Conversations with the Masters: Chef Andre Soltner

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Andre Soltner, at 78, is internationally recognized as the first "superstar" chef and a Master Chef of the highest honors. While still young he left home, to begin an apprenticeship that would transport him to worlds unknown. 

His acclaimed restaurant, Lutece, was the beginning of haute-cuisine. Known for his wit and a welcoming personality, he single-handedly turned Lutece into a destination must for the world's elite. He was the King. On the day Lutece closed the unusually affectionate New York Times ran an Obituary for the beloved restaurant on the front page proclaiming an end of an era.

John Mariani, columnist for Esquire, wrote this in 2004: "Those familiar with Mr. Soltner's enormous range always asked him to cook for them, which is what my wife and I did every anniversary for twenty years when Lutece was our special, romantic treat. Never in all those years did Soltner ever serve us the same dish twice, and none was ever on the printed menu. My notes from those years were teem with asterisks and exclamation points denoting wonderful, unforgettable dishes."


New York Culinary Experience: Cooking In The Presence of Greatness

Mr. Soltner and I spoke extensively, on his life, love of cuisine and his background. He is kind and generous, giving of his time, engaging, with a wonderful story. This is part one of a two part article.

Janet Walker: Before the age of 15 you were studying classic French cuisine. What was the inspiration that led someone so young into the kitchen and changed him so dramatically that it became a career?  

Andre Soltner: My inspiration when I was a kid was my mother. Like many kids, my mother was quite a good home cook. And I liked that. At this time we had to be at school until we were fourteen. At fourteen we stopped school. So what do you do? I liked to cook. So, I said to my parents "I'd like to be a Chef." 

My father, was looking for a job and, found a job as an apprentice. I was about 14 at this time and the apprenticeship was three years. Your parents, your father signed you up for three years. It started with a three months trial and after the three months you had a contract for three years. When my father signed the contract the chef said, "This boy belongs to me now." And he meant it.

I stayed at the apprenticeship for three years. I liked it very much. It was a tough period for young person. I was not home anymore. We started to learn little by little. We started to peel potatoes. After a month or two they put us on the stove and then preparation and how to bone the meat. Then, it was over. I did my three years. I  liked it very much. It was a tough, tough, time believe me and still, I liked it very much. Then, I knew my goal was to become a chef.  

A chef at this time, we're talking 1948, when I started my apprenticeship. At this time chef's were not superstars or not stars at all. Chef's were not really recognized in restaurants. The one who was recognized was the Matri'd or owner.  Chef's were in the kitchen and not recognized.

My chef, nobody knew him. I knew that he was a very good chef even as a young boy I knew how good he was at cooking. I learned with him and with the others. There was a small brigade there were seven chef's in the kitchen and I learned from them this time. After the three years at this time, there was an exam. I did very well. At the exam, I was first in the region. From there I went out to different restaurants.  I went to Switzerland and worked.  I picked up a little from everywhere and that's how you build up culinary.

I had to do my military service which I refused to be in the kitchen because in the military the food was terrible. After that I went to Paris and started as a Chef de partie.In a brigade, Chef de partie, is in charge of one station. I was hired in Paris as a Chef de partieI stayed there five years.

After three years I became the Sous-chef.The last year and a half; I was the head chef. At this time, I had ten chef's and two pastry chef. One of my pastry chef's came to New York, he emigrated to New York and then he met Andre Surmain who planned to open a restaurant in New York.

He told him he knew a young chef that would be good if he opened the restaurant. The gentleman, Andre Surmain, got in touch with me in Paris. He came to the restaurant where I was the Chef and had dinner. After dinner he asked to speak with the chef. He brought me greetings from the Pastry Chef and he told me the real reason he came here is that I wanted  to meet me outside of the restaurant.  We had a meeting the next day and he told me that he would like to a open restaurant, Lutece, and convinced me to come over.  I was then 28 and that was in 1961.

We opened Lutece. After two years at Lutece I already wanted to leave. My boss said, "No, no way you cannot leave. We'll to do much better if you stay. I'll take you as a partner." So I became partner at Lutece, that was 1963.  By 1971 our partnership was a little bumpy. I planned maybe to leave. He said, 'No, no, you don't leave. I'm burned out with this work.  You don't leave. I'll leave.' In 1972 I became sole partner. So that's the story. We went until 1994 when I sold our store.

Janet Walker: What are some of your most memorable moments as owner/chef of Lutece? Can you remember the first evening? What was it filled with?

Andre Soltner: I think every day was really memorable. We had really the whole world as customers. Everybody came. We were very exclusive. We had only twenty-nine tables. We refused a lot of people every day. We had presidents, ambassadors, movie stars. Everybody. The most memorable? We had President Nixon, The Kennedy family, all the movie stars. Every day was really memorable.

The first evening when we opened in 1961. My boss decided never to use any thing frozen or canned, so it was quite expensive. When I say expensive, today it doesn't sound expensive but then it was very expensive. We had a lunch, when we opened, of $8.50. It was such a scandal! It was so expensive that we reduced the price to $6.50. In the beginning, we were not busy because we were not known. We did about ten to twelve lunches; ten to twelve dinners a day. It was very, very, very slow.

After about five months, I was the not owner yet, I was the chef. We did so little business the owner disappeared he didn't know what to do any more. He just disappeared. It happens that a customer ask me to do a party on Long Island and, I remember very well, he gave me three thousand dollars. I paid, with three thousand dollars, the suppliers. After four or five days the owner came back and was surprised to find that Lutece was still opened. He was very surprised. 

From there on, little by little, we had more customers, little more customers, more customers. It went better. Those are my most memorable moments in the beginning.

Janet Walker: On the day restaurant closed?

Andre Soltner: The restaurant didn't close. I sold it to Ark Restaurants. They had about twenty to twenty-five restaurants in New York. The President of Ark, [Mike Weinstein] came once and he was interested in buying Lutece. By then, I was ready. By then I was 64, I had Lutece for 34 years. My wife was a little tired so I said, "Okay." When that was announced it was a big boom in every newspapers. On the last day I had the restaurant every customer from all over wanted the reservations. We only had 29 tables. So we had all our customers our old customers that came back. It was very sad day. The New York Times was there and did an article and that was the last day.


ICC Recreational Classes: Japanese-American Kitchen Review – Compliments to the Chef (Shefu ni Sanji)

Eric Asimov, of The New York Times wrote in 2004 at the closing of Lutece "Mr. Soltner's presence  . . had a magnetic effect on the legions of regular customers. ''There was something so genuine about it when Soltner was there,'' said Judith Jones, the longtime editor at Knopf, who recalled dining at Lutèce in the 1960's with James Beard. ''He was always present and came out to greet you and knew people's tastes. And yet it was extremely refined; it wasn't a bistro.''

My interview, Conversations with the Masters: Andre Soltner, continues in Part II as we talk more about his life, love of cuisine, teaching and the making of a "superstar" chef.

For information on the French Culinary Institute: http://www.internationalculinarycenter.com/

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