André Soltner, 75, was the chef and proprietor of Manhattan's legendary French restaurant Lutèce for more than three decades. For the past several years, instead of cooking for princes, presidents, critics and glitterati, the Alsace-born chef has spent much of his time mentoring aspiring young cooks at the French Culinary Institute in New York, where he serves as dean of classic studies. During a lunch at L'Ecole in Manhattan, the restaurant of FCI, Soltner dished stories of growing up in wine country and dealing with self-proclaimed connoisseurs—and also took the opportunity to criticize today's celebrity-chef culture.
Wine Spectator: What are your earliest wine memories?
Andre Soltner: My father was a cabinetmaker [in Alsace], and when he sold furniture, he always traded wine as part of the price. When I was little, my father would tell me to bring up a pitcher of Tokay or Sylvaner for dinner, and when I went to the cellar to get the wine, I always had a sip.
WS: Your homeland obviously influenced your cooking. Did it also sway your wine preferences?
AS: To me, Alsace wine is the best wine in the world, which is why we had a big Alsatian cellar at Lutèce. My favorite Alsatian wine is Tokay (Pinot Gris). But I should tell you, I also drink beer.
WS: Tell us a bit about the wine program at Lutèce. Were you in charge of the wine list?
AS: I didn't have a big restaurant, so I was in charge of everything. I was born in Thann [in the Haut-Rhin], it's the steepest hill in Alsace. Zind-Humbrecht has vineyards there, in Rangen. A long time ago—this is before faxes and big distributors—[Leonard Humbrecht] wrote me a letter and said he wanted to sell his wine in America. So I wrote back and said I will help him, but I want Clos St.-Urbain, his wine from Thann, exclusive.
WS: Was it a favorite with your customers?
AS: Some. Whenever President Nixon came to Lutece, he always said, "You choose for me." One day I gave him the Tokay. The next day his secretary called to ask where he could buy the wine. I said he cannot buy it—I have an exclusive—but I can give it to him. So she sent me the chauffeur, and I gave him two cases. After that, when he came with his wife, they would usually order a bottle.
WS: In 34 years, was there a single bottle that stands out in your memory?
AS: I had a case of 1890 Lafite that I bought in 1961. It took me 20 years to sell all 12, and each bottle had a story. When I got to the last bottle, I wanted to keep it on the list, so I priced it at $5,000, and thought, at that time, no one would buy it. But sure enough, someone asked for it.
WS: You spend a great deal of your time working with students. Do you feel that people coming to your school have an accurate understanding of what this profession is about?
AS: It bothers me a little bit when I look at the television. I look at Iron Chef and I say, "My god, where are we going?" There is so much talk about chefs that many of the people see our work like movie stars, which it isn't, except for a few. The television influences people to become a chef, but when they finish school, that's not really what they get. I compare it with bicycling. On the Tour de France, you'll see the first and the second, but you don't see the other 50 behind. If you want to be a success, you have to give the time.
WS: Do you think the wine industry is being glamorized, too?
AS: There are too many people who play wine connoisseur, and that has always been true. To really know wine, it takes a long, long time. And it doesn't come from reading a book. You have to taste it. When I had customers tell me, "The wine is no good," if they couldn't tell me why, I was very sharp with them. I didn't change the bottle right away. If every restaurateur had been like me, maybe we would have better results today.