High Heat, High Drama, Haute Cuisine

"You might want to try making this one again," says the waiter, returning a small salad I'd carefully composed only moments earlier. "The woman claims she saw something crawling on one of the leaves."

I consider just rearranging the greens and sending the salad back out. But this isn't a beanery. I'm working at Chanterelle, one of Manhattan's top restaurants, a Tribeca rival of such midtown gastronomic temples as Lutece, Le Bernardin, and The Quilted Giraffe. And my bugged diner is one of the well-heeled folks who has ordered the $30 prix fixe lunch, the bargain meal at a place where dinner regularly tops $100 per person.

I am the garde-manger, French for the person in charge of cold appetizers such as salads and pates. A recent graduate of Peter Kump's New York Cooking School, I have been at Chanterelle all of a month. But this is the first time I have been responsible for actually preparing plates. So I dump the colorful melange of green lettuces, grilled portobello mushrooms, and edible flowers into a nearby garbage pail and start anew.

COMBAT ZONE. After weeks of cleaning squid, stuffing zucchini blossoms, trimming lamb chops, fileting red snapper, and slicing scores of aromatic chanterelles, our namesake mushroom, I have graduated to a spot near the stoves. While you and your companions are enjoying friendly conversation over a bottle of Bordeaux in the dining room, a battle is raging back here.

The combat begins at noon and is fought with hot pans, steaming food, slashing knives, and fast reactions for 2 1/2 hours in cramped quarters. It is a war against heat, exhaustion, and, above all, mediocrity. After a break for cleanup and the staff meal, the battle resumes at 6 p.m. and lasts until the restaurant closes at midnight.

My line-mates are more skilled at this than I. A 38-year-old former BUSINESS WEEK staff editor, I'm here en route to a new career running a New York restaurant with my wife, Nancy Newman. Behind the main stove is 29-year-old sous-chef Michael Sullivan, a Brooklyn-born veteran of 13 years in the business, the last 2 1/2 at Chanterelle. His line-cook assistant, Tom Lurker, 23, a Staten Island native and graduate of the New York Restaurant School, has been at Chanterelle eight months.

Overseeing all of us is chef and owner David Waltuck, a 37-year-old culinary whiz from the Bronx who draws high praise for his innovative brand of French cuisine. Slim and self-effacing, Waltuck seems miscast in the "star chef" role that critics have given him since he opened Chanterelle with his wife, Karen, in 1979. Indeed, with a degree in biological oceanography, Waltuck might have spent his life studying fish instead of grilling them, had he not fallen in love with cooking during a stint at a Manhattan diner. After 16 months at the Culinary Institute of America on the Hudson River in Hyde Park, N.Y., and two years' work at La Petite Ferme, another Manhattan French restaurant, he opened Chanterelle with money borrowed from friends and family.

CHANCY. The New York restaurant business is notoriously volatile, and Waltuck's success with Chanterelle inspires me. About 75% of all restaurants that open in the city either change hands or fail within five years. The recession has upped that figure to 80% and forced the closing of many of the hottest spots of the 1980s. Chanterelle has so far beaten the odds, largely because of Waltuck's creativity. I was hooked by a blend of oysters and sauerkraut that he created for a cooking demonstration at my school. Today's menu offers a special cut of monkfish with mixed vegetables, red snapper with a lime-and-passion-fruit sauce, and rack of lamb with a cumin-flavored salt crust.

I talked my way into Waltuck's kitchen on the basis of my fledgling credentials and because I was willing to apprentice for free--a traditional first step for cooking-school grads. It's a trying experience. I am constantly being ordered to perform such menial tasks as shelling shrimp and cleaning squid, jobs I must execute with precision and a positive attitude to win the trust of my boss. In return, I learn firsthand how a professional kitchen works.

The morning ritual begins when Lurker opens the kitchen at around 6 a.m., followed shortly afterward by Sullivan. By the time I arrive at 8, the daily prep is in full swing. James Brown is belting out Papa's Got a Brand New Bag on the kitchen stereo, and the chefs are already hazing their subordinates and ragging each other.

Along with the clowning come challenges, such as when Waltuck asks me to bone four rabbit carcasses for a terrine. Of course, I have never done this before. These are large, farm-raised rabbits, the size of well-fed cats. He demonstrates--with a few quick knife strokes, reducing a rabbit to a mound of fresh meat. Then, he points to the other three and walks away.

BUNNY CHOP. As I work, the fat on the rabbits starts to melt, and my boning knife becomes slick with grease. It slips once, and I just miss adding my thumb to the meat pile. Wiping the sweat from my brow on the sleeve of my chef's jacket, I recall a cooking-school warning: "Dull knife, bad cut. Bad cut, no work. No work, no rent. No rent, no roof. See you in the subways." I sharpen my knife and finish just as Waltuck returns.

Daily prep offers none of the high drama of a kitchen in full swing, howev- er, and the action isn't always smooth. Shortly after Chanterelle first opened, word got out that a hot new chef was on the scene. That drew, one evening, food critic Gael Greene, gourmet-shop magnates Joel Dean and Giorgio DeLuca, and fashion potentate Sonia Rykiel. Working alone, Waltuck threw some racks of lamb into the oven and kicked it shut with his foot. He kicked it a little too hard, though. Upon opening the oven door 30 minutes later, Waltuck discovered the lamb was raw and the oven stone-cold, because the pilot light had blown out. Diners waited an hour for their main courses. "I was flipping out, running around like a maniac," Waltuck recalls. "If it wasn't my restaurant, I would have just walked out."

Thirteen years later, however, the whirl of dinner is choreographed with precision. The three line cooks--with more staff and a more leisurely pace than at lunch--perform a culinary ballet behind the stove and grill. Waltuck directs the work. He examines the orders, barks out a command, then bolts into action. A quick step to the refrigerator for some lamb chops, a slice of the knife, and the chops are in the oven. Kicking the oven door shut with his heel--lightly--he adds salt to a saute of free-range chicken with chanterelles, then sends the dish on its way. As I watch him work, I hope that I can get all the bugs out of my technique before my wife and I open our own restaurant.

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