Conversations with the Masters: Chef Andre Soltner Part II

Andre Soltner, Master Craftsman, King of the French Cuisine and the subject of this, the second of a two part, interview aptly titled Conversations with the Masters offers his wisdom for the next generation chef.

The Masters: Chef Andre Soltner, Jacques Pepin and Alian Sailhac.

Soltner’s humble background and love of cooking is evident in all he does. For the last fourteen years he has been the Dean of Classic Studies at Manhattan’s French Culinary Institute. He is internationally known as the first superstar chef.

Lutece with Chef Soltner.

His acclaimed, Lutece, was the beginning of haute-cuisine. Known for his wit and a welcoming personality, he single handedly turned Lutece into a destination must for celebrities, presidents, politicians and if the reservations were made in advanced, even the common man, the writer, the lucky couple celebrating their anniversary. On the day Lutece closed the, unusually affectionate, New York Times ran an obituary for the beloved restaurant on the front page proclaiming an end of an era.

Chef Soltner explains the importance of salt.

To the Iron Chef hopeful; he is a samurai warrior with life lessons that seem mundane until you face the heat. He is the drill instructor who ensures when you leave his instruction you will have a level of his skill embedded in your technique.

Personal instruction from the Master Chef makes the NYCE weekend a special treat.

This is Part II of our engaging interview that left me hungry for knowledge and a belief that anyone, even if take-out is your specialty, could move beyond culinary challenged into chef extraordinaire.

Chef Andre Soltner's instruction at the New York Culinary Experience Weekend.

Janet Walker: "You are considered a Master Chef with the highest honors the profession awards for a sustained period of time. No restaurant has been able to hold the same attention and elevation that Lutece held. Was it the Cuisine; the talent or the journalism?"

Andre Soltner: "Overall, I hope it was the cuisine. I hope it was the cuisine because that’s what I know best. Talent? Talent, I always say talent is not the main thing. I say to the chefs, ‘Yes, you need a little talent.’ The rest, is discipline, organization and technique. Talent. I hate for chefs to hear too much of talent because talent is for artists. They always say, ‘we are not artists, we are craftspeople.’"

"The difference between the artist and the craftsperson is the craftsperson needs a little talent and they really need a lot discipline and a lot of learning. Talent alone, in our work doesn’t work because that’s not enough. You need discipline, you need to produce a good meal, a good dinner twice a day, every day.  You know, talent is for artists. Talent produces a painting, a very good painting and the next day he doesn’t feel like doing a painting so he puts it away. We cannot do that. We have to be consistent. We have to produce good, excellent, twice a day every day.  So when I hear of talent. I don’t like that too much. Because we are crafts people."

Creating a masterpiece!

Janet Walker: "Your training took ten years; contemporary chefs graduate in three years; the FCI program is six months. Are French Culinary Institute Chefs trained with the same care and dedication to the craft?"

Andre Soltner: "Yes. Well, that is something that has changed very much in the last twenty to thirty years.  But still training is very, very important. You know the term wunderkind? When I hear of wunderkind I don’t believe in that. You know? You’re born, you have a little talent and an interest in cuisine."

"You aren’t born and then a chef. You have to train. It takes quite a few years. You mentioned it takes three years for an apprentice and now at FCI they do it in six months. Well, there’s a little misunderstanding.  After three years we were not good chefs. We learned only the basics. Today, they learn the basics in six months or one year or nine months. They learn differently and we teach differently."

Assisting every student harness their inner chef.

"At FCI, they are enrolled in cooking from the first day on. It took us three years. At the same time we learned, we were also cheap labor.  We learned, yes we picked up, but we worked also. After six months, you have to understand, everyone must understand, they are not fully accomplished they have just learned the basics.  They learn cooking right away. They have different teachers. No one teaches alike."

"At FCI where I am, what we want, what  we do is everything we can to teach  the students the basics. Then, from there on, they can go out, they can work with other chefs and little by little they improve. But to become a really good chef it still takes years. If they come out of the six months or three year apprenticeship they are not complete chefs."

Rolling the dough to create shell and crust.

"I, personally, believe even if you get an apprenticeship before you are considered a good chef you have to count ten years.  That doesn’t mean that if after six months in a school that teaches you the basics and then you go out and become an assistant chef  then a Chef de partie maybe a Sous-chef it doesn’t mean that after two years you’re not there, but you’re not an accomplished chef. A chef means he has to know how to cook, and he has to be able to teach the others, his co-workers to teach them so everything comes out the way he wants and to arrive at that I think it takes eight to ten years.  Even after that you continue to learn. You never stop learning and you can’t do that in six months and you can’t do that in three years." 

Before baking the Potato Tart.

Janet Walker: "What do you considered your highest culinary honor?
Andre Soltner: I have a lot of honors which I wasn’t really looking for and which I want the young people to understand is only the achievement at the end.  My highest honor is really was when I became Lauréat du Concours du Meilleur Ouvrier de France in 1968. That not only in cuisine. It’s all crafts people. Diamond cutters, hairdressers, pastry arts, everything. It started about one hundred years ago in France they started to lose the craftspeople. So they created Lauréat du Concours du Meilleur Ouvrier de France. That’s a contest which is held every four years. You compete with other chefs or others from your craft.  That was really my highest honor. I had many others from Lifetime Achievement from the James Beard Foundation, medals and things like that. They are nice. It’s nice to have."

