NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Despite growing up in the Bronx and more than three decades in the restaurant business in Manhattan, American chef David Waltuck's cuisine is grounded in classic French techniques.
The owner, along with his wife Karen, of the famed New York restaurant Chanterelle, has weathered a fair share of struggles since it opened in 1979.
At the time New York City nearly buckled under a fiscal crisis, and more than two decades later the downtown restaurant survived the Sept 11 attacks on the World Trade Center which was not far away.
Through it all, Waltuck's creative, French-inspired cuisine has garnered awards and a devoted following. It also formed the basis for his latest cookbook "Chanterelle: The Story and Recipes of a Restaurant Classic".
He spoke to Reuters about his passion for French cooking.
Q: How has your cuisine evolved?
A: "It has not changed that much. I've gotten better with what I do. The essence of it hasn't changed. I'm basically self-taught. I'm still very French-oriented. There has been more of an opening to Asian ingredients and Middle Eastern ingredients, which I didn't use when I first started."
Q: By incorporating elements from other cuisines to your French-based cooking, is it fusion cooking?
A: "I wouldn't call it fusion at all. If I use lemon-grass, soy sauce, ginger or couscous, it's always from a French aesthetic."
Q: What is it about French cooking that appeals to you?
A: "It is well thought out. There is also the mentality in French cooking that codifies everything. It's good to have rules and a diagrammatic approach to sauces like mother sauces and breakdown to other sauces. Even if you don't follow that, it's nice to have that in your mind. It's a way of thinking about food and that's appealing to me."
Q: Describe your relationship with your wife Karen.
A: "There is a classic idea of a restaurant which is a husband and wife enterprise: one is in the kitchen and the other is in front of the house. That's what we do, and it has worked out perfectly for us."
Q; How did 9/11 affect Chanterelle?
A: "At that time, we had two restaurants -- Chanterelle and a bistro which we eventually sold. We were closed for a couple of weeks. There was burning for months. The smell was intense. Everyone was worried about his health being affected. It was definitely tough. It definitely changed the neighborhood. I think it's totally back now."
Q: How are you coping with the current economic downturn?
A: "We haven't raised our prices recently ... We are very careful not to waste anything. In terms of ingredients, we've always used the same ones as we've used. I feel that we have to use a certain quality of ingredients and we have to use a certain range of ingredients. This is a luxury restaurant."
POACHED HALIBUT WITH SAFFRON, LEEKS, & BASIL (Serves 4)
Adopted from "Chanterelle: The Story and Recipes of a Restaurant Classic" by David Waltuck and Andrew Friedman (The Taunton Press, 2008)
2 tablespoons unsalted, softened butter
1 large shallot, minced
Four 6-ounce halibut fillets, any pin bones removed
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup fish stock or bottled clam juice
1/8 teaspoon high-quality saffron threads, plus more to taste
About 1/2 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Pinch of kosher salt, plus more to taste
2 cups leeks (white and very light green parts only) cut into 1/4 x 2-inch ribbons (from about 4 leeks)
1-1/2 cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons fresh basil cut into chiffonade
1. Rub one tablespoon of butter over the bottom of a deep, heavy-bottomed 10- or 12-inch saute pan.
2. Sprinkle the shallot over the bottom of the pan and set the fillets on top without crowding them. Gently pour the wine and stock over and around the fish to come about two-thirds up their sides. Cover the pan tightly with a lid or aluminum foil, set over medium-high heat, and bring to a rolling boil, about 3 minutes.
3. Reduce the heat to medium and cook the fish for another minute. Remove the lid, then use a fish spatula or regular spatula to remove the fillets from the pan and transfer them to a large plate or platter. (They will be slightly undercooked, but will continue to cook via carry-over heat.) Cover loosely with foil to keep them warm. (If you used foil to cover the pan, you can use the same foil to cover the fish.)
4. Reserve 1/2 cup of the poaching liquid and discard the rest. Return the liquid to the saute pan, set over high heat, and bring to a rolling boil.
5. Add the saffron and boil for one minute to reduce it and extract some flavor from the saffron. Add the lemon juice, salt, the remaining 1 tablespoon butter, and the leeks, and cook, stirring frequently, until the leeks are wilted and the sauce is slightly reduced, 3 to 4 minutes.
6. Stir in the cream and continue to reduce over high heat until the leeks are softened but still al dente and the sauce just coats the back of a wooden spoon, about five minutes.
7. Adjust the seasoning to taste with salt, more lemon juice if necessary, and a bit more saffron, if desired. Stir in the basil.
8. To serve, place a halibut fillet on each of four dinner plates, taking care to drain any juices that may have accumulated so as not to dilute the sauce. Spoon the leeks and sauce over the fish. Serve immediately.