Photo courtesy of The International Culinary Center
The Daily Meal is announcing the inductees into its Hall of Fame for 2016. The Hall of Fame honors key figures, both living and dead, from the world of food. We are introducing the honorees, one per weekday. Today's inductee is André Soltner.
I remember clearly my first meal at Lutèce, the landmark French restaurant in a townhouse on East 50th Street in Manhattan where André Soltner cooked for 33 years (and which he owned for 22). The year was 1976, when rumors of France's nouvelle cuisine were first percolating through America's Gallic kitchens. I was in town from Los Angeles, dining with the L.A. Times restaurant critic of the time, Lois Dwan. I don't recall what she ordered, but I had seafood sausage, as delicate as a cloud (or, as Ruth Reichl once wrote about Soltner's onion tart, "so light it seemed held together by a wish"), then loin of venison, cooked rare and sliced thin and simultaneously delicate and earthy. You will perhaps not believe me when I say this, but sausage made with seafood and venison cooked rare were absolutely unheard-of at that time in America (and probably pretty scarce even in France). But Soltner understood them and how to prepare them exquisitely, and by that time he had enough confidence — and had earned the respect and trust of a large enough clientele — that he could get away with this then-revolutionary food.
Soltner, who was born in Alsace in 1932 and began his cooking career at the age of 15, was a perfectionist in the kitchen, trained classically but open to new ideas. He was also absolutely dedicated to his kitchen; it is said that he missed only five nights of service in 33 years, and one can only imagine that he must have been at death's door for that to have happened at all. For decades, Lutèce set the standard for fine French cuisine in this country; no less an authority than Julia Child considered it the best French restaurant in America, and plenty of people agreed with her.
Though he retired from Lutèce in 1994, after it had been purchased by the large-scale Ark Restaurants group (the place closed 10 years later), he has remained active, no longer running a restaurant kitchen but sharing his many years of experience and culinary wisdom as a dean at International Culinary Center in New York City.