The chefs of The French Culinary Institute.

Janet Walker: "What are your duties as Dean of Classic Studies?"
Andre Soltner: "Classic Cuisine is really what we have learned. The basics you know. Today, we don’t have to forget our basics. How we cook the meat; cut the vegetables, bone the meat how and why we cook.  If you want to make a sauce you have understand you have to make a stock first. Classic Cuisine is what we have learned over the last two hundred years. We cannot say, okay, today we can make modern cuisine. We cannot do that we have to go back and learn what we have experienced in the last two hundred years."

Preparing to add the final ingredients.

"My duties are to teach, what I just told you, to the younger generation. The younger generation has to understand classic cooking because without the basics they will never be good chef’s. Basic cuisine you know, we are cooks, whatever that means, we transform the ingredients so we can eat them with very good taste and flavor. Cooking is not only taste; It makes you feel good. Why do we cook vegetables? We could eat them raw. Why do we cook them? We cook them so we feel better after the meal. To make students understand what they need to become a chef. That’s my duties."

Adding crème fresh to the pie topping.

Janet Walker: "What are your future plans?
Andre Soltner: At my age, I’m 77, my future plans are not so great. I’m very happy at the school. I’ve very happy that I can give back a little bit of what I received from my chefs. My future plans are to do that as long as I can."

Master Chef Jacques Torres and Master Chef Andre Soltner.

Janet Walker: "What are some memorable moments as Dean of Classic Studies at The French Culinary Institute?"
Andre Soltner: "There are  a lot of good moments. At the school when I see students and when I see them three years later. They have good marks they start to be good chefs. That’s my big satisfaction."

Chef Soltner instructs each student as if they may be the next generation chef.

Janet Walker: "What is a Classic French meal?"
Andre Soltner:  "A classic French meal is what was done fifty to one hundred years ago. You don’t do it exactly they way they did it. We take the recipe and modernize it a little better. I’ll give you an example. Most of the restaurants you go to now you don’t see a soup on the menu. I consider that really not what it should be. Soups are a very basic thing to make. A good soup it’s not easy. You need the best ingredients. The freshest ingredients; it has to cook as long as it needs. When I was a young chef, an apprenticeship, we did three soups for lunch and three different soups for dinner. Now, today, you go to restaurants and most of the time you don’t see one soup.  Now, we never served a soup for dinner that was made for lunch. That’s classic cooking." 

Chef Soltner prepares each dish with love.

Janet Walker: "Have you ever come across someone in your tenure as faculty who exhibits the qualities of a superstar chef? What are those qualities?"
Andre Soltner: "Well, I come across many students, young people who have big quality. But to say right away they have the quality to become a superstar you know, that’s a little different thing. Many young chefs, many students, they have the quality of becoming great chefs. That’s what we are looking for, what chefs should be looking for. But to be a superstar you know, we have to see in a few years, maybe ten to fifteen years."

Adding flour to the dough.

"What is really a superstar anyway? Their practice should really not to become a superstar. The goal of the chef should be to become a really good chef, a really good cook, the superstar that’s not our goal. How many chefs become a superstar? Not everyone can become a superstars. There are hundreds of thousands of chefs, you know, everybody cannot become superstar once in a while there is one who becomes a superstar."

"Sometimes, I’m not even sure that superstars are very, very, very good chefs.  The young people that think they are going to become the superstar they’re on the wrong track. They should look to become good quality chef.  A great chefs. What is it to be a good chef? To be a good chef is I always say, to be a good chef, is a little talent, to be consistent, to be very serious, cook with love and to stay a little modest. For me it’s nice to be superstar but there are only five or six superstars. That’s not the point."

Kneading the dough for the shell.

"So, to cook with love and to stay a little modest, I think. The chef who cooks with love; he has to cook with love; he has to please his customer and he will be the superstar of his customer."

Our interview was conducted before the New York Culinary Experience Weekend which partners New York Magazine with The French Culinary Institute for two days of hands on instruction with the Masters of the culinary world allowing the novice to harness their inner chef and produce, at least for the weekend, the same cuisine created by the culinary genius.

From simple ingredients; A flavor so delicious!

Janet Walker: "How will you be participating for the New York Culinary Weekend?"
Andre Soltner: "I’m very happy to be part of that. I chose to teach them Potato Tart. Why a Potato Tart, you ask? Young people, you know,  right away think of decoration. How to decorate the plate and they think of caviar and foie gras and lobster. So I want to show the people they can do a very tasty dish with very simple ingredients.  I have an old recipe my mother used.  I always say that’s one of the best dishes I ever had in my sixty years of culinary.  It’s not expensive. It’s very cheap. I can show them you can do very tasty, very good cooking without going on with caviar and foie gras."

The class at the 2009 New York Culinary Experience Weekend.

Mr. Soltner gave the students who opted for his class a treasured cooking experience. He assisted them in preparing the famous Potato Tart. Before the class he prepared four pies for the class to enjoy. It was incredibly delicious! He revealed what one can create with simple basic ingredients. There was a pleasure in the taste that made the experience almost intimate.

The incredible Potato Tart. So delicious it's intimate!

That’s one of  the reason he reigned, for thirty-four years, as King of French Cuisine. And, trust me, he still does.

For information on the French Culinary Institute:

For French Culinary Institute  amateur cooking classes:

All New York Culinary Experience Weekend photos by Janet Walker courtesy of Pulse Point Productions, Inc.


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