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Living Above Lutece - Leaving No Roads Untaken
By Rennie Weber

Andre Soltner, creator of meals that have tantalized even the most discerning palates, was first interviewed by this reporter in 1993. Even then he seemed to be looking for ways to reduce the many responsibilities he carried as owner/chef of Lutece, the widely-acclaimed restaurant on East 50th Street that he had owned since 1972.

Asked what he has been doing since selling Lutece in 1994 he said "Seeing the world. My assignments have taken my wife and me to places we never dreamed we would see."

Mr. Soltner has been teaching, lecturing, demonstrating and giving chef's luncheons not only in this country, but all over the world: Boston, Seattle, Portland, Deer Valley, Vail (which he describes as a skier's paradise), Mexico, Lisbon, Hawaii. To date Hawaii is his favorite. He has been there three times: once to teach at the University of Hawaii for three weeks and twice to participate in French festivals at different Hilton hotels.

He says when he travels to these regions he does not do regional cooking or use regional foods. "I am not there to compete with them. I am a French cook. I do French cooking."

Cruises are among his favorite assignments. Last year the Soltners sailed from Singapore to Sydney, Australia. In April they went on a 23-day cruise along the African coast sailing from Cape Town to London. As guest chef he gives demonstrations and chef's dinners every two or three days. "There are many chefs on these big ships, and I get help," he explained.

His main commitment, however, is to the Culinaire French Institute, in Soho, where he teaches basic French cooking two days a week. "I really enjoy being at the Institute. It's a great school. It is a pleasure to be around young students. They are so enthusiastic and eager to learn. Some show great promise."

"My own cooking philosophy has not changed. Fifty years ago we had good cooking, and that was the thing. Now cuisine is much more exposed. You can't pick up a newspaper or a magazine or watch TV without seeing a cooking segment. A roast was cooked the same way thirty years ago that it is today. What has changed are the things that accompany it. We no longer use canned or frozen foods. Now there is a vast selection of fresh food available. To prepare a good meal the foods cooked must be fresh and prepared with the best ingredients possible.

"Cooking is going in a great direction: natural, down-to-earth and well-prepared. The best thing that can be done with food is to make it taste as the best version of itself.

"Years ago a good chef was barely acknowledged. But now the chef has come out of the kitchen to become a star. It is very glamorous today to be a chef."

Steven Shaw, a lawyer who does well-respected reviews on his website as a hobby, has this to say about Andre Soltner: "When Andre Soltner opened Lutece fine dining in America was a joke. Through sheer perseverance and force-of-will he showed us - one entree at a time - that we could have restaurants just as good as any in the world. From his tiny kitchen on East 50th Street, Soltner taught a generation of diners that a good chef is more than a cook and thus laid the foundation for the recognition and status accorded the celebrity chefs of today."

Unlike Robert Frost who pondered over "the road not taken," Mr. Soltner is quite content with the road he chose to travel. "When I was young, I dreamed of being a cabinet maker like my father and older brother, but my mother felt two cabinet makers in the family were enough. She advised me to choose another trade. I was fifteen and I liked to cook. I think I made a good choice.

The Soltners divide what little time they have to spare between their city apartment and their weekend home in Hunter, New York.

"When I was at Lutece, I could only get there on Sunday. Now I can leave on a Friday and not return until Monday. It is very pleasant there. In summer we garden and play tennis and in winter we ski.

"I love to ski. I started when I was about six and have been skiing ever since. I even served my military duty in the French ski patrol."

The Lutece Cookbook written by Mr. Soltner was published by Random House in 1995 and has sold very well. He says he is "currently working on a small book in French, which I am doing with someone from the area in France where I grew up. He will write about my boyhood in the region and I will do about eighty recipes."

Asked if he misses Lutece, he replied: "No, I'm too busy. After all, I still live in the building and I have an excellent relationship with the new owner and chef. Whenever I am around and see someone I know, I stop by and say hello."

Mr. Soltner is obviously enjoying the new road he has taken. Apparently he has made the right choice again.

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