Ruth Reichl, who was a restaurant critic for The New York Times before becoming editor of Gourmet magazine, recently wrote a column for The Times in which she lamented the closing of one of New York's most famous and long-standing French restaurants, Lutèce. The demise of this much-loved institution has been the subject of a flurry of gushy eulogies in print and on the Web. Many of the writers tried to explain the unfortunate outcome but none did it as eloquently as Reichl. This is obvious even to someone, like me, who never had the opportunity (or money) to eat there.
For most of the restaurant's 43-year life span, the chef at Lutèce was André Soltner, not one of the young, tanned faces you see on a Food Network show, but definitely one of this country's first so-called celebrity chefs. His cooking revolutionized French food in America without the benefit of TV shows or infomercials hawking bottled spice blends. But he didn't let this fame ruin his restaurant.
Soltner and his wife lived (still lives) in an apartment above the restaurant. The chef was known for circulating among tables in the dining rooms, mingling and making nice-nice with customers both famous and not. He smiled, he suggested, he charmed and brought out tastes of the specials. He was absent from Lutèce for only five nights in 30 years—until the business was sold to Ark Restaurants in 1994.
The real tooth of Reichl's essay comes when she explains why she doesn't agree with those who argue that the closing of Lutèce is part of a larger trend, that it reflects the passing of fabulous French restaurants. By most accounts the soul of the restaurant was lost when Soltner left, not so much because the food wasn't as good (although many say it wasn't) but because his familiar face was no longer there to make patrons feel that they were all special guests of this brilliant, supremely hospitable friend.
"There are many thriving La Thises and La Thats," Reichl argues. "... Notice what they have in common: an owner standing at the door. Sirio Maccioni's smile awaits at Le Cirque 2000. The Jammets warmly welcome you to La Caravelle. ... They are a major part of the package."
Look at Albuquerque's restaurant culture with this in mind. How much of the success of Le Café Miche is due to the almost super-human efforts of Chef/Owner Claus Hjortkjaer? He is ever-present, teaching cooking classes in his wine bar, leaning across the counter to share a wine recommendation, swooping down on a familiar table for handshakes and inquiries into the flavor of the pâté. Miche's devoted clientele undoubtedly come as much for Claus as they do for his clafouti. The same can be said of many Albuquerque's favorite restaurants. They may take more than one day off every six years and they may serve enchiladas instead of escargots, but these chefs and restaurateurs remain the familiar faces that keep us coming back week after week.
Reichl was on to something when she wrote that no matter how well-known—even famous, chefs get, "... When most of us go out to eat we want to feel like the star of the show—and Soltner never forgot that." How special do you feel when you wait in line for an hour with a plastic pager in your pocket—just for the privilege of a table?