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David Waltuck on Closing Chanterelle and Opening élan

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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: Part two of Andrew's chat with David Waltuck.
[Daniel Krieger]

In part two of my interview with David Waltuck, we focus on the evolution of élan, which he is launching today with business partner, George Stinson, former general manager of the late, great Chanterelle where he and David worked together. Chanterelle features prominently in my forthcoming book on the American chefs and restaurants of the 1970s and 1980s. (Full disclosure: I also coauthored the Chanterelle cookbook with David.) David comes to élan after a period of consulting to Ark Restaurants in the years since Chanterelle closed after a 30-year run in 2009.

Andrew Friedman: Whenever one opens a new place, you go through an evolution. What was the evolution of élan?

David Waltuck: I think I have to go back to when Chanterelle closed because at that point my heart was kind of broken. And what I wanted to do, I was talking to a lot of restaurateurs and hotel people, and I thought that somebody would just open me up another Chanterelle in a sense, or some version of Chanterelle.

With the same name?
I would have said with the same name at that point. I just kind of figured it was only a matter of time and I would set up something else, and that just didn't happen. So I kind did other things, such as consulting for Ark Restaurants and learning about a different kind of way of doing business and a different approach to food and to restaurants. And there were very nice things about it for my life. I was home every night. I was cooking at home. I was with my family. It was enjoyable in that sense. But there's something about me that made me really, really miss having a restaurant and cooking in a restaurant. My partner, George [Stinson], was feeling the same thing working in a corporate setting.

Who was he working for at the time?
He was working for Restaurant Associates at Barclays Bank. He worked at a couple of other places. He worked at SHO, the Shaun Hergatt restaurant, for a while. He was at Maysville for about eight months; that was always supposed to be temporary.

So you guys were like the Blues Brothers? You wanted to get the band back together?
I always said after that initial point where I really wanted to do Chanterelle again, "Well, I want to do something like that but not like that. Different. A different direction." But I don't know if I really meant it. George always really felt that it was a terrible mistake to go back and try to do something that had already been done.

[David Waltuck and Geroge Stinson by Krieger]

To try to recapture that moment?
Exactly. And it's been a process but I think I've come around to feeling that way very profoundly largely through the process of looking for a space and talking to George. We looked for a year and a half for a space, talking about what our vision of what we were going to do would be, and then actually finding a space and starting to design it and figure it out and thinking about the menu and all that. It gradually for me was really about letting go of Chanterelle. I talked at one point about taking the old [Chanterelle] menus and putting them up or something like that. That seems ridiculous to me now ...

You're describing a period of mourning.
Absolutely. Yes.

But that concept is clouded in what you do; unlike when you lose a person, you can recreate a restaurant.
You can try. I don't think it ever really has the same soul. We didn't close Chanterelle because we decided to close; we closed because of the economics of the situation. But restaurants do have lives and they do run a course.

And so, I mean, I can give you a million catch phrases — well, not a million, but I can give you a few catch phrases that I use when people ask me what am I doing at élan or what the place is going to be like. I guess they kind of capture it but they don't entirely capture it.

How about just the food?
I think that I'm still going to cook with the same sensibility because that's an expression of who I am and what my background in food is, which is somebody that learned a lot about cooking by doing it out of books and responded very profoundly to French cuisine and especially the evolution of French cuisine that happened in the '70s and '80s.

You're talking about nouvelle cuisine.
If you want to call it that.

Do you want to call it that?
For a lot of people it has kind of a negative connotation.

Like the tiny portions?
Yeah, like the exaggerated aspects of it. But I always say that people talk about it as if it was a fad but in reality it's just how everybody cooks now so it's not even worth talking about. Everybody is interested in seasonality. Everybody is interested in composed plates. Everybody is interested in making a statement, making a mark — you know, not necessarily making a better coq au vin, but making a [personal] version of coq au vin.

