The Kitchen at Le Cirque

by Thomas Beller

05/31/2006

455 Madison Ave, NY, Ny 10022

Neighborhood: Midtown

“Chef!”

The word rings out over the din of the vast kitchen, swirling in heat and motion, as 62 men and women in white smocks and white chef’s hats go about the business of making dinner for the eight O’clock seating.

“Chef!”

The eight o’clock seating at Le Cirque is not to be taken lightly. The New York Times has called it the world’s most fashionable restaurant, “a crucible in the fickle tides of fashion that has shaped American taste.”

If that is too abstract, perhaps a statistic will makes things clearer: On its busiest days the restaurant has received 5,000 calls trying to book a table. Eight o’clock is the most desirable seating. Therefore it is a safe bet that those who have managed to get an eight o’clock table are used to getting what they want. Right now, what they want (and need) is dinner.

“Chef!”

The kitchen is spacious and filled with stainless steel tables, stoves from which orange flames leap, brass pots and pans, knives flashing in the light as they cut; waiters in black tie rush in and out. Amidst the clamor and commotion each person is involved in a highly concentrated act of creation. One man is sautéing in a pan over a high flame. He pulls the pan off the flame, tosses the vegetables up in the air like he’s flipping pancakes, and lets the pan rest on the flame once more. It’s like he is cooking those vegetables by the heat of his concentration.

Another team handles the sea food. Salmon and Tuna is sliced into luscious thin slices; Oysters are shucked and decorated with heaping mounds of Beluga Caviar.

Grilling, sauces, meats, fish, pasta, foie gras, dessert–they all have their own private domain. Together they account for nearly two hundred meals a night.

But cooking is only part of what goes on here. The food in this kitchen is not so much cooked as composed, played; The kitchen is an orchestra. And every orchestra has a conductor.

“Chef!”

Diners at Le Cirque come for the scene and they come for the food. The scene out in the dinning room is all subdued ferocity, New York distilled to its most brutal and lovely essences, a room so full of aspiration, envy, and delight that it’s going to take something really stunning to get these diner’s eyes off each other and onto the thing which they are about to eat.

“Chef!”

Although he has staff of sixty two executing his dishes, it is the executive chef’s responsibility to make sure every dish on the way out of his kitchen is perfect.

“Chef!”

Where is the Chef?

The chef–Sottha Kuhnn–is nowhere, and everywhere, a small man with thin gold rimmed spectacles, his white hat towering above him moving briskly among is charges. He inspects plates when they are ready to go to table. He peers at raw meat about to be broiled to make sure the cut is right. He is consulted. He supervises. He rushes over to one of his minions and agitatedly instructs them on how to do correctly what was not being done correctly.

And at this current moment he is at the Chef’s table, a glassed corner of the kitchen loaded with opulent delicacies; this is where heads of state and movie stars come to dine in private. The pope dined at Le Cirque and enjoyed the food so much that afterwards he visited the kitchen and asked Sottha if he could bless him. There is no shortage of dignitaries coming through Sottha Khunn’s kitchen, but the one’s on whom he is currently lavishing so much attention and hospitality happen to be from the Cambodia Daily, and he is hungry for any and all news about Cambodia.

Sottha’s work schedule has him in the kitchen by eleven, six days a week; he doesn’t leave until midnight, sometimes later. During the busiest season–September through New Years–he often works every single day.

Now, in late June, there looms in the back of his mind thoughts of a vacation. It’s not an ordinary vacation. In a few weeks he will be standing on the land where he grew up and where, however far away he may have traveled, his thoughts and sentiments have always remained. For the first time in the twenty five years since he left Cambodia, Sottha Khunn is going home.

I visited him Sottha Khunn for breakfast one morning and was greeted at the door by Sottha and an exuberant pile of yapping white fluff, his dog. “He gets very lonely,” explains Sottha, smiling.

Sottha is a soft spoken, elegant man, easy to smile, but private. He lives in a neat apartment in a stylish building not too far from Le Cirque, on Manhattan’s East side. His elegant living room is filled with Khmer art. Silver elephants and Buddhas and apsaras are marshaled like battalions on shelves and table tops. Classical music is playing. “For me music is like therapy,” he says. “It makes you calm.”

At the table there is a setting for two–coffee, fresh fruit, and fresh squeezed orange juice. A silver bowl sits between us with fresh jasmine, which he grows on his terrace, floating in water. On the wall is a oil painting depicting dancing apsaras.

