Food Arts presents the June 1995 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to André Soltner, peerless New World standard-bearer for classic French cuisine.
After 34 years, Soltner and his wife, Simone, bid adieu to Lutèce, the restaurant in their charming New York City town house that became a metaphor for the enduring ultimate in fine French food. In October 1994, Soltner sold Lutèce to Ark Restaurants; in April, he cooked his final dinner at the 95-seat temple of classic cuisine. Both the sale and the farewell supper made the front page of the New York Times.
Alsatian-born Soltner started his professional life in typical European fashion as a 15-year-old apprentice. By the time André Surmain came to Paris to lure him to New York City to open Lutèce, Soltner was 28, a hot young chef at Chez Hansi.
Soltner arrived on these shores in the early '60s, just as the food revolution was about to take fire, and stayed to play a key role in elevating American professional gastronomy to a level on par with Paris. Classicist Henri Soulé had continued to champion the postwar way at Le Pavillon. The newly installed Kennedy White House, with its French chef and Jackie Kennedy's stylish entertaining, lent a youthful cachet to venerable French cuisine. Julia Child would soon make French cooking accessible to Americans fresh from travel in Europe and poised for new adventures in taste.
Soltner tells a little story that sums up the evolution of fine dining over the past three decades and his own role in the changes. "When I came here 34 years ago, I went around and looked at menus. Everybody had veal with chanterelles we want. It was like that with everything. In the beginning, we were the only ones who had fresh sole. We had it flown in and went to the airport ourselves to pick it up. Yes, our competitors had Dover sole—it was frozen." Soltner is justifiably proud of the role he played in creating a demand for the freshest and the best ingredients.
Lutèce got off to a rocky start. The first review from the New York Times's Craig Claiborne garnered the restaurant one star—the same as Chok Full o'Nuts. It was not until Soltner bought out his partner in 1973 that Lutèce took flight.
Dinner at Lutèce was always, in effect, dinner with André. In 34 years, he says he has missed dinner service only four days. He was always in the dining room, welcoming customers, making everyone feel special. The secret of success? "A chef must be serious," he says. "I am a craftsman, not an artist. Of course you need some talent, you need the feeling in your fingers. But you have to be at your job—on time—every day. You have to serve your customers today and tomorrow, at noon and again at six. You can't say 'I don't feel like it.' And you have to love cooking and the people for whom you are cooking. What is the best ingredient in a soup? It's love."
While he applauds the recognition chefs have received in recent years, he believes it's a problem when a chef "gets too big a head." Indeed, Soltner is known for stripping away pretension. "Never forget we are just soup merchants," he frequently reminded his former partner, Surmain. That charming modesty much endeared him to his customers over the years. And while Lutèce certainly has had its share of the powerful and the celebrated—the Kennedys, Nixon, Katherine Hepburn, John Lennon, Roy Lichtenstein—the main point was always the food rather than the scene.
Although the menus at Lutèce evolved over the years, it was not the place to sample the latest trends. "I am not a guy with blinders on. I look at what's going on," says Soltner, "but I never cut my roots. The biggest example of change is lighter, less concentrated stocks."
At 62, Soltner is hardly ripe for retirement. He's been bombarded with offers to teach and proposals for partnerships in restaurants. He's not in a hurry to make plans. He wants to go to the movies, organize his vast collection of cookbooks, do more skiing, try more restaurants. In fact, he greatly admires the next generation of chefs. "If restaurants in America improve as much in the next 20 years as they did in the last 20," he says, "our nation will be first in cooking."