Before the pandemic hit, Prune was in the midst of a yearlong series of celebratory lunches to mark our turning 20. Each lunch featured a guest chef who’d had a strong influence on my cooking career, and though all the lunches were wildly different, each had its special excitement. There was an elegant, erudite lunch with Mimi Sheraton, at which we served the stuffed cabbage and dried-fruit compote from her Eastern European Jewish repertoire. There was an avant-garde one with Elizabeth Falkner, who served platters of spicy Sichuan rabbit heads complete with instructions on how to crack the skulls. And there was the one we cooked with Marc Vetri, my brother-from-another-mother, who drove in from Philly with flour he had milled himself from local wheat to make his chicken-liver pasta for us.
While we never got the chance to finish the series before we were forced to shutter, we were lucky to have held our last one in February with the legendary André Soltner, chef of Lutèce, the New York restaurant that defined the classic elegance of French cooking here in the United States for decades. Soltner is 87, and he retired and sold Lutèce years before I opened Prune in 1999. But it’s from him that I and so many of my peers learned essential French dishes — the feather-light pike quenelles in sauce homard, the French-style omelet and the framboise soufflé. And it was from Soltner that we learned to show up for work: he spent 43 years at the stoves of Lutèce, living in his apartment above “the shop,” notably missing only four days of work. Perhaps most important, from Soltner we saw how to remain true to yourself and to your roots in your cooking: The famous onion tart he served at his restaurant was Alsatian, just like him.
Lutèce had already been closed for 26 years by the day of our lunch; hardly anyone on my staff knew who he was. But when I sent the email blast announcing his guest-chef appearance, the lunch sold out immediately. People flew in from all across the country, and the dining room was filled with industry pros: chefs, restaurateurs, sommeliers, cookbook editors, publishers and food writers. The reverence for him in the room was palpable. Great whistling and clapping erupted frequently throughout the afternoon, even before we poured the high-octane pear-and-plum eaux de vie!
With Soltner cooking alongside us in the days leading up to the lunch, we made the pike quenelles in sauce homard and the framboise soufflés and, of course, the onion tarts. We were steeped in his cooking and his thinking, and it was an excellent exercise to prepare the dishes of a long-ago iconic restaurant, and to see whether they stood the test of time without becoming museum pieces. Every one, especially the onion tart, was still pitch perfect.
Soltner brought New Yorkers the onion tart of his childhood in the Alsace. His mother would take him by bus from their small village to the nearby city of Mulhouse for her shopping. In the windows of the little bistros, there would be signs: tarte à l’oignon prête à quatre heures. So at 4 o’clock, finished with their errands, his mother would take them for the tart, and she would have a glass of wine, letting young André have a sip, too. The onion tart has since had its modernist interpretations and its haute renditions, but the one he served at Lutèce all those decades was distinctly straightforward; he used a recipe from his aunt. And that is the one here.
His tart dough comes together quickly and easily; it is sturdy enough for the job while remaining tender enough to the tongue. The original recipe assumes you have some skills and experience of your own in a kitchen, but I added a few precautionary and possibly overweaning instructions to the protocol just in case.
All tarts that are filled raw and then baked run the risk of having undercooked bottoms or overdone contents. Like the struggle to properly cook the leg and breast of a whole turkey, this is the kind of problem that arises when you need two different cooking temperatures and durations in the same dish. It’s now standard to blind-bake the shell before you fill it, and I’ve added the step. I like recipes to be written the same way you would give driving directions to your house to people whom you really want to arrive.
As thrilled as we were to have Soltner with us and to host a room packed with his fans that day, it turns out he was as delighted to be with us. He had cooked for presidents and heads of state, but in his entire restaurant career he had never worked in a kitchen with women. At the lunch, he stood up on an overturned milk crate and addressed the room: “You know, Gabrielle, it just wasn’t a thing in my time.” He shrugged not apologetically but more undeniably matter-of-fact and said: “We didn’t have women in the brigade, and so I never had that experience, and I’m so happy to have had it now.” I just hope that when I’m 87, this onion tart will still be here, and that I’ll be limber enough to have a new experience, and spry enough to get up on a milk crate to thank somebody for it.
Recipe: Onion Tart