There was a bittersweet moment last week when I learned that the Waldorf Astoria would be closing as it transitioned into condo units in New York City. The Waldorf was always that grand old lady that everyone held as a pinnacle to the glamor of the hotel industry. This was the place where kings and queens, business icons and ambassadors, world renown speakers and rock stars held court as they spent time in New York City – the center of the universe. For people in the hospitality industry, it was the Waldorf that defined the best of the best – the grandeur of magnificent ballrooms, the grand lobby that defined class, the restaurants that brought grace to the hotel experience, and the behind-the-scenes enormity of magnificent kitchens, boiler rooms, florists, maintenance departments, and housekeeping laundries. The Waldorf was as important as a hotel could possibly be and as such was the place that defined a persons’ importance either as a guest or a member of the immense staff.
The Waldorf is more than just another casualty of a changing industry and a business environment that is morphing with the times – the Waldorf is the center of the center of the universe. When people think hotels and New York, it is the Waldorf that almost always comes to mind. To lose this grand statement of hospitality would be equivalent to major league baseball losing the Yankees or the Red Sox (always dangerous to list these two teams in the same sentence), similar to losing Kodak as the definition of photography, or Ford and Chevrolet as manufacturers of American automobiles. In other words – this is big.
There have been many others to feel the edge of the axe in recent years – we have lost The Balsams Grand Resort in New Hampshire, The Original Ritz Carlton in Boston (the hotel that Escoffier helped to open), Grossingers in the Catskills of New York, and the Statler Hilton Hotels that were prominent in major cities across the U.S. Of course, we still have large hotels with incredible services, but somehow they are not the same as these landmark properties that defined an industry. Some may argue that these properties had to give way to operations that are better, modern, more efficient, and able to provide much greater diversity in service to the guest – but, they are not the same.
I have very fond memories of the Waldorf even though I never had the pleasure of staying there as a guest. I did tour the operation many times and spent some memorable moments walking through the kitchens (my favorite spot), and presenting this grand old marvel as the benchmark for everyone else, to young students of hospitality and culinary arts. I remember the stunning marble floor mosaic in the entranceway after taking a deep breath under the towering façade of this incredible property. I remember the grand piano next to the mezzanine and the relaxed feeling that everyone shared when this graceful music welcomed guests to the halls of hospitality. I have fond memories of a way too expensive cocktail in the bar off the lobby, or breakfast in Oscars as a way to say that I did experience the Waldorf.
Unlike many modern hotels, this lobby was not all business; it was about making people feel welcome and special. The lobby wasn’t loud and intimidating, it was rather quiet and relaxing even when there were many people coming and going. It was quite easy to think about all of the incredible guests who shared the space I was walking through. The Who’s Who list is incredible and included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Winston Churchill, Cole Porter, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, The Dalai Lama, and permanent residence for Herbert Hoover when he retired and an apartment for Frank Sinatra. Even induction ceremonies for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were held in the Ballroom of the Waldorf (if only those walls could talk).
The Waldorf was the first hotel in the U.S. to offer 24/7 room service. It was this commitment to service that set the hotel apart from every other. I recall being amazed by the main kitchen at the Waldorf. The operation was set-up in classic brigade format with different sections for each department, massive steam kettles, deck ovens, and Hobart mixers (the original type with a clutch), loads of prep space, and a banquet function board that was completely covered with BEO’s for the day and week. The logistics of running this kitchen must have been monumental. At the helm for quite a few years was Chef Arno Schmidt, who to this day is regarded as the chef of New York City. Just imagine the size of the kitchen staff needed to prepare banquets, a ‘la carte service in restaurants, and room service for this 1,400 room hotel.
This kitchen did remind me of my own beginnings as an apprentice in the Buffalo Statler Hilton Hotel. This property was not nearly as grand as the Waldorf; however, many of the same components were there. The Statler had 1,200 rooms, 18 dedicated banquet spaces and three operating restaurants. There were many days when all 18-banquet spaces were booked with events. The kitchen, like the Waldorf, was set up in classic brigade fashion with a garde manger section, pastry shop, saucier station, bakery, and butcher shop. The hot line included an island of 10 flat top ranges with a few open burner ranges, broiler, and fryers for the a ‘la carte operations. The steam kettles for the saucier were large enough to hold a few men and were always churning with stocks and sauces. The pastry chef was Italian (we only knew him as Patsie), the butcher was (can’t remember his name – but we called him Frenchie) who refused to speak any English, the chef was French when I started and was later replaced by a Italian/American named Rocky Pecoraro. I had a chance to work every station and build a foundation of skills that would take me through my career.
These grand operations, although I am sure very expensive to run, were the breeding ground for cooks, chefs, managers, and future restaurateurs. It was this grand hotel experience that provided an opportunity to learn about anything and everything that might come your way as a chef. It was this time in a grand kitchen that gave a cook the confidence to move on to the next position and have the ability, at some point in his or her career, to command the lead in a busy kitchen. There is nothing that can surpass this type of experience.
To see the Waldorf retire as it once was, to witness the demise of so many of these incredible properties, goes beyond the personal sadness of change. The Waldorf represented an era when service was an art and an honored profession, when cooking was a craft that was learned through the school of hard knocks, when a chef was born first as a dishwasher and a hotel manager as a bellman. This proud history of opportunity, this commitment to detail and grandeur is no longer the centerpiece of the hotel and hotel dining experience. Beautiful food and restaurant spaces abound, but the experience of this era of special elegance is gone.
It was the Waldorf Astoria that coined the motto:
“The Difficult We Do Immediately, the Impossible Takes a Few Minutes Longer.”
To all of my culinary friends who developed their chops in these kitchens I salute you and share your pride in what we learned. To all of the young cooks and chefs who may never experience this, I am sad for you. At least we have this history to look back on as a foundation for whatever direction this industry moves in.
PLAN BETTER –TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training
*Photo #1: Stock photo of the Waldorf Astoria Grand Entrance on Fifth Avenue
*Photo #2: Paul Sorgule in the kitchen of the Mirror Lake Inn Resort and Spa