Many guests of Crystal Cruises have had the rare good fortune to get to know Andre Soltner and experience his cuisine during cruises when he has been a guest chef. They join august company because for celebrities, movers and shakers, Soltner’s Lutèce in Manhattan was the must-do restaurant of the 1960s through the 1980s. You’ve seen Lutèce recreated in movies and in episodes of Mad Men.
But what was life like behind the scenes for the man who created the legend? In an exclusive interview with The Cruisington Times’ Wallace Immen, Soltner–who was the celebrity chef on a Crystal Cruises Food and Wine Theme cruise on Crystal Serenity–dished about great food, diners and celebrity chefs:
You’ve said you consider yourself a cook and not a chef. Why is that?
Because that’s what we all are. When I ran Lutèce, chefs did not think of themselves as stars. When I first got a four-star review in The New York Times I really didn’t even know until someone congratulated me. I said: for what? She said: “You have four stars.” I said “that’s nice.” My partner–who was a little snobbish– let the publicity go to his head. One day to bring him down I said: “You know what we are is soup makers–we make soup and that’s all; don’t be too snobbish.”
You became popular with celebrities and powerful people. What was it like having such well known people as regulars at your restaurant?
You know what, we had the whole world; we had everybody. Almost every night we had movie actors, artists, ambassadors, presidents. Many nights we had to find places for their body guards for people like President (Richaard) Nixon, Henry Kissinger and Frank Sinatra. Some nights there were crowds of reporters outside the door. We were so popular it was a problem. We would start to take reservations for one month in advance at 9:30 in the morning and by 10:30 we had sold out and we had to take our telephones off the hook. Sometimes I was afraid to go out in the street because people who did not get a reservation gave me a hard time. A few times we had people start a law suit for discrimination. Once, I had to tell the staff for Francois Mitterrand that I did not have a table for him. They said: “don’t you understand he is the President of France?” I said “Yes, I know but I still don’t have a table.” Another problem is we had people who came for over 20 years and they thought that they owned a table and when you had two on the same day –two who thought they owned (the same) table–it was difficult. That was something my wife Simone had to handle and she did it well.
What was life like for you at Lutèce?
I started at 8 in the morning in the office and at 9:15 I would go to the kitchen and work with the chefs in preparation and by 11 we started cooking so we could be ready at noon. I was in the restaurant with the customers until after 2 and then we would start preparing for the evening. I tried to take a 10 minute nap before 5 and then Simone and I had dinner. By 5:30 we had to be downstairs and I would be in the kitchen until 10. And then I would do my rounds talking with customers and plan the next day and order supplies. It was 1 a.m. by the time I could go upstairs. I talked with Simone while I had a sandwich and a beer. And then we would go to bed. It was hard, but I have no regrets. Well, the only regret I have sometimes is I couldn’t give my wife a nicer life. When we were young we had no money, but later on we made a good living. We were not Rockefellers but I said to Simone: “you know, I want to buy you whatever you wish.” I was thinking a diamond and she looked at me and she said: “if you want to be nice to me, take me to a movie.” I said to her: ”my God what did I do.? I didn’t even take time out to be with my wife?”
You prepared a meal for 920 on Crystal Serenity. That must have been a much bigger challenge than running Lutèce, that seated 92.
That’s true. But here we have 80 chefs and I had a lot of help. At Lutece I had a staff of 42 and only five of them were chefs. For me, the meal on Crystal Serenity was easy to organize because the crew are all professional and very organized and it went beautifully.
How did you decide what to have on the menu?
It always depends on what is available and whatever is the freshest. I come to this ship quite often and I know what recipes that I can do and what ingredients I need. I discuss possibilities with the chefs and we plan the menu. You have to look at how much time it takes to prepare. You have people coming to the table at 6:15 and they are ready to eat.
Is there a particular place you like to travel in Europe?
If you look at Europe, Barcelona is fantastic. That old market is fantastic for fresh ingredients. Yesterday, I went with the chef and pastry chef to the market in Nice. The advantage of a smaller ship like Crystal Serenity that they can buy in the local markets and can be in touch with the local suppliers. I am sure Serenity’s chefs are already in touch with the market in Barcelona when we arrive so they can get what is freshest.
Are there trends in French cuisine that you find exciting now?
When I started in the 1960s, I cooked very classic French cuisine. Then came the trend of nouvelle cuisine in the 1970s and some accepted it and some– like me–didn’t. But it did make all of us lighten our sauces a little bit. Now they are talking about things like molecular cuisine but there is also a return to basics and regional cooking. There is always some good to came out of any trend, but it is always still about the basics in French cuisine. I find many of the young generation of chefs forget that a little bit. Today what I criticize for my students is that they pay too much attention to presentation. Presentation is very important, but the main thing in cuisine is always the taste and that you satisfy people. When you are finished with a great meal you never say: “oh that was beautiful”; you say it was good and satisfying. A meal is only good when the next day you say: “I slept well last night, I feel good and I feel like doing it again.”
Do you think young people today appreciate food in the same way as previous generations?
There are as many or more people who appreciate good food as in the past. Forty years ago food was not as important as it is today. Now, they talk about it in newspapers magazines and on television and the young generation is more much interested in cooking. And we have much more diversity in chefs. I came to the States in 1961 and there were mostly immigrants from Europe in restaurants but today there are many good chefs from America.
You’ve been a guest chef on Crystal Cruises many times. What keeps you coming back?
It is not like working in a restaurant in the kitchen. They make me feel very welcome here and it is a fantastic ambience with very professional chefs. It is also nice to get to know the customers. But I also enjoy being a passenger as well. I will come back as long as I can.
See more about Crystal Cruises and a review of My Dinner with Andre on The Cruisington Times.