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Karen & David Waltuck Take a Trip Back to 1980s Soho

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Welcome to Kitchen Time Machine, an interview series in which author and Toqueland blogger Andrew Friedman sits down with some of New York's most iconic chefs and restaurateurs. Right now: Andrew's interview with Karen and David Waltuck..

[Karen and David in the early days of Chanterelle. Photo courtesy of the Waltucks]

On Monday, in partnership with former Chanterelle general manager George Stinson, David Waltuck will open new restaurant, élan in the space that was once home to Veritas on East 20th Street in Manhattan. We'll discuss élan in detail in Part Two of this interview after the weekend. Today, we take a look back at the landmark restaurant Chanterelle, which David and wife Karen opened 35 ago in Soho, eventually moving to Tribeca. After almost exactly 30 years in business, the restaurant closed in 2009. At Chanterelle, David became just the second American-born, Manhattan-based chef to earn four stars from the New York Times. The restaurant features prominently in my forthcoming book on the American chefs and restaurants of the 1970s and 1980s. (Full disclosure: I also co-authored the Chanterelle cookbook with David.)

Befitting that history, Karen joined David for this installment of our conversation. Karen is not affiliated with élan; she has moved out of the hospitality realm and is now working with the nonprofit Job Path, placing people with disabilities in employment situations.

[Author's note: I spoke to David and Karen separately and "spliced" their interviews together oral-history style for this piece.]

Andrew Friedman: When you think about Chanterelle, what are the first things that come to mind for you? Do you still think of the original space on Grand Street?

David Waltuck: Yes. I think the original space was formative. It was a very special spot. There were many, many things about our being in that place at that time that we carried with us. It was a 10 table restaurant.

It was very, very, very personal. I basically did all the cooking and Karen basically did everything in the front of the house. When we moved [to Tribeca] and we got larger, there became more delegation but it was very, very hard for us to really delegate.

Karen Waltuck: A waiter once told me that somebody else could vacuum. "You don't have to do that Karen. Actually, the dishwasher does it in other places." I had to be told that.

I never ate at the original location. For people who only knew the restaurant in the Tribeca space, what was special for you about the Soho location?

Karen: Well, I think there was zero feeling of commercial quality to it. I think in a way it had much more of a ma and pa feel.

David: We never thought of it as a business, really. We just thought of it as what we did. It really was never thought out in the way that most people think when they open a restaurant. It was just, "Hey, let's open a restaurant."

Karen: It was more personal, in a way more quirky.

How so?

Karen: Because it was only one room so there was no separation between the dining room and the entrance. You walked in and you were in the dining room. And also you saw the entire thing from outside. The inside and the outside in a way were the same. And there was nothing around it that had anything to do with commercialism at all. There were no stores. There were no lights anywhere else on the street. We were the only thing lit up. The rest of the buildings were lofts. It was completely exposed. Totally exposed, because there were very little curtains. We were on this naked corner. There was no traffic. It was just this little jewel box in the middle of nowhere. And so it was both exposed and more intimate because you could be inside and outside without any feeling that there was a separation and there was nothing outside to intrude upon the inside. It was deserted. There was no one there. It was just us in the middle of nowhere.

Was that ever scary?

Karen: No. I think it sometimes concerned the clients; they wouldn't go out to get themselves a cab. We would go down to the corner and get people cabs. And bums came in every night. A bum would come in every night and we would give them something. We never had anyone aggressive. They would come in and ask for things. There was one guy I remember that would come in almost every day and David would give him aspirin from the medicine box. People would come in and use the phone all the time because nobody had doorbells and there were no cell phones, so they couldn't get into their friends' homes that they were trying to see. They would come and use the phone then the people would throw their keys out the window in a sock. It was very, very romantic. And it was very intimate. It had a youthful quality, in a sense. I think it had a magic about it.

You know, sometimes it wasn't fun. We didn't have any air conditioning for two years.

I don't know if it's the right word, but was it a very inviting time for a young American to contemplate not just being a chef, which was a relatively new thing at a certain level, but owning a restaurant.

David: I think it's true. But I think the idea of opening a restaurant downtown also was kind of radical in a way. I didn't think about it in those terms, but to open a restaurant in Midtown seemed more fraught to me than opening in Soho, which was a little bit under the radar in a sense.

