At Chanterelle, Staff Members are Family

It’s 5:30 on a wintry Wednesday at Chanterelle, and line cooks, reservationists, waitstaff and even executive chef and owner David Waltuck gather at a white linen-draped round table in the dining room to take a dinner break before service. While Chanterelle is renowned for David’s riffs on classics like monkfish osso bucco with preserved lemon and potato risotto with sautéed foie gras, his staff meals are infamous in their own right—there’s even a cookbook dedicated to them, Staff Meals from Chanterelle (Workman, 2000).

On this soggy evening, staffers tear into crispy duck legs with a sweet chili glaze and coconut rice with bamboo shoots and peas. The banter turns to the state of the city’s Chinese food, to David’s media appearances to promote his new book Chanterelle (Taunton, 2008), to upcoming charity benefits, to the restaurant’s annual friends-and-family Chinese New Year celebration, to a very serious coffee cupping occurring at a back table and to David’s latest passion project: consultant for the newly opened Chinese-cum-Portuguese restaurant Macao Trading Company.

Here, in the 16-table dining room lit by sparkling chandeliers and the refracted flints of light that bounce from polished silver and stemware, lies the essence of Chanterelle. Though the restaurant has garnered a lion’s share of awards, including a fistful from the James Beard Foundation (Outstanding NYC Chef, Outstanding Restaurant, Outstanding Service and Outstanding Sommelier), two four-star reviews from the New York Times, and recognition as one of Zagat’s top 20 most popular NYC restaurants for nearly three decades running, Chanterelle is not about award-touting. It’s not about the list of celebrities who regularly fill its reservation book either.

From the connection David and his wife-partner Karen feel to their hometown, New York City (they both grew up in the Bronx), to the familial bond with their staff (many of whom have served the Waltucks for decades), and the family wineries and farms they so happily support, one could deduce that Chanterelle is perhaps New York’s toniest mom-and-pop joint.

A CIA dropout with a congenital passion for cookbooks and dining out, David opened Chanterelle with his wife Karen (whom he has known since high school) in 1979 in SoHo, back when it was a neighborhood where the well-heeled rarely dared to venture after dark (he recalls the days when taxis would pull up to the entrance, pause and speed off, passengers in tow). It was one of the few spaces the Waltucks could afford (forget about Uptown), so they transformed it from a former corset factory showroom-cumbodega into a restaurant that to this day represents everything that is contemporary American dining. While David stuffed seafood sausages and perfected duck terrines to feed area artists—and gourmands willing to venture south of Houston—Karen curated the front of the house, tending to everything from the towering flowers (which she still arranges) to the monthly menus (which she still scribes by hand).

Thirty years later, though they’ve moved from SoHo to Tribeca, their vision remains much the same: a unique brand of nonchalant grace, where the dress code is that there isn’t one; the only music stems from peaks and lulls in conversation; and there’s no hierarchy among the waitstaff and nary a busboy in sight. At this fine dining utopia, David and Karen, who have two children, also consider themselves the adopted parents to a collection of composers- cum-waiters and moonlighting line cook-musicians. At Chanterelle, relationships matter as much as revenue.

David’s allegiances to purveyors are strong too. When Ariane Daugin, now regarded as a rock star in the meat world, launched her specialty meat company, D’Artagnan, in the mid ’80s, he was one of her original clients (before Daugin they convinced a Francophile friend to smuggle it in). And for years he has worked with a New England forager who hand-delivers fresh-picked wild fungi via the Boston-Chinatown bus. David is pretty sure he’s her only client.

Though art is absent from the walls, Chanterelle’s trademark menus bear original works from creative luminaries like Jasper Johns and Robert Mapplethorpe. The idea was born from the Waltucks’ friendship with artist, costume and set designer Bill Katz, the very man who urged David to cook while he was pursuing a degree in marine biology, and who designed the Chanterelle space. Katz has been plugged into SoHo’s art scene since its heyday as an artists’ enclave in the ’70s, and introduced the Waltucks to then relatively unknown artists like Keith Haring. The resulting collection tracks 30 years of modern art. From Marisol’s first menu to the upcoming 30th anniversary cover designed by Chuck Close, each is created specifically for Chanterelle in return for a taste of David’s art—a meal in the restaurant. Upon retiring from their six-month circulation, covers are displayed in the restaurant’s sitting area; Karen hopes to one day publish a book of them.

In a business where turnover can be constant, many Chanterelle staff count their tenure in decades. Fromager Adrian Murcia and pastry chef Kate Zuckerman have been with the Waltucks for eight and nine years respectively; sommelier Roger Dagorn for 15; general manager George Stinson for more than a decade; and Randy, the longest serving waiter, for 26-odd years (David says he didn’t join them from day one because “he wanted to make sure we’d make it.”)

He needn’t have worried. “We just get up every day and come to work,” says David. “Thirty years just go by.”

Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell