Chef David Waltuck Interview

He’s acknowledged as one of this country’s (U.S.) most respected chefs.
His reputation has spread world-wide and his restaurant attracts a sophisticated international clientele.
He’s received numerous awards and is one of 4 chefs nationally to hold the four star rating from the New York Times.
We’re talking about Chef David Waltuck and his restaurant Chanterelle.
Chef Waltuck spoke about his background and his restaurant.

Q – Isn’t it difficult to have your wife as your business partner? Is that a strain on the marriage or does it bring the two of you closer together?
A – You know, it’s been such a permanent fixture in my life that I can’t really answer that from the perspective of having seen it both ways. We opened our business a year after we were married and that’s over 20 years ago. I’ve found it to be very good. It’s the kind if situation where we are working together. We’re working on the same project, but, different aspects of it. She’s more in charge of the business and front of the house part and I’m in charge of the kitchen and the food, and general supplies in back of the house and that type of thing. We can go through a day where were working very hard and we’re not really having a whole lot to do with one another, but, we see each other. Occasionally, we pass. (Laughs). We get a chance to talk every once in awhile. I almost can’t imagine having it any other way, especially in this business where say if I was working in a restaurant and she was doing something else, we’d never see each other.

Q – Was this restaurant successful almost from the beginning?
A – Yeah, it was. We opened in November of 1979, in a different location in Soho, and moved here (Two Harrison Street) in 1989. That was a tiny, little restaurant, a 30 seat restaurant that we first opened. We were reviewed very, very soon after we opened and pretty favorably. We were just very busy from that moment on. Generally, our reviews have been good. We’ve been pretty much successful all the way through, although I would say we’ve definitely had ups and downs during the years. When we moved to this location we’d had a great review from The Times, then we had a bad review from The Times. That was also when the economy in New York really turned sour. We had bought our space. It’s a condominium so it’s our own space. We bought it when the market was really high, and then the bottom dropped out of the real estate market. So, we had some very, very tough years. I mean, we almost didn’t make it. But, since then things have turned around very, very well for us. I think if you last long enough, you’re bound to have ups and downs.

Q – You were only 24, when you opened the restaurant. How does a 24 year old gather the resources necessary to start such a venture? Did you have financial backers?
A – Yeah, we did. It was a very shoe-string kind of opening. We did a lot of work ourselves and had friends of the family help us, with all kinds of things-----painting, stripping paint off of a cast iron façade, repairing stuff inside. We did a lot ourselves. We did a lot for very little money. We had a lot of people put money in. They were all not putting a whole lot of money in. So, we really opened for just a little bit over $100,000. We had a friend in the furniture business who leased us the chairs that we use. We would never have been able to afford the chairs that we have. So, we paid it off over a long period of time.

Q – Your restaurant attracts a sophisticated international clientele. Would that translate into bankers, financiers, and movie stars?
A – Not a whole lot of movie stars. We’re not a terribly trendy restaurant. We’re not the latest thing. We’ve been reviewed real well in the foreign press. There are a lot of foreign tourists in New York. We get people who are French and German, and a lot of Japanese people. What exactly their professions are, I don’t necessarily know. We get a lot of art world people. And you know, just the general kind of people who go out to dinner in New York and can spend money. (Laughs). And then, lots of regular people who once or twice a year treat themselves to a very special evening.

Q – Are you able to mention any of the more celebrated patrons of your restaurant?
A – We don’t do that.

Q – You are only one of four chefs nationally to hold the Four Star rating from The New York Times. What does that mean to you personally and professionally for the restaurant?
A – Well, you know, I have a sort of ambivalence about the whole star system. There have been times when it’s been good to me, and there have been times when it’s been bad for me. Right now, we’ve got these four stars which is great. It’s great for business. It’s an honor. It makes me feel that I’ve succeeded in something that I set out to do. But, at the same time, it’s really just one person’s opinion and the power of it, is enormous. In New York City, there really is no review that holds the same weight as The New York Times Restaurant Review. There are other reviews and they have their impact, but, in no way does it compare to The New York Times. I think that in some ways that’s unfortunate. We got Four Stars in ’87, and Two Stars in ’89. It killed our business for awhile. Again, that was one person’s opinion. I think the concept of giving stars and giving a numerical value to a restaurant is very faulty. How you experience a restaurant is made up of so many different things and so many different factors. The experience that you want on a certain night or a certain day, is not the same experience you might want a week later. Generally, a Reviewer might come to a restaurant 3 or 4 times. It might have a very good picture of what that restaurant is like. It might be able to describe it in words, so intelligent people reading the review will decide is this the place I want to go? Is this the place I want to go for this occasion or another occasion? All that people remember is the number of stars at the end. They don’t remember what the review said. I just think that’s very unfortunate.

Q – Am I to understand that you do all the cooking in the restaurant?
A – No. Not at all. We’re now in about a 65 seat restaurant. We’re open for lunch and dinner. I’m the chef. I’m very hands-on and I do some of the cooking, but clearly I have a staff of other people that do a lot. I have a pastry chef. I have cooks on the line. So, it’s kind of a personal endeavor in the sense that it’s me and my wife and we’re here. We’re very much present. Our personalities are felt in the food and the service. The menu changes all the time. So, it’s constantly evolving and it’s my menu. But, I certainly wouldn’t say I do all the cooking.

Q – What did you do before opening the restaurant?
A – Not much of anything. I mean I worked in other restaurants. I went to college. I was interested in science, but, it turned out that was not going to be my thing. After college, I took one of the standard tours of Europe, the back-back and everything. I had been interested in cooking. I’d been doing a lot of cooking, and reading, but, I had no professional experience. So, when I came back, I got a job in a restaurant. Then at the same time, I applied to the Culinary Institute and I worked in the restaurant for awhile and then I went to the Culinary Institute and worked in other restaurants. I came back to New York to work for a couple of years in a small French restaurant and decided maybe I can do something and was encouraged by my wife and family and friends and just went ahead and did it.

Official Website: Chanterelle

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