges and I come from Alsace, we’re good friends, and I’ve followed his career since he arrived here. So a friend from France came, and usually when he comes I take him out to a restaurant. So I called Spice Market. I said, “I’d like to make a reservation,” and she said, “How many?” I said, “Three.” She said, “I have an opening for you at 5:30 or at midnight.” Midnight! I didn’t answer. I hung up. So three, four months later, we went to Spice Market. Boom! Boom! A lot of people. Noise. I went to talk to the chef, I said, “How many do you do?” He said 900. I have to admit that these guys are smarter than me, because they do the right thing. I couldn’t understand it, but there were 900 people who liked it, who will go back the next day and the day after that.

NY: Do you think fine dining and classic French service are dying slow deaths, and if they disappeared, would you miss them?

AS: My generation certainly would. I mean, I love David, but when I went to his restaurant with my wife, we were sitting there across the bar, you know, my wife looked at me and said, ‘Hey, where did you take me?’ That noise and everything. We couldn’t understand. But on the other hand, the food was good and the place was full, so I said ‘Bravo.’

NY: In the late sixties, was there such a thing as American cuisine?

‘ Years ago, only one person grew Fairy Tale eggplant. Now everyone grows it.’
—David Chang

AS: I sound maybe too French, but there was no American cuisine. Zero. Let’s face it. People didn’t know what’s what. When I came to New York, my boss took me around to some other restaurants, and I saw on a few menus medallions of veal aux girolles—you know, chanterelles. I said, “Buy girolles and we’ll do something with them.” So the girolles came, you know, and they were in cans! So we said, “No, no, no. We cannot do that.” Nobody knew what fresh girolles were. About twenty years later, people from Oregon came to offer us fresh girolles. So one of these guys, I said to him, “I cannot understand. Girolles just started to grow now?” He said, “No, we always had plenty of girolles in Oregon, but we had no market.” Oregon had a contract with Germany to send them a hundred tons of girolles a year. So the girolles from Oregon went to Germany. The Germans put them in cans and sent them to us in New York.

DC: American cuisine, I think, probably happened when some of the California stuff and people came this way in the eighties. I think Bouley had a tremendous influence. So it was a perfect storm of getting the right ingredients and mixing it with some French technique. Now we have a cuisine, I think, that is much more than hamburgers and hot dogs and barbecue. I think it’s an amalgamation of French technique and that’s the glue for everything else.

AS: I still don’t know what American cuisine is. The press, you know, over the course of the last twenty years, as soon as an American chef works, they say it’s American cuisine. It’s not American cuisine. All the chefs have basic French skills.

DC: Gramercy Tavern, you’d have to say, is an American restaurant. An American Place was an American restaurant. What Charlie Palmer did was an American restaurant. They’re using American ingredients, they’re American cooks.

NY: Do people eat better now?

AS: Oh, sure. Forty years ago, they didn’t eat good. When I came to this country, everything had to be big! Just big. Potatoes, they had to be big. Didn’t matter that in the middle there was a hole, as long as the potato was big. And that was the only potato that you could buy. Now you go to a supermarket, you have five or six different potatoes. Not just in the specialty markets or farmers’ markets. Why? Because the people demand this. Why didn’t the farmers grow smaller potatoes? Because there was nobody to sell it to. But now, they know that with small potatoes, they can demand more money, because we chefs told them.

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