Karen & David Waltuck
Jim Poris / December 2004
Silver Spoon Food Arts presents the December 2004 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to David and Karen Waltuck, who have unwaveringly steered their pioneering restaurant, Chanterelle (New York City), to the ripe middle age of 25. With David, modest and reserved, in the kitchen, and Karen, gregarious and gracious, in the dining room, the couple were among the first wave of American restauranteurs to strip the formality but not the high standards from fine dining. More important, as urban bushwhackers, they ventured into edgy neighborhoods—first SoHo and then TriBeCa—sowing cachet where there had been little. Their venturesome spirit helped define "downtown" as a new genre of restaurant. Their mold is still being applied to city fringes all over the world. Their pluck was recognized this year with the James Beard Outstanding Restaurant Award.
"I never had a master plan," says David, who was 24 when Chanterelle opened in a SoHo storefront in 1979, with a $1,000 a month lease. "I just wanted a restaurant where I could cook the way I wanted. I had no grand ambitions. But it seems to have developed a life of its own."
Certainly, the Waltucks' professional life has been Chanterelle (and, to a lesser degree, their four year old bistro Le Zinc). "This has been a collaboration, the same as our lives together," says Karen, who notes that Chanterelle opened 14 months after the native New Yorkers married. "It's not as if we have jobs to go to. We just come to the restaurant in the morning, cook some eggs, and get settled in."
The Waltucks acknowledge their cues—David: "I read a lot; I interpreted what was happening in France with nouvelle cuisine"; Karen: "Handwriting the menu is not my idea, it's Mrs. [Fernand] Point's"—while remaining steadfastly modest about any influence they have had on others. Still, at a time when ambitious restaurants were calibrated by straitlaced tradition, the Waltucks set their own path: putting a woman (Karen) in charge of the dining room; offering a cheese cart; building a strong, menu-integrated wine and spirits program fronter by a star sommelier (Roger Dagorn); changing the menu often to reflect the seasons; and striping the hauteur from the service. To further emphasize the familial, Chanterelle dispensed with a formal coatroom; guests hang their outerwear themselves in an antique armoire. And as an expression of solidarity with the creative community that once thrived in their midst, the Waltucks have featured works by over 60 well-known artists—Marisol, Robert Mapplethorpe, John Cage, Robert Indiana, and Roy Lichtenstein, among others—on their menu covers.
"We didn't know a lot of things when we first started," admits David, who, for all intents and purposes, is a self-taught chef. "What we've achieved in terms of foodservice, ambience, organization, and business acumen is through a process of learning that still goes on."
For another 25 years, hopefully.