What was it about uptown that seemed more fraught?

David: Uptown just seemed fancy to me. There were all those old-school French restaurants that were still there. When the Wines opened Quilted Giraffe around the corner from Lutece it was, I think, an intentional statement. But opening a restaurant in Soho just felt different.

I think it was an inviting time in the sense that it was a weird combination of wide open and completely closed. It was wide open in the sense that there weren't a lot of categories. You could be outside of the standard category very easily because the standard category was fancy French or bistro French. There were a couple of fish restaurants and then there were big corporate ish restaurants like Mama Leone's or something like that. So to do a really personal restaurant, it didn't really exist to a large degree, at least in my memory of that time. But it was also closed down because there wasn't this bubbling pot of who's the next hot chef, and what's going to happen here or there. It was just the very beginning of a real fascination with restaurants and food as kind of theater, as an evening out, as conspicuous consumption, if you will.

Karen: There wasn't the intense scrutiny and comparative overlay that there is now. There's so much pressure and immediate critiques of things. There was no sense of people watching you, scrutinizing you all the time. But that was the '60s and '70s anyway. It's like, let it all hang out, you know?

And we were so young. You don't think about certain things when you're really young. It's like learning how to ski or driving. You're a great driver and a skiier when you don't know you can die. You don't hesitate.

What you're saying is that you could hang out a shingle, or even be in construction, and nobody really knew about it. There was no sense of the eyes of the city upon you wondering what it was going to look like? There were no photographs on the internet; there was no Internet for that matter.

Karen: There was no sense of it. But that doesn't mean that that time was better. Each time has a flavor of its own but it isn't a judgmental thing for me. History is so strange because certain things arbitrarily come forward so they're larger than they were. Other things that were just as important are not noticed so they fade into the background but they were equally important at the time, and some things become romanticized.

I think there are incredibly exciting things going on now that we didn't have the opportunity to do, there are so many more things. Just the fact that you can get product, you can get mushrooms that we couldn't get. We had to wait for somebody with a station wagon to come and give it to us, for Christ's sakes. That's kind of cool and romantic but it's also a pain in the ass. Let's not get too carried away here.

We talked about this when we were interviewing for the Chanterelle cookbook: It seems to me in a lot of ways that Soho was back then, or became, kind of what Brooklyn is today.

David: In a way, yes, very much. There are many similarities. But there is a big difference: The aesthetic of the space, of the place, the neighborhood, has some similarities, but Soho was never a restaurant area. You talk about Williamsburg and one of the first things you think about is restaurants. But Soho, in terms of restaurants? I mean, Chanterelle was there. There was Broome Street Bar.

Oh Ho So. Do you remember Oh Ho So, the Chinese restaurant? TriBeCa was more of a restaurant area but not with the density and an overriding certain kind of aesthetic or style that I think of when I think of Williamsburg. When you're in Paris and somebody says something is "tres Brooklyn," you know what they mean.

Did you actually hear that expression when you were over there recently?

David: Yeah, yeah. About restaurants. So Soho was a little bit of a fringey neighborhood. It had the art aspect, the galleries, the artists. It had beautiful spaces and it was still a little off the beaten track but it wasn't hard to get to.

When I think about Chanterelle and the things you did there — the absence of a dress code, the handwritten menus, the lack of a certain level of pretension — it always seems like it was completely unique to you, that you made decisions based on your own sensibility. But were there other places in New York City at the time that you felt did the same thing, that had the level of cuisine and service and also that relaxed come as you are spirit?

Karen: No. I think they were in France. When we went to Troisgros, when we went to La Pyramide, they didn't have a dress code.

Is that right? I always assumed otherwise.

Karen: No, they never did. Even Pic didn't have a dress code. There were these iconic, incredible people, so established and great, that were also approachable and relaxed, unpretentious, welcoming, seemingly uncritical. At Taillevent they wanted you to have a jacket. But still, any kind of feeling that I would have had as a young person of feeling awkward, intimidated by not speaking French well or just being American and young was immediately dissipated when you walked in the door.