“I tried to create something that would remind me of Cambodia,” he says of the decor. “I’ve been buying here and there in Antique stores for years. I want to have something from Cambodia around me because I miss Cambodia.”

Born to a prominent Khmer family, he grew up in Phnom Penh. He left in 1974 and went to Paris to study economics.

“I miss Cambodia. I left when I was twenty four when I left and haven’t been back since,” he said.

“We had such good times,” he says about his family life. “We had everything. Sometimes I dream about the past.”

After he arrived in Paris he studied economics but after Khmer Rouge took power there was no money to continue at University, so he began cooking in restaurants and studying at the Ecole Hotelier de Paris. “But school is much less important than experience,” he says.

“I wanted to show my boss I could do it,” he says of his first job. “He’d tell me to come in at 8 a.m., I’d show up at 6 because I wanted to do everything perfectly.”

He rose through the ranks and mastered French classical cooking under several of the greatest chefs of France. In 1984 he was lured to New York by Daniel Boulud, one of the world’s leading chef’s, to help open Le Regence at the Plaza Athene. “I was living in a studio in Astoria Queens with just a bed and T.V. and working 18 hour days. I didn’t speak much English. I really wanted to move back to France. It was too much. But after a few months we were doing amazing things together.”

When Boulud moved to Le Cirque Sottha came with him as sous chef. Then, in 1992, Sottha was offered the job of Chef at Le Cirque, a position that would have vaulted him into a tiny elite. Chef’s are notorious for having huge egos. Sottha proved the exception. He turned down the offer.

“It wasn’t the right time,” he says of the decision. “I’m a Buddhist. I believe there is right time for things and you have to be ready. It’s like marrying or buying house. You do it only when you are ready.

“Also, the executive Chef spends a lot of time administrating. I didn’t want to be an administrator.” When asked by a reporter back in 1992 why he turned the job down, his reply was quoted in newspapers all over the world.

“I like to cook,” he said.

Four years later he was again offered the job and this time he was ready. He is now arguably one of the most accomplished chefs in the whole world. But there is still a sense, sitting with him amidst his carefully laid out table settings, the bowl of jasmine, and copious amount of Khmer art in the house, that Sottha has a kind of secret life, a private world of memory and loss that connects him to Cambodia.

In the world he moves in his Cambodia background is something of novelty, an easy way of making the point that he is hard working and self made, but I don’t think most people have any idea of what his life in Cambodia was like growing up, just as they have only the vaguest idea of what life in Cambodia has been like since 1974, or is like today.

This struck me while I was flipping through a thick sheaf o press clippings testifying in breathy rhapsodic prose to his accomplishments. Jeffrey Steingarten, writing in Vogue magazine about the influence of Asian cuisine on classical French cooking (an influence which Sottha has understandably helped pioneer; Chicken Fricassee with ginger is his signature dish) wrote the following line: “Three of the top French chefs–Daniel Boulud of restaurant Daniel, Sottha Khunn of Le Cirque 2000, and Gray Kunze of Lespinasse, all in New York City–trained as apprentices to within an inch of their lives in the finest kitchens of France and Switzerland but are now skilled at creating sublime Asian fantasies.”

That one line, “trained to within an inch of their lives,” illustrates for me the extent to which Sottha Cambodian background, and the ordeal he and his family have gone through, is a nearly incomprehensible footnote for most of the people he deals with professionally.

For a man with few vacations, this upcoming trip looms as a momentous occasion.

“I saw my mother three years ago in France,” he says. “Before that the last time I saw her was 1974.”

He seems clearly to be a bit lonely in New York; his main companion is his work.

“Of all my family I am the only one who lives in the U.S. My family respects what I do but they don’t know too much about it. Mostly they want me to be happy.”

I ask him why he was going back now.

“My mother is old,” he says. “And it has been twenty five years. When I returns to Cambodia he is going to stay at my mother’s house in Siem Riep where the family has constructed a stupa for all the family who died in the war.”

How many died?

“A lot,” he says. “You can’t count it.”

His scrap book contains a letter of from king Sihanouk congratulating him on his success, and many photographs, including a rather remarkable one featuring the pope giving him a blessing. Sottha Khunn has risen to the top of his profession. But these worldly concerns seem to pale in comparison to his feelings for his family and his homeland, to which he is anxiously, eagerly and, I dare say, emotionally, awaiting to return.

His favorite comfort food? Hamburger.

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