So getting back to élan. I think the basic sensibility is not going to change because I don't think I'm ever going to be somebody that makes 10 restaurants and each one is different. Even if I were, this is a starting point, a re-starting point, so I'm going deep into myself for what it is that I respond to and what I want to do. So I would say that it's not completely alien to Chanterelle food but I think I'm taking it a lot lighter — not light in terms of "heavy food" or "light food," but less serious. I don't mean that the execution or the ingredients will be taken less seriously but it'll be more fun. I'd like it to be somewhat whimsical. I would like it to be less expensive, so less expensive ingredients. While I would allow myself to use truffles and caviar, I would use them sparingly.

Are there dishes you can name yet or not so much?
For example, some of them will be Chanterelle dishes reinvented. I always did sweetbreads with caramelized leeks and orange. I always loved that dish.

I remember it well. It was based on classic Chinese food, sort of.
Exactly. In the kitchen we referred to it as General Tso's sweetbreads. On the élan menu it will actually be, "General Tso's sweetbreads."

It'll be almost true to its roots. Everything that we're going to be doing, less composed on the plate, not that I was ever a meticulous kind of tweezery, dots and dashes kind of person, but it's going to be food on a plate that looks good because it's food on a plate. It'll be more like a stir-fry, which I wouldn't have done at Chanterelle because I would have wanted to make it elegant.

You would have wanted to dress it up. What's funny as you say this, is of course I think about the Chinese New Year's party you used to do for friends and family.
I believe we did that for 12 years. And it was a staff party. It just grew into this enormous festivity and it was never quite on Chinese New Year because my Chinese friends wouldn't come — sometimes it was months after Chinese New Year but it was still a Chinese New Year party.

My point is you've cooked in this style before.
If not French food, I would want to cook Chinese food. Those are the two things that I feel most comfortable with.

Where's your connection to Chinese food come from?
I just really like it. And I have a couple of friends that I've known since high school who are Chinese who are amateur cooks that really love to cook, and so I've always cooked with them.

Can you name some more dishes that will be on the élan menu?
A foie gras lollipop with fig and pistachio; soy and sake cured beef; a mushroom "tartare"; Grilled Spanish mackerel with clam-dashi risotto and yuzu vinaigrette; chicken pot pie with morels and bacon; and grilled seafood sausage, with sauerkraut and mustard. [Note: The last dish is a spin on the legendary Chanterelle seafood sausage, the only dish that was on the restaurant's menu from its first day to its last.]

You worked with Karen for years. Now you're working with George. You're opening a restaurant for the first time without Karen there. What's that like?
It's actually very complicated. I think that Karen was enormously important. It can't possibly be overstated how important she was to Chanterelle. A lot of the aesthetic and the style and the welcome and all of that really came from her. So in this case, she's moved on and is doing something that she really enjoys and is happy to have a change. She's very encouraging to me to do this and she's excited that I'm doing this. And sparingly giving advice because I think she really wants to have this new partnership dynamic develop and take its course.

But George worked at Chanterelle for a very long time and so I think he has absorbed some of that style and aesthetic and turned it into what is his own. I think it still is a division of power or division of labor between the kitchen and the dining room. I think that as with Karen and me, if I want something to be a certain way in the kitchen or in terms of the menu or in terms of the food, she might have disagreed but she would always defer. And if she were hiring somebody in the dining room or, I don't know, deciding a certain detail of service or something along those lines, I would certainly defer to her. I think that the same holds true for élan in that, George doesn't cook and I don't run dining rooms, so it is still that. But that's another example of how it's a different restaurant.

In terms of the conception of élan, what was that process like? Would you guys just kind of get together and spitball it or did you innately have a similar vision?
I think we had a similar vision. I think that the food part of it and my understanding of it has probably moved more than George's has because I still think even two years ago when we were first talking about it and through the process of looking for a space, I really think that there was still a letting go of Chanterelle that I was doing that was not something that George was doing, certainly not in the same way or to the same degree, and he didn't have the same connection with Chanterelle. But I do think we had a very similar conception and I think that it was tweaked over time.

