In our early days in New York City, our exploration of cuisines in restaurants was largely limited to places like Alfredo’s and middle eastern places because that was all we could afford. The most famous eating places in New York, which generally had French food, were too expensive for us. And then we learned that many of these outstanding, beyond-our-means places had weekday prix fixe lunches, which, while not cheap, we could afford once in a great while.
A few times a year we would go to one. The spouse and I would work in the morning but take off the afternoon and meet at some well-regarded restaurant for a late lunch. After that we might head off to a gallery or museum. We considered it a mini-mini-vacation.
This once-in-a-while lunching at the top restaurants finally led us to Lutèce, then considered by many to be New York’s and, therefore the country’s, best restaurant. Located in an eastside townhouse, we were seated in a second-floor dining room where women with expensive pearls and men in expensive suits and, presumably, expense accounts sat. I don’t remember all we ate, but we thought it was marvelous and as the dining room emptied, we talked over the exceptional dishes. And then we saw the man with the tied apron and the toque—the Alsatian-born chef-owner, and legend, André Soltner, considered to one the most important chefs in the world.
We knew that his peers held him in awe. This regard comes across from Gabrielle Hamilton, one of New York City’s most outstanding chefs with one of the City’s best restaurants, Prune. In her book, Blood, Bones, & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef she tells of the time her sister, an editor at a cooking magazine, cooked omelet’s with Soltner. Just his method of cracking open eggs was noteworthy to other professionals. (I can’t recommend Hamilton’s book too much and not just to foodies. The elegantly-written memoir is fascinating on many levels. On the other hand, if you don’t know her restaurant, I won’t recommend it to you. It is already too hard to get reservations there.)
At our Lutèce lunch, after Soltner emerged from the kitchen, he exchanged a few words with one or two of the remaining patrons, who, by the way he talked to them, I assumed were regulars, but then he headed straight for us. He said that a waiter had told him in the kitchen how much we had enjoyed lunch, and especially a salmon dish, which the spouse had said to me might have been the best fish she had ever eaten. Soltner asked, “Would you like to know how to make it?” We mutely nodded. He pulled out a chair, sat down, and proceeded step by followable step to explain how he had made the dish. (The secret was bacon fat.) We thanked him. He got up and smiled and concluded, “I am so glad that you enjoyed it.” He walked back to the kitchen. We recognized how kind and gracious this was. It was clear that we were not regulars, that we might not ever even be back again, but sharing the recipe made us feel welcome and as if we belonged. And in fact, the spouse did a creditable job of recreating the salmon dish at a number of dinner parties.
André Soltner. And Alfredo Viazzi. Fame, running a wonderful organization, in this case a kitchen, and natural graciousness. They can all go together.