People move to New York City in their 20s hoping to play some part in the bright lights of the big city—the premieres, the openings, the parade of events. I was born here, however, and so it seemed like my big city invitation was lost in the mail for 25 years, until finally, after a quarter of a century lived and many millennia of words written, I was invited to a book party, a party for the release of Chanterelle: The Story and Recipes of a Restaurant Classic by David Waltuck and Andrew Friedman, the cookbook scion of the Tribeca French classic restaurant Chanterelle.
By way of greeting, I was presented with Chanterelle's perennial seafood sausage, which has been on the menu since the restaurant’s opening in 1979. It was to be followed over the course of the evening, successively, by a duck spring roll with hoisin, a fried oyster perched on a relish of cucumber and crowned with a dollop of curried mayonnaise, hamachi tartare bound in sushi seaweed, and a cocoa-coated marble of chocolate truffle. I was struck at first with the impression that nothing was as it seemed it would be: Not only was I washing down Chinese spring rolls with French Champagne, but for a restaurant that has five dollar signs next to its name on MenuPages.com, I was tasting a lot of what is often left off the menu at five-dollar-sign establishments: hospitality.
I was surprised to find the chef, owner of Chanterelle, and cookbook author David Waltuck standing relatively unharried in a corner, and approached him. When asked to choose his favorite dish, he balked. "That’s like choosing a favorite child," he protested. When I pushed him, he conceded that since the seafood sausage was the only thing he allowed to stay on his menu continuously, he supposed he would go with that. He explained that nothing stays on the menu at Chanterelle for more than a few weeks, and that he loves imagining new dishes and tasting them in his head as he adds them to the menu—which may explain the extensive size of the Chanterelle tome. He insisted that he loves to try different things, to see how "different places fit together," to "mix it all up." Sensing himself getting carried away, he blushed. "It’s just food," he said, and apologized for being inarticulate.
A man evidently shy of mouth, Waltuck addressed his guests, for indeed they were treated as guests and not as media cattle or table settings, saying that his speech would carry a greater verbal sum than the rest of his yearly wordly allowance put together. The guests, most of whom evidently knew him—judging from their eager eyes and bright, encouraging smiles—laughed. As he spoke, calling the book "a fantasy," he reiterated that, simply put, "I am a cook, and I love what I do." He spoke of his relish for the "ephemeral" nature of cooking, that "whatever you make, people have a tendency to eat," that seems to encourage his constant trending toward what is new and imagined. And as he spoke I began to understand that Waltuck had no reason to apologize for being inarticulate; his obvious emotion concerning his cooking was stymied by his attempt to put it into words. Waltuck, it became clear, expresses himself and his engaging hospitality through food. He lets the food speak for him.
His wife and Chanterelle co-owner, Karen Waltuck, reminisced about her favorite Chanterelle memory, when she and her husband would arrive early in the morning alone, when it was "just the two of [them]" in the restaurant on the corner of Harrison and Hudson streets, in a neighborhood that was, at the time, "nowhere." They would make breakfast together in "our little home, our little place." Their friend Thomas Lennon raved about Waltuck's tradition of closing Chanterelle on the Chinese New Year to cook the staff a feast of Chinese dishes, Waltuck's other favorite cuisine after his practiced French métier (exemplified by the book's duck & foie gras dumplings). The picture I was getting of Waltuck was a man who, while raising food to the art of cuisine, also reduced it to its most basic and ancient purpose—to feed those whom he considers family.
Lennon continued eagerly, "'I love to cook'—those four words capture the essence of [David]," insisting that for Waltuck it has never been about the celebrity or television or any of what Lennon claimed "modern chefs do." For Waltuck, Lennon insisted, "It's all about the food." When I asked Karen Waltuck to name her favorite Chanterelle dish, she coincided with her husband: the seafood sausage, which the couple seems to regard as their lucky charm. Their son, Jacob Waltuck, told me that his favorite dish his father makes for him at home is rice and beans, which goes to show again that David Waltuck cooks for family, whether that family is his son at home or an unknown journalist in attendance at his book-launch party at the restaurant, his home away from home.
As for my first big party—I tasted Waltuck's food along with a side of celebrity, which inevitably edged its way into what Waltuck called the "little world" of Chanterelle. I had spoken with Sara Moulton; I had stood feet from Martha Stewart. As I spoke with Karen Waltuck, the camera flashed bright starlight. Yet, as I left the starlight for the crisp Tribeca moonlight biting into a cake of chocolate raspberry ganache adorned with an unexpected and pert sprig of fresh basil, my favorite bite of the evening, and I felt, unexpectedly, both well-fed and well taken care of. And I realized what it was that Chanterelle and Waltuck had to say: It's not "just food." As Lennon has sagely said, "it's all about the food."
If you, too, want to speak personally with Waltuck, I suggest you buy his truly exquisite book, which is classic as the old New York architecture of his 1830 restaurant space and as thoughtful as the words he chooses. My favorite recipes are the ones that temper the usual ingredients with a dash of the unexpected: Salmon with Chamomile and Crisp Artichokes and Rose Petal-Infused Parfait with Cantaloupe Sorbet and Summer Raspberries. And, yes, the seafood sausage is on page 97 (but we've also excerpted it here with permission). The book is available now and is published by Taunton Press.
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