I remember [the late Jean-Claude] Vrinat. He had been waiting for me and David his whole life, that's what it felt like when we walked in, that welcoming feel. And the same at La Pyramide. There were we were sitting in their garden underneath sycamore trees with this giant of a man as a sommelier, who had been their original sommelier, opening bottles from the '20s for these Japanese people sitting next to us. I remember him taking a bottle and looking in the top and realizing there was a tiny piece of cork, and just kind of flicking the bottle. He didn't carefully take a little utensil and pick out the little teeny piece of cork in this 1920s Chateau Margaux.

There was an earthy, honest, unpretentious quality to perfection that at the same time was real and just seemed right. I think that's what we did.

It's interesting: You talk to a lot of Americans who started cooking at this time, and there was such a complex about the French. Most of the French chefs didn't want to hire them in New York. You talk to someone like Alfred Portale about the way his kitchen was organized at Gotham and it was in many ways a reaction to the way kitchens he worked in in France were organized. What you're describing is the opposite of the norm about how most Americans regarded or felt regarded by the French at that time.

Karen: I wasn't involved with that. I think that in a certain sense it was just natural. I don't think we sat down and said we were going to do it. We sat down and said we really loved the way Madame Point [at La Pyramide] wrote out the menus, so I was going to write out the menus. But the rest of it was natural. I had never been trained either. It isn't as if I said, "Well, I'm not going to do what I've done in all those other restaurants; I'm going to change it." It was, "What do we want to do here?"

And where we were, who our friends were, the fact that we wanted to be accessible and that we were going to be the same to everybody, it was just the way we were in our lives. We hadn't been brought up to have tons of white glove [touches]... we didn't go to those restaurants. Some of it was both naivete and just opening the place that we deemed appropriate.

When I hear you both talk about creating Chanterelle, it feels a little like when writers talk about a writer's high: sometimes you just kind of look down at the end of a few hours and something's written, but you have no feeling or recollection of having written it yourself. You feel like you were merely the instrument that got it to the page. When you look back at this time do you feel like there was almost something about that place that had a spirit of its own, something that went beyond decision making and the daily logistics?

Karen: Yeah, I think so. I think that part of it had to do with just the scene. It also seemed like it fit our lives, our personalities, the time, that little jewel box. You're walking down the street approaching it with this beautiful warm light out of the blue, and inside were two kids, 25 year olds that were just married; he's cooking and she's in the front. We were just excited and bouncy and really professional, completely unpretentious kids really caring about you having a wonderful time. And then on one table are these guys from Wall Street and next to them are these guys with dreadlocks. It was cool. It was just really nice. We were totally devoted to what we were doing because we were hungry for it and excited about it but we weren't self conscious.

I was re-reading some reviews from when Chanterelle first opened. It's very interesting. They were on the whole very positive reviews but then they'd get to less successful dishes and some of the notes right out of the box were very harsh. Maybe you remember this stuff?

David: Sure, I do.

Do you feel like when you look at then versus now, was there a patience being accorded you guys that's different from what the norm is now?

David: I think that that was definitely the case. The Gael Greene review was very much about that that that, this person is very young and they've opened this restaurant clearly on a shoestring, and these people are talented and they're ambitious, they have an idea of what they want to do, but they're not there yet; that said they should be encouraged, essentially. And no, I can't imagine that there would be a review like that now.

[I used to read Gault Millau] which was a magazine that put out guidebooks. It was a food travel magazine that was basically a propagandist for nouvelle cuisine. And they were very much about taking some obscure chef who they thought was really talented, who was cooking in some hotel restaurant in Brittany and making a big deal about him so that he could pursue his career in some way.

But I also think that there just weren't as many restaurants. And so when we got two stars from the New York Times, two stars is supposed to be very good and it meant very good. [Note: Chanterelle eventually earned four stars.] And I just think that it happened to be in an economic moment when Wall Street was doing well and there was money and people were interested in restaurants. And we had 30 seats and it was not difficult to fill them with two stars. There was no Daniel Boulud with a bunch of restaurants and there was no Jean-Georges with a bunch of restaurants, there wasn't all of that.

There just weren't as many restaurants, and there certainly wasn't this ferment of new restaurants going off in this direction, that direction, and another direction. It just didn't exist. So it was, in a way, less of a big deal to open a restaurant. You got more attention just because there were fewer of them.

For more of Andrew Friedman's thoughts on David Waltuck, head over to Toqueland. And stay tuned for part two of Andrew's chat with David on Monday.
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