UN Chef Tips His Toque to Diverse Diners
From visiting dignitaries to his 3-year-old daughter, Max Suhner concocts dishes to please all palates
UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. — CHESSA SUHNER is probably one of the few three-year-olds anywhere whose working vocabulary includes the word ``chanterelle.'' On weekends she often climbs up on a stool to watch her father, Max, slice the golden mushrooms and other gourmet ingredients as he makes omelets and vegetable dishes for her, her mother, Deborah, and her little brother, Max. Most of the time, however, Swiss-born Max Suhner is preparing meals for heads of state, diplomats, and visitors at the United Nations (UN) where he is executive chef.
In a small office crowded with cookbooks, Mr. Suhner works with a sous-chef and steward to draw up menus, choose recipes, order and check in the food, and generally keep the 16-chef kitchen on the UN's fourth floor in a state of constant motion. Everything except the bread - bought fresh each day - is made right here.
Suhner and his kitchen staff, who all wear the high toques even on errands in other parts of the UN, are always on the lookout for food that will appeal to a wide variety of cultures and satisfy the growing number of diners who now want less salt, less sugar, and less fat in everything they eat.
The centerpiece of Suhner's efforts is an elegant international buffet of fully labeled dishes served every weekday noon in the UN Delegates Dining Room.
The broad array frees any host from concern as to whether his guests will be satisfied, says Switzerland's Ambassador to the UN Johannes Manz. ``You can go around the buffet and see exactly what appeals to you,'' he says. ``It's always a delight to look at, and [Max] changes it a lot.''
Sometimes UN diplomats bring along or request special foods. No problem, says Suhner. ``In New York you can find almost anything,'' he explains. Recently the UN kitchen staff prepared several whole stuffed lambs for a private dinner hosted by Saudi Arabia. For added authenticity in the buffet, the UN kitchen staff invited five chefs from Casablanca to help prepare Moroccan dishes here during the month of October. During the spring, chefs from Provence will fly over to help prepare special French recipes.
Yet good dining also involves a well-informed wait staff and good service. ``Everything has to come together,'' Suhner says. UN chefs and waiters meet before lunch each day, he says, for a detailed discussion of the day's menus.
The buffet, which also features a spectacular view of the East River, is open to the public as well as to diplomats. Reservations are necessary. Maitre d' Norman Manjaka calls the UN dining room, which serves up to 400 guests every noon, one of New York's best kept secrets. He insists that much of the UN's most important business is conducted right here.
Suhner, who closely supervises the whole operation, got his start in the food business as a young boy in Winterthur, Switzerland. He and his mother cooked lunch for the 20 or so workers in his father's butcher shop. On weekends and holidays he also helped out at his grandfather's farm restaurant in a nearby town.
Well aware that European train-station restaurants often serve some of the best food around, he began a three-year apprenticeship at the Winterthur rail station and attended the Restaurant School of Zurich.
For five years before coming to the UN in 1992, Suhner was executive chef of the restaurant at the New York Metropolitan Opera. ``I very much enjoy working with food and the preparation of it,'' he says. ``I like to see people happy when they have a good meal.''
In September he planned a state dinner attended by some 25 heads of state, including President Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who spoke at the opening of the new General Assembly session.
The menu included veal with mushroom sauce and a dessert of mixed berries in a chocolate-glazed cookie cup. ``We pick something we think everybody likes,'' Suhner says. ``We always have fish available as a main course and vegetables for vegetarians, but usually people aren't very demanding at functions like this.''
He usually prepares two or three dinners for heads of state each year. That role has earned him membership in the prestigious Chefs du Chefs, an elite organization of about 30 members that includes the White House chef and the chefs for France's president, Sweden's king, and the emperor of Japan. The group meets for a week once a year, always in a different country. This fall the chefs met in Thailand. The stay includes ample travel and talk.
``Sometimes we cook ... but most of the time we eat in special restaurants and talk about our experience with state dinners and menus,'' Suhner says.
In addition to the buffet, Suhner oversees cafeterias for the UN staff, serving some 7,000 meals a day, and for two UN agencies across the street.
He is also responsible for meals served in several private dining rooms, including one on the 38th floor where Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali occasionally holds working lunches. Suhner also prepares holiday buffets and dinners sponsored by various UN missions and outside groups.
One such dinner last spring attended by Sweet Briar College alumni and supporters drew such rave reviews that college officials decided to try to recruit Suhner to the Virginia campus this past fall to orchestrate a gala dinner for 250 donors and guests as a cap to the college's most successful year in fund-raising.
The menu at the college dinner included roast rack of lamb and an apple tart with ice cream and caramel sauce. On the order list were 500 fresh baby artichokes, 15 pounds of onions, and 7-1/2 gallons of ice cream.
Suhner arrived at the campus three days ahead of schedule. ``It was fun just to watch - we had a great time,'' says Archie Waldron, head of food services at Sweet Briar, which has won the top student rating for campus food in each of the last three years in a Princeton University survey of more than 300 colleges.
Now the UN dining room is filled with bright red poinsettias for the holidays. As many as three to four private parties are being held there each night.
Suhner is looking forward to a four-day respite with his family in upstate New York during the Christmas weekend.
When he returns, he and his staff will begin preparing for a New Year's Eve party, complete with dancing, live orchestra, and a five-course dinner featuring gingered squash bisque, a choice of veal or swordfish, and chocolate-mint napoleon.
When Suhner's not cooking or dining out with his family (``We like to check out the trends''), he enjoys in-line skating, often at Battery Park on the southern tip of Manhattan, and skiing. He is also an avid reader of magazines. His favorite subject? You guessed it: cooking.