Fri Oct 2 2009
Karen and David Waltuck, just kids themselves when they started (Photo: Courtesy of Chanterelle)
The closings of restaurants in this city are so frequent that mostly, we take note and move on. With the announcement yesterday that Chanterelle will not reopen after a planned break for renovations, however, the city's eaters have suffered a profound loss, one that will be felt more widely and deeply than most. Already pieces have been written on the restaurant's significance: as a downtown pioneer, as one of the first fine-dining alternatives to stuffy haute-French eateries, and as a mom-and-pop operation that lasted 30 years in an environment increasingly dominated by restaurants with a business-first attitude.
For me, the closing of Chanterelle is especially personal. I probably wouldn't be writing this right now if it weren't for Karen and David Waltuck. When I was 13 years old, already with a strong interest in food, my mother asked me whether I'd prefer to mark the year with a bar mitzvah or a dinner at one of New York's best restaurants. The temptation of mitzvah loot aside, it was an easy choice.
As we walked to Chanterelle's relatively new Harrison Street spot on a summer evening in 1991, we ran into David's father, Murray, whom my mother had once worked with. Murray, beaming with paternal pride and seeing my fledgling interest in cuisine, asked if I'd like to meet his son. He led me into the kitchen midservice, where David took the time to stop and talk to this nervous barely-teen. He ended our chat with an offer: If I'd ever like to hang out in the kitchen, just call.
I anxiously took him up on it, and over the course of my high-school and college years I'd spend a day from time to time, trimming haricots verts, twisting florets of salmon mousse onto tiny pastry shells, watching buttered seafood sausages brown under the salamander's flame, and listening to racy adult banter among the cooks and waiters, who would gracefully whisk plates to tables in coordinated waves. Later, when I decided I wanted to cook professionally, it was David and Karen who welcomed me back for a more official stage.
From the start, even to the eyes of a 13-year-old, it was apparent how deeply they worked to nurture a sense of family at the restaurant: Many staff members remained constant through the years, familiar faces every time I returned; David and Karen's parents and children were frequent visitors; some of the biggest events of the year were private parties for friends and family, like David's great Chinese New Year feast, packed with current and past employees who were proof of the connections maintained even after they had moved on; and the daily family meal was cooked with more care than I've ever seen since (it's no accident that David's first cookbook was devoted to those recipes and not the sophisticated ones that made him famous).
This sense of family made Chanterelle feel like a home—a place where even if months or years had passed, you were always welcome to return. In fact, I hadn't eaten a proper dinner there in years, and was planning on making a reservation in time for its November reopening. I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling the regret that I didn't go just one more time, as if a loved one had passed unexpectedly before everything that needs to be said was said. Luckily, the people behind the restaurant are very much still here. So thank you, David and Karen, and everyone at Chanterelle, and congratulations: Thirty successful years creating the type of place that few manage to is really something to celebrate.
We can't wait to see what comes next.