NEW YORK David Waltuck may be one of the best chefs in New York City, but don't expect to see offshoots of his restaurant Chanterelle popping up anytime soon in Paris, Dubai, Tokyo or Las Vegas.
And don't hold your breath for his star turn on the Food Network or his line of frozen food entrees featuring signature dishes like seafood sausage or rack of lamb with cumin salt.
No, Waltuck prefers to stay in the kitchen, turning out the sometimes Asian-inflected, French-inspired meals that have won him accolades for almost three decades from food critics and the city's legions of devoted restaurant-goers.
"I plan to continue doing what I do," Waltuck said in an interview over the summer. "I plan to continue being a chef and that means cooking. I'm not an empire builder."
Last spring, the James Beard Foundation named Waltuck best chef in New York City, just three years after picking Chanterelle as the nation's top restaurant.
Waltuck and his wife, Karen, burst onto New York's restaurant scene in 1979, opening a tiny restaurant (30 seats) in the then bleak, now trendy downtown loft district of SoHo.
The idea was to offer diners the experience of a three-star restaurant in France (the Michelin Guide's top ranking) but do so in an informal, contemporary American setting. There would be no intimidating menus in French, women would wait on tables alongside men (no suits and ties required) and everyone from the dishwasher to the sommelier would be able to answer any question a patron might have about the food or wine.
Within a month of its opening, Chanterelle had received a rave review in New York magazine from influential food critic Gael Greene, and ever since the critics and the public have more or less been gushing. The New York Times awarded it its top four-star rating in 1985 (Bryan Miller) and again in 1993 (Ruth Reichl) a sometimes make-or-break distinction that can fill tables even on a slow, midweek night.
"One of the things I've admired from the beginning of the restaurant and continue to admire today is the quality of the experience they give to their diners," said Reichl, now editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine. "Here's this couple who are thinking about every aspect of a meal in a way that is truly French not in a high falutin' way, but in the model of, 'This is our restaurant, we welcome you into our home."'
Waltuck, 52, opened Chanterelle at a time when being a chef was an essentially anonymous occupation, not a line of work that could lead to product endorsements and stints on "Iron Chef America."
Largely self-taught, Waltuck had done a short stint at the Culinary Institute of America and worked in a diner and at a few restaurants when he opened Chanterelle at age 24.
New York's Greene recalls arriving there one winter night shortly after it had opened on a desolate stretch of the cast iron industrial district that was then home mostly to artists. "It was such a shock, like finding a sapphire lying in the street," she said.
It wasn't as though Waltuck had toiled under the severe eye of a three-star chef in France, or studied at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris.
A marine biology major at City College, the Bronx native had gravitated toward the world of cooking almost as though it were a higher calling. He recalled the magic that restaurants held for him when his parents would take the family into Manhattan for the theater and dinner.
"It was just transporting for me. It was totally unlike anything I had at home," he said.
With its soaring ceilings and elegant brass chandeliers, the dining room at Chanterelle speaks to a kind of reverence for the experience of fine dining. Even the bar has been banished to a hallway, along with the cash register and computer terminal as though the sights and sounds of clanging commerce would unduly distract his guests.
The relatively small menu, which changes monthly, features classic French dishes like foie gras, rabbit saddle and guinea hen but with inventive accompaniments and, occasionally, bold spices. His menu in early October paired bacon-wrapped oysters with collard greens (as an appetizer) and, for an entree, grilled loin of lamb accompanied by zucchini blossoms stuffed with the spicy North African sausage merguez.
"If there's any real change in my style of cooking, it's incorporating foreign, non-French ingredients. But the technique is essentially French. If I use star anise, it's in the context of a veal stock base," he said. "It's totally consistent with the French way of looking at food."
Next year, the recipes for Chanterelle's repertoire of dishes will be compiled in a cookbook, Waltuck's second. His first, "Staff Meals from Chanterelle," was a collection of comfort foods like meat loaf and macaroni and cheese that Waltuck and others prepare for the restaurant's workers in the late afternoon.
The new cookbook will feature far more elaborate, time-consuming dishes such as pike quenelles with black truffles and chilled tomato consomme with crab. "Most of them are not for the 'Let's throw something together in 20 minutes' cook," he said. "Some have a lot of steps, but none are beyond the ability of a good home cook."
In a culinary world gone wild with outlandish combinations and exotic, if not eccentric, ingredients, Waltuck remains devoted to the principles of French cooking a cuisine built on slowly simmered stocks and reductions that, he says admiringly, distill the essence of things.
"I would say French cooking is based on the natural qualities and flavors of ingredients," he said. "I go a little beyond that. I like powerful flavors. I want you to taste them."
In New York, a city of some 20,000 eating establishments where dozens of restaurants open and close every week, he and his wife are decidedly survivors.
Since opening the first Chanterelle in SoHo, the Waltucks have moved to a larger space in a handsome, red-brick building in Tribeca (65 seats); opened and closed the small brasserie Le Zinc; endured, then overcome, the severe disruption that followed the World Trade Center attacks; and raised two children.
Tim Zagat, whose company publishes the popular series of guides based on customer ratings, said his reviewers consistently describe Chanterelle as "civilized," "refined" and a "paragon" of "understated, elegant food."
Merely surviving for 28 years "in the restaurant business is unusual," Zagat said. "To be in the top 10 for that long is unbelievable."
Waltuck attributes the longevity of Chanterelle to his and Karen's almost Zenlike indifference to financial rewards.
"It was always sort of a life mission, an idealistic thing," he said. "This is what we wanted to do and that's what we did. We stayed true to that through good and bad times."Award-winning chef David Waltuck doesn't just make memorable meals for diners at Chanterelle, one of New York's (and the nation's) most esteemed restaurants. This simple recipe for meatloaf comes from his book, "Staff Meals from Chanterelle."
Start to finish: 1 1/2 hours (10 minutes active)
Servings: 4 to 6
1 cup fine dry breadcrumbs
3/4 cup dry white wine or white grape juice
2 1/2 pounds lean ground beef (or equal mixture of ground beef, pork and veal)
4 ounces prosciutto, cut to a 1/4-inch dice
1 cup tomato sauce
2 large eggs
1 medium onion, cut to a 1/4-inch dice
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried basil
2 teaspoons dried thyme
Preheat oven to 350 F.
In a small bowl, combine the breadcrumbs and wine or grape juice and let soak until the soft, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl combine the beef, prosciutto, half of the tomato sauce, eggs, onion, garlic, oregano, basil, thyme, salt and pepper. Add the breadcrumbs and any wine in the bowl, then use your hands or a wooden spoon to mix well.
Transfer the mixture to a roasting pan and shape it into a loaf. Alternatively, transfer the mixture to an ovenproof glass or ceramic loaf pan. Top the meatloaf with the remaining tomato sauce and bake until nicely browned and a metal skewer inserted into the center comes out hot, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.Transfer the meatloaf to a platter and let it rest for 5 minutes before cutting into thick slices. From David Waltuck's "Staff Meals from Chanterelle," Workman, 2000