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40th Anniversary

In Conversation: André Soltner and David Chang

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DC: It’s come a long way. Even Eberhard Müller, who used to work at Lutèce, has a farm on Long Island now. We have much more access to local produce. It doesn’t come close to the West Coast, but we work harder at it. Three years ago, for instance, there was only one person who grew Fairy Tale eggplant. Now everyone’s growing Fairy Tale eggplant. The product list is ridiculous. And a lot of it is chef driven: “Oh, I need this type of carrot. I don’t want to use the baby carrots, I want Thumbelina carrots.” I knew something got crazy in a good way when you could get any kind of microgreen you want.

AS: People started to grow herbs only about 25, 30 years ago. Before, nobody. Besides parsley. Nobody knew what tarragon was. Chervil. Also there’s been a big change on the customer side. Now you don’t open a newspaper or a magazine without reading about cooking, so people know much more. If they read two, three recipes, they think they know everything.

DC: Even bloggers, they think they know what’s going on in the kitchen. They think they have an understanding of the food.

AS: They read the recipe, and they come to you and say, “Oh, your dessert is not the right way.”

NY: Is it harder or easier to open a restaurant now?

DC: I think it’s punishing for young chefs to open up a restaurant now. People are always, like, “How come no one’s doing anything ambitious?” Well, the most ambitious opening in the last few years was Gilt by Paul Liebrandt. You can like Paul or not like Paul, but he got two stars and that was a four-star restaurant, and ever since then no one’s actually tried to shoot for the stars. We need to nurture young talent more. The hardest thing is staffing out a restaurant. We could open another restaurant, but I don’t want to without the level of cooks, without knowing that they know how to do it right. And there’s just no cooks in New York City.

We cannot go back now. We cannot go back to frozen.

AS: Yeah, but there are many more cooks now than 30 years ago. There were no American chefs then. They only came when the CIA started to bring cooks out. There were a few who went to France and learned for a year or so, but they were right away stars, not stars but chefs de cuisine. Today, you have a lot of chefs. The thing is, they want to be a chef for only a year or two, then move on.

DC: When I started out, I never asked how much I was going to make. It was just like, you should just know you’re not going to make money in this profession. I was working seven days a week just so I could get in the kitchen that I wanted to be in. And now I’d say 90 percent of the time when I interview people, the first thing that comes out of their mouth is, “How much are you going to pay me?”

AS: Yeah, but there is a reason. How can you live in New York on $10 an hour?

DC: Yeah, $10 an hour has been the going rate now for maybe over twenty years for entry-level cooking. And most cooks now are working 50-hour workweeks, so that’s $500 gross. You can’t live in New York City, not even if you’re living in Ozone Park. So that was one of the reasons why we wanted to pay them more, because you can’t live on what amounts to $300 after taxes. People are going to complain, “Why don’t you pay your cooks more?” We want to, but we’ll also go out of business because we’ll have to charge more. Of course we want to pay cooks. I think entry-level cooks should be making $14, $15 an hour, which is what they make in California, I believe. As crazy as it sounds, yeah, that’s a lot. But we’re going to have to make some adjustments in New York. People are like, “You’re just hoarding all the money, Dave.” They don’t understand that the margins in a restaurant are almost zero just to make it work.

AS: That’s the big change. We had a much smaller percentage of people who came to a restaurant, but they were willing to pay our prices. Today, people are holding back. I don’t say on the three stars or very top, but in general they hold back on what they spend. Today what I see in restaurants where you pay $50, $60, that’s not a lot of money for good food, good ingredients, but people don’t want to pay much more.

DC: They don’t get it. And to prep it out and all the labor that goes into it.

AS: It was not hard for us to find enough people to pay the prices we wanted. Our prix fixe lunch was $25. With that $25 we could easily pay for our ingredients. We could pay our staff.

DC: If people want food with the right ingredients and all that stuff, it’s going to cost money. Americans need to understand that. People are like, “Why is that steak $150, that côte de boeuf?” I’m like, “Well, if you go to the farm, you’ll see why.” And then they age it. It costs us almost $60 for the steak. Even I’m guilty of it if I go to a restaurant. I’m like, “Man, that’s $48! I’m not going to buy that.” We’re brainwashed. But I think we’re just going to have to be more accepting of expensive food.

NY: If you had children who were thinking about becoming chefs, would you advise them to?

AS: Absolutely. I think the future for young chefs is much brighter than it was 40 years ago. Because people have become so much more interested in food. That will not stop. We cannot go back now. We cannot go back to frozen.


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