Le Cirque, Sirio Maccioni's first -- and still dearest-to-his-heart -- restaurant, changes head chefs about as often as his adopted country picks a president. As in the White House, a radical changing of the guard is about to take place at Le Cirque. Sottha Khunn, the quiet head chef whose Asian inflections earned the restaurant critical raves, has passed the tocque to Pierre Schaedelin, a 32-year-old Alsatian who has been training in the kitchen since January 1999 and takes over this week. At the same time, pastry guru Jacques Torres -- renowned as much for his books and television appearances as for his signature chocolate stoves -- has decamped, leaving the Banana Clown Hats in the hands of Patrice Caillot, who arrived in New York in June from Le Cirque's Las Vegas outpost. The result is a complete change of regime -- normally a highly nervous moment for a four-star restaurant.
But Maccioni has never balked at changing personnel in the kitchen. Some chefs have left on their own (the talented and ambitious Daniel Boulud, whose name Maccioni rarely deigns to utter). Some have been nudged out the door, such as Boulud's successor, Sylvain Portay, whose short tenure had little to do with his food and much to do with his rejection of the spotlight that inevitably bathes the head man in the kitchen. Maccioni demands a little showbiz from his chef -- as long as the chef remembers that his is an important but supporting role. After all, the crowds are coming to see Maccioni's show.
"In France they never change chefs, and they deteriorate. Le Cirque 2000 is a New York restaurant," Maccioni says, explaining that the Michelin Guide rating system has forced Continental restaurateurs into a predictable mold: a small number of diners, high prices, and fussed-over food. "They are dinner parties," he says dismissively, whereas Le Cirque 2000 can serve upwards of 500 when it is really smoking.
Khunn's tenure definitely had similarities to a fine European sports car trying to keep up with the speed machines at the Indy 500. When Boulud and Maccioni wooed Khunn away from Paris in 1986, his experience had been entirely in smaller-scale restaurants. The old Le Cirque, Khunn's first stop in America, demanded greater production than any top European restaurant, and the new Le Cirque 2000 more than doubled that volume. "Paris is more haute couture; New York is more prêt-à-porter," Khunn admits. Maccioni felt that the time was right for him to move on, though he has said he would back Khunn in a New York venture, if asked. For now, Khunn is preparing to return for a few months to his homeland in Cambodia (for the first time since his family fled the horrors of the seventies).
Maccioni's mandate to his new chef is direct. "His food should be simple. I will never accept the confusion of fusion," he says. "Everything has been done already. You only have to do it better. Where is the onion soup that you used to find in New York restaurants? Where is the saucisson en croûte? The simple potato salad with great olive oil, salt, and pepper?"
As if in answer to this not-so-rhetorical question, the incoming chef, Pierre Schaedelin, is a native of a small town in Alsace, where saucisson, onion soup, and potato salad are, figuratively speaking, mother's milk. It is the kind of gutsy, down-home food that has always characterized Le Cirque as much as the truffle-topped rarities of classical French cuisine. Schaedelin first attracted notice in the kitchen of Paul Haeberlin at L'Auberge L'Ill in Alsace (three stars from Michelin). From there he moved on to Alain Ducasse's equally highly rated Louis XV in Monaco, where Ducasse subsequently tapped him to run the kitchen at another of his ventures, Monte's, a London private club. When Haeberlin announced his plans to retire, he called to offer Schaedelin the job in Alsace. The young chef gave Ducasse notice, but Ducasse called Maccioni, with whom he has had a long and close relationship, and tipped him off. Won over by Maccioni, Schaedelin accepted his offer and made his move to Le Cirque 2000 in January 1999.
In the meantime, Patrice Caillot had been learning the ins and outs of crème brûlée in the Las Vegas Le Cirque from the time it opened in October 1998. Caillot, a native of Beaune, had originally been recruited by Jacques Torres. Torres, a flamboyant native of Provence, star of his own TV series, and author of two best-selling books, decided last year that he wanted to strike out on his own, opening a chocolate factory in Brooklyn. He remains on good terms with Maccioni, but they both agreed it was time to make a change. Caillot, schooled in Torres's own recipes, was the logical candidate for the position.
Although both pastry chefs are trained in the French style, Torres is whimsical and ornamental where Caillot leans toward simplicity and classicism. "I try to keep my desserts to three featured flavors. Too many flavors confuse the palate. I want people to be able to savor each ingredient," Caillot says of his style.
Where other restaurateurs would have major agita over the changing of the kitchen guard, Maccioni has the confidence of a guy who has done this too many times to be concerned. With his new team Maccioni anticipates change, but the core dishes that have fed two generations of lunching ladies and exigent gourmets will still be there. "I have 55 cooks in my restaurants," he says. "I honestly believe I could turn the kitchen over to any one of them and we would have the same food we have now. I want that, but I also want five new specials a day. Pierre can give me that."
The proof will, of course, come on the plate. Schaedelin will offer an ambitious array of dishes for his debut menu. Among the baker's dozen I tried at a works-in-progress tasting was a steamed turbot with shiitake-and-ginger-stuffed raviolis that evoked Khunn's and Ducasse's penchant for light dishes and pure but subtle flavors. At the other end of the culinary spectrum, he served a classic Alsatian bakker offe: A combination of meat and chicken, slow-braised with vegetables in a terrine sealed with puff pastry, it is about as robust and down-home as a bowl of Texas chili. From the sublime to the substantial, it is a combination that has worked for Le Cirque for 30 years.