In Conversation: André Soltner and David Chang

David Chang and André SoltnerPhoto: Dan Winters

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.

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.

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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In Conversation: André Soltner and David Chang