David Waltuck Just Wants to Cook. Five Years After Chanterelle Closed, He’s Back in the Kitchen at Élan.
[Note: This is our monthly sister post to my Kitchen Time Machine series on Eater. Click over there to read part 1 of my interview with David Waltuck, joined by wife and Chanterelle partner Karen. – A.F.]
NEW YORK CITY — Once upon a time, there was a little boy named David. He grew up in the Bronx, on Eastern European home cooking, but had a fascination with French food and restaurants. On the weekends, he would experiment in the kitchen, at first with elemental preparations like mayonnaise, and then with more ambitious projects such as terrines.
This was back in the mid-1970s and that boy grew up to marry his high school sweetheart, Karen, and together the couple, the Waltucks, opened one of the landmark restaurants of its era in the United States: Chanterelle. On Monday, without Karen (but in partnership with former Chanterelle GM George Stinson), David will launch the new restaurant élan, on East 20th Street in Manhattan.
The thing that’s always fascinated me about David (with whom I collaborated on Chanterelle’s cookbook), is that as much as any chef I’ve ever met, all he’s ever really wanted to do was cook, but that’s easier for a little boy in the Bronx as a hobby than it is for a grown professional in New York City, especially these days when real estate costs are driving even the likes of Union Square Cafe to new digs.
But love is a powerful thing, even the love of cooking, and it can drive a man to stay the course until he’s back with his beloved. Like Daniel Day Lewis’ Hawkeye screaming, “No matter what occurs, I WILL FIND YOU!” in Last of the Mohicans, David has always found his way back to cooking, back to a situation that has allowed him to cook his food, even though, most recently, it’s taken years.
In fact, the chapters in David’s life can seem like a series of love triangles played out in different genres. The first of them was a romantic comedy with David cast as the young man headed to the altar with the wrong woman. No, not the personal altar, where he was already linked to Karen, but the professional one. He loved cooking, but it wasn’t an acceptable thing for a young person from a good home to become a cook. So David began studying, of all things, marine biology, then made a life-saving swerve toward the kitchen.
“My parents, my family, thought I was crazy,” he told me in a book interview not long ago. “There was no Food Network. There was no culture of celebrity chef. There wasn’t any of that. They went with it but they were very nervous about the whole thing. It was like, ‘You want to be an anonymous worker in a kitchen?’ There wasn’t any glamor.”
David and Karen made a formative trip to France, eating in the best restaurants and soaking up influence and inspiration for the day they’d open their own place. Back in New York City, David dropped out of cooking school, worked at La Petite Ferme. He and Karen began throwing dinner parties–he’d plan and prep them all week long; Karen would buy the wine, decorate their little apartment with flowers. The meals became the model for what became Chanterelle and it all happened more quickly than anybody might have imagined, fueled in part by their dinner guests telling them, “You two should open a restaurant!”
Back then, that was enough: David was just twenty-four when they opened Chanterelle, which spoke as much to his and Karen’s abilities and ambition as it did to the times and the relatively low barrier to entry. My favorite story about the startup is one Karen loves to tell: They were sitting in their construction site of a dining room on Grand Street late one night, having just realized they had exhausted the money they’d raised to open their dream place. Minutes later, a couple, roller skating by on their way home from the Roxy, stuck their heads in and asked them what they were up to. Next thing they knew, the couple (turned out they were well-to-do art dealers) had put together a dinner for potential investors, who kicked in the additional funds they needed. Problem solved!
The rest, as they say, is history. Chanterelle opened not long after that, and had a storied, thirty-year run.
Those decades, of course, saw the development of the celebrity-chef culture, and the second of David’s love triangles as he fended off the temptation of cooking’s other woman–fame. Truth be told, this really wasn’t much of a drama because David, who Karen had to practically drag into the dining room to say hello to guests in Chanterelle’s earliest days, was shy by nature and didn’t get into cooking for anything but the love of the craft. He wrote two cookbooks, but that was about it–he never went after a television show, product line, or the rest of it. And he never second guessed or regretted that decision.
And then, the end came. In 2009, Chanterelle was supposed to be renovated, then reopened in a somewhat modernized form. Demolition had commenced but the investor financing the evolution pulled out, just before the papers memorializing the arrangement were to be signed. I still remember where I was standing when I heard the news: I was walking my dog at the corner of 4th Street and Smith Street in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, when Karen called me on my mobile phone and said, simply, “It’s over.” Ever-courteous, she had wanted friends to hear it from her before they saw it online or in the New York Times. (I mention this because many assumed that talk of “renovations” was merely a cover story for an inevitable closing, as it often is in the industry, but in this case, it was the truth.)
2009 and 1979 were very different. Nobody roller skated to the rescue this time, and the restaurant’s closing led to the next triangle in David’s professional life, between security and passion. For the past three years, he has been consulting to Ark Restaurants. The relationship began with a consultancy on Ark’s restaurant Robert in the Museum of Arts and Design high above Columbus Circle, and grew into a full-fledged, company-wide, consulting chef gig. (Jonathan Waxman once held the same job during a similar phase in his career.) David worked on Ark projects in New York City, such as conceiving the food for Walt Frazier’s Wine and Dine, at the Meadowlands, and in Washington, DC and Las Vegas, and he and Ark’s Michael Weinstein have a warm and wonderful relationship. “I love David,” Michael beamed to me when I saw him not long ago.
But satisfying as the work could be, David still wanted to cook. His own food. In his own restaurant. It didn’t have to be fancy, like Chanterelle. In fact, he wanted it to be more causal, more everyday. (We discuss this aspect of of élan at length in part two of our Kitchen Time Machine interview, coming Monday.) Karen had moved on from the hospitality business, and is now with the nonprofit Job Path, placing people with developmental disabilities in employment situations. And so David partnered with George Stinson, Chanterelle’s former GM, and they started looking for spaces, eventually securing the former home of Veritas on East 20th Street.
Last night the restaurant held its first “friends and family” dinner (a dry run to get the kinks out and receive constructive feedback from intimates before opening), and tonight will be the second. At 9:30 this morning, David was already back in the restaurant, sounding upbeat, energized.
He says that he didn’t really have butterflies last night, largely because he’s coming into this enterprise with a chef de cuisine, Matt Koffman, in tow.
“I don’t feel as much out on my own in the kitchen because I have Matt,” David said. “I went out in the dining room, said hello to people. In the old days, I would come in and start setting up, doing prep, getting all the stations set up, and when my sous chef came in, I thought, ‘Now somebody’s got my back.’ I’d feel better.”
David had functioned as a line cook as much as a chef for much of Chanterelle’s lifespan. Now, as he approaches 60, he sees his role differently. The pleasures of élan, he says, are already coming from “creating my own menu, being in my own kitchen, the feeling that this is my space, my guys, that we’re working on something together. I am cooking but I’m not sauteing every fish. I’m tweaking things, I’m making sauces, I’ll be running specials. It’s my food.”
In about 72 hours, thirty-five years after Chanterelle debuted, and five years after it was suddenly taken away from him, David will finally launch his new restaurant. It won’t be revolutionary. It won’t take residence alongside Chanterelle in the history books. But it will be a place for David to cook and create, and for people who fondly remember his food to see and taste how it’s evolved. It’s a much different restaurant than Chanterelle–less formal, more whimsical–but for those who were too young to have experienced it, or too light in the wallet to have dined there, it will give them some idea of what they were missing, and what all the fuss was about.