De Gustibus Is a Miracle on 34th Street

Tucked behind Macy’s Herald Square, Arlene Feltman Sailhac has been running the cooking school since 1980.

EMAN 1 final4For nearly 30 years, any chef looking to make a name has come to pay respects at the eighth floor of Macy’s Herald Square. There, hidden behind swimwear in summer and ladies’ coats come fall, Arlene Feltman Sailhac has run the De Gustibus cooking school since 1980.

“It’s an institution,” says Devi chef Suvir Saran during a recent class. “New York would be nothing without this school.”

That’s quite a statement. Saran is such a devotee that, upon hearing Sailhac was seeking a successor, he urged his friend Sal Rizzo to take the reigns on the department store’s top floor. Energetic and slim despite 15 years in food, Rizzo has run culinary events at the James Beard Foundation and the cooking school run by La Cucina Italiana. This spring, with Saran’s encouragement and Sailhac’s blessing, he bought the De Gustibus name and reputation.

“Arlene created culinary theater,” says Rizzo.

If he’s exaggerating, it’s not by much. Wife of master chef Alain Sailhac—the senior dean of studies at the French Culinary Institute, the first chef of Le Cirque and the first chef to ever earn four stars from the Times—it’s not surprising Arlene Sailhac could entice the city’s best chefs and crowds of ticket-buyers to a simple schoolroom with no windows, an electric stove and a wicked elevator ride. You’ve probably seen their simple ads in The Times, which for years have listed an impressive roster of chefs—Puck, Boulud, Flay and Ripert—with minimum pretense.

Yet even as the food world changed focus from haute cuisine to Food Network celebri-chefs, Sailhac has kept chefs and students coming back for three decades, amassing an impressive photo gallery that captures those cooks before many of us knew their names, back when they still had all their hair.

Her success might be in the format: While chefs do all the cooking, students focus on the five-course, four-star supper laid before them, each dish paired with wines (prices for the new classes start at $90). Despite the simple back-storeroom surroundings, the meal is elegant and the students are rapt, especially the quorum of women of means who arrive before classes—which generally start around 5 p.m.—to shop. (Talking in class? You’ll be shushed by a regular.)

No doubt it’s been Sailhac, too, moving elegantly through the room, checking the wine and the time, and answering unspoken questions: “This is the eighth floor of Macy’s, we can’t have gas.” Rizzo’s updates are minimal. Beyond swapping the elementaryschool- style row seating for tall café tables and chairs, he’s painted walls (from white to cream), updated picture frames, revamped the logo with shades of grape, mustard and wine, and resurrected Sailhac’s long-abandoned tagline, “The School of Good Taste.” He’s courting the newly food savvy 20-to-30-somethings. (David Chang will make an appearance November 25.)

There’ll also be a new host, of course: Sal Rizzo himself, whose goal is to become the new face of good taste. “De Gustibus has always been a rite of passage for a chef,” he says, “I want to take it to the next century.”

Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

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Rachel Wharton is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.