And some of it adjusted in terms of thinking about a specific space. We were close to making a deal on a couple of places. And they would have been different than what we're doing now. They were either larger or laid out differently or kind of funkier. At one point we were thinking of doing a larger restaurant. This is a fairly small restaurant. We were thinking of something in the range of 80, 90, 100 seats because of the economics of it. But that's not the space we found.

I'm happy with the space we found. It suggested its own thing. There's this kind of front room that allows it to have a little bit of two personalities, the front being more lively and more bar like and no reservations, and the back maybe being a little bit more serene but very different than Chanterelle.

Not to have sour grapes but since we announced that we're opening a restaurant, I've met so many people that I don't necessarily know, and they all were such fans of Chanterelle and they say they used to come all the time. But if they came all the time, we would probably still be in business. But in their heads they came all the time. I think it's because it became a very special occasion experience. And I really did want to move away from that, for want of a better word, preciousness. élan is something that's a little more relaxed and everyday.

How long were you consulting with Ark all in?
A little over three years.

This is a job that in the past Jonathan Waxman held. But you touched a lot of different things. You helped get Clyde's open. You worked on Robert's a little bit. The Meadowlands. The Sequoia in DC. A lot of different concepts. Did any of that affect you as you started conceiving the menu for élan? When you say you're going to do General Tso's sweetbreads, I wonder if that kind of casualness might have come out of working on a place like Clyde's, as strange as that may seem.

Maybe so. I think actually Clyde's was really kind of important in a way because I was supposed to come up with a concept for it, and to me, the concept was to play with the idea of a sports bar and also to play with certain New York cliches, whether it's knishes or guacamole or something like that.

So that is true. There was that kind of thinking outside of the box, and for the whole period that I was there it never had very much of anything to do with Chanterelle style cooking. So, yeah, in a sense that's true. I didn't really think of it that way. But yeah, it did do that.

[Daniel Krieger]

Loosen it up a little bit?
Loosen it up, yeah.

In terms of your thinking how a menu might read or —
I mean, I designed the menu for a hamburger place in Las Vegas. I don't do hamburgers. But it was fun. It definitely did pull me out of the Chanterelle mold.

Your food's in a very traditional vein. There's a lot going on in the industry food wise, restaurant wise, concept wise. Was it even a consideration to try to incorporate something new? I don't even want to say modernist techniques, because that's really not your thing. But a lot of times when people are getting ready to open a new restaurant, they go on these dining binges. They eat everywhere and it's like their R and D. You didn't really go through an exercise like that.

No. I tried some new restaurants over the course of the last few years but I don't think it was R and D really. I think I was more interested in a funny way in ambiance and design and the feeling of various restaurants.

Are there any that made an impression on you that you don't mind mentioning?
I really liked Pearl & Ash, for example. It's not very different from what we're doing. I actually really liked Maysville, too. The concept of a snack aspect and then a real starter and then a real main course. That kind of thing.

Menu structure.
Loosening up the whole menu. The small plates thing, if done right, can be very appealing.

To you as a chef?

How so?
I think appetizers are in a way more fun than main courses.

That's been true for decades.
It's always been true.

The protein's an albatross, right?
A little bit.

No matter what you do, you're going to have this big hunk of protein in the middle of the plate.
Unless you're doing a tasting menu and it's one of a million courses. So yeah, I think that it's a fun way to eat sometimes. Sometimes I like it and sometimes I really do want my roast chicken or my steak.

Are there going to be small plates here? Is that what you're saying?
They're more for the table. In a funny way it's like, instead of giving an amuse, if you want an amuse, you'll order it.

For more of Andrew Friedman's thoughts on David Waltuck, head over to Toqueland.

· Karen & David Waltuck Take a Trip Back to 1980s Soho [~EN~]
· All Editions of Kitchen Time Machine [~ENY~]
· All Coverage of Chanterelle [~ENY~]


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