WHEN Debra Ponzek took over as head chef at Montrachet in 1987, she faced a huge challenge: how to maintain the restaurant's three-star reputation. The original chef, David Bouley, had become a celebrity of sorts and the inevitable happened. He left to open his own restaurant.
``When Bouley left there had been a big to-do,'' says Ms. Ponzek in an interview. ``We knew that once customers hear about a change they get skeptical. My boss, Drew, took me aside and said, `We'll let the news out gradually. Let's see if you can take the responsibility.''
``We deliberately kept it quiet for a while,'' says Drew Nieporent, owner of Montrachet, ``to give her a chance to get her confidence.''
Soon after Ponzek took over, the New York Times reviewed the restaurant, again giving it a three-star rating. Another favorable review appeared in Newsday on the same day. ``It was pretty exciting because I seldom know who is in the dining room until later. We were very pleased,'' says Ponzek.
The New York Times rates restaurants from one to four: one star meaning good; two stars, very good; three stars, excellent; four stars, extraordinary.
``We were all very happy that the restaurant rated another three stars with Ponzek in the kitchen,'' says Mr. Nieporent, a food buff who has more than a managerial interest in the menu. ``We've never had any doubts about Debra. She's a great collaborator, takes direction well, and is creative in her own person,'' he says.
Maybe such kudos justify the six-day week, the noon-to-midnight hours, and a life that leaves little room for socializing. Ponzek cooks every day, but says she rarely sits down to a meal unless she takes an evening off to ``go somewhere special, like the Quilted Giraffe or Le Cirque. You have to get satisfaction - you work too hard. A person could never stand this pace, unless there was a great deal of pleasure,'' she says.
What does a three-star rating mean to Ponzek?
``A three-star means excellent in New York, and it makes me feel good to get a good review, - to know I've earned a reward for doing what I enjoy so much,'' she says. ``But every day is a challenge to keep up the quality of a three-star restaurant. I'm always aware that when people spend time and money to eat out, they're anticipating a really nice meal, and should never be disappointed.''
Tucked behind the warehouses and artists' lofts of Manhattan's TriBeCa district, Montrachet has an unpretentious dining room, a simple decor with blue walls, rose banquettes, and a large mahogany bar.
Ponzek describes her food as modern French with lighter versions of traditional Proven,cal cuisine. ``It's not always classical, but it's based on French techniques,'' she says. Ponzek is fond of intense flavors and seasonings and adamant about freshness and natural textures and flavors.
Born and raised in New Jersey, Ponzek spent two years at Boston University studying engineering before deciding that ``it wasn't for me. I knew engineering wasn't right. I wanted to do something I really enjoyed,'' she says. ``I wanted to cook, but in those days nobody talked about cooking schools, especially for women.''
Family friends who owned a restaurant told her of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and she attended. After graduating in 1984, she worked as saucier at the Tarragon Tree in Chatham, N.J., and then as chef at Toto, an ``elegant steak restaurant'' in Summit, N.J.
One night, while still at Toto, Ponzek went into Manhattan to have dinner at Montrachet. ``I loved the atmosphere, and the French food,'' Ponzek recalls. ``I introduced myself to the owner, Drew Nieporent. I liked him and asked if he needed anyone in the kitchen. As it turned out, his sous chef was just leaving. Drew was a little skeptical but said he'd give me a chance.''
After a week's tryout during her vacation, Ponzek was hired. Moving from the position of chef at Toto to assistant chef at Montrachet was not a blow to her ego, she says.
``In this work, you can't worry about taking a step down, or back, if you have a chance to learn something new or if you accept a different challenge,'' she says. ``Every job gives special experiences.''
Along with cooking, Ponzek's responsibilities include usual duties of ordering food, menu planning, and directing the staff of five. ``She's totally in command and has the respect of everyone in the kitchen. That is very important,'' says Nieporent.
``The feeling must be mutual,'' Ponzek says. ``In the kitchen, it's necessary to learn the way everyone works and to get into a comfortable rhythm. Even the way we move is important because it is an efficient kitchen, but small.''
With a passion for the colorful cuisine of the Mediterranean coast, Ponzek has put her own mark on the menu. Inspired by a gastronomic tour of southern France last year, she now features more fish and game, makes lighter sauces by using cr`eme fra^iche, and creates her own versions of dishes such as soupe au pistou (made with garlic, basil, beans, and vegetables), a traditional Proven,cal soup.
Montrachet diners are served fine, crunchy rolls and giveaway appetizers such as lobster-filled phyllo pastry, and tiny crab cakes or a dill-flavored terrine of red snapper and potatoes.
There is more than a touch of the Mediterranean in broiled red snapper on roasted peppers and vegetables in a lemony sauce, and in the thyme-flavored roast loin of lamb served with couscous. Salads include roast pigeon and wild mushrooms; Roquefort, bacon, and endive; and lamb's tongue with artichokes.
Ponzek's roast chicken, served around a drift of creamy mashed potatoes with mellow cloves of roasted garlic, is perfection. She says it's a favorite among customers.
Desserts include a warm berry souffl'e, and a chocolate souffl'e with raspberry sauce and vanilla ice cream. There is often a pear sorbet, and a specialty is hot banana tart with praline ice cream. The $25 and $29 prix-fixe menus offer some of the best values in this city for this level of cuisine.
Montrachet's clientele includes many people from nearby film companies. Recent visitors have been Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, David Letterman, and Lauren Hutton. ``I don't go out to meet them,'' Ponzek says. ``They're here to enjoy dinner.''
Ponzek says she's comfortable knowing her field offers much flexibility. ``The great thing about cooking is that there are so many options. I could go into catering or consulting,'' she says, ``or I could work part-time or at home if I ever wanted a change.
``Right now I couldn't be happier,'' she continues, ``but it's nice to realize that food is a very creative field that allows you to make a full turn, to tailor your work to the way you want to lead your life.''