The kitchen in the Buffalo Statler Hilton Hotel was in the sub-basement of this 1,200 room property. There were 18 banquet rooms with the largest, the Grand Ballroom, capable of seating 2,000 people and the smallest – an intimate party of 20. The kitchen was sprawling and set-up in the classic Escoffier brigade format. There was a full butcher shop, a temperature controlled pastry area, a bank of 100 gallon steam kettles in the back for the saucier, a garde manger section with walk-ins and cold bain marie’s for washing greens, a hot line complete with an island of 12 flat tops and a separate line configuration for the a’la carte restaurants, triple stack deck ovens and a bank of steam powered warming units that lined many walls on the kitchen perimeter. The center of the kitchen was open for service staff with nothing but a center island with plate warmers for banquet service. An escalator brought servers up and down from the next level that housed service equipment, warewashing, beverage areas, and china, glassware and flatware inventories. At the back of the kitchen you could find an immense silver room with burnishing machine. There were dozens of silver chafers and hundreds of silver platters of all sizes. Two- full-time employees spent their day polishing silver. Finally, towards the far back recesses of the kitchen was the receiving area and larder complete with massive wooden walk-ins, lines of storage racks and a service elevator that brought deliveries down from street level.
I was hired to rotate through their formal culinary apprentice program having just returned from 6 months of basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. I was in the National Guard at a time when far too many of my friends were not so lucky tourists in Vietnam. My six-year commitment was a welcome alternative to carrying an M16 in the Maikong Delta jungle. My apprenticeship would provide me with an opportunity to work in every department in the kitchen – something I was looking forward to.
I had my Associate Degree in Hotel Management from a college in the Adirondacks of New York and was a bit despondent after my first interview for an assistant manager’s job at a Holiday Inn restaurant did not go so well. After a two-hour grueling session with the GM during which he pointed out everything that I didn’t know he told me that my best approach should be to return to the kitchen, learn as much as I could, and then eventually transition to the front of the house. In retrospect it was the best career advice that I would ever receive.
The kitchen was an interesting microcosm of diversity – an environment that I would instantly learn to love – a place of pure honesty, common objectives, hard work, and a camaraderie that would define the chef that I would later become. The butcher was called Frenchie (never knew his name) since he was from the Burgundy Region of France and chose to never learn how to speak English even though he had lived in Buffalo for 17 years. He was a master craftsman with complete control over his knives, as they seemed to slide through primals and sub-primals, poultry, and finfish with a mind of their own. The pastry chef was called Patsy (again, no one knew his name). He worked different hours than most other chefs and did so with a level of skill that intimidated others. Even the Executive Chef never felt the need or maybe never had the courage to try and suggest how Patsy should do his work. His barely 5 foot stature was superseded by his level of confidence and bellowing voice. The saucier was Italian (can’t remember his name) and extremely protective of his recipes and formulas. He was the only one who made stocks, sauces, and soups and no one ever touched his product. The six 100 gallon kettles in the back of the kitchen were always churning up steam as they boiled and simmered with veal stock, chicken stock, fish fumet, soups of all types, Espagnole, Veloute, Tomato, and Béchamel awaiting homes on various lines for banquets and a ‘la carte. His domain was sacred. Finally, there was Don the Banquet Chef. Don was an immense chef with a presence that overpowered his 300 plus pound frame. Don had ten children at home who he rarely saw. Because the Statler was such a busy banquet hotel Don worked almost every day from dawn to dusk. He was not a chef with finesse, but if you needed food to service 8 parties in a day and well over 2,000 meals – then Don was your guy. There were others in the kitchen – line cooks, commis, porters, pot washers, and stewards, but the chef brigade was the core.
The Executive Chef was cut from a different mold. While the others were talented and hard working they were a bunch of independent pirates. The chef – the first chef that I worked for at the Statler, was part of the Hilton elite (The Statler was actually a Statler Hilton after both companies merged in 1954). He came to Buffalo from the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. The chef was from Austria originally and had quite the culinary pedigree. He hired me to work within the parameters of the apprenticeship program solely because I had a degree in a related field (ah – so the degree did have value). This environment of serious cooks, chefs, diverse backgrounds, and significant volume was pretty foreign to me – but I was ready for the challenge.
So, what was it like to work in a property of this type, in the sixties, well before it was cool to be a cook or a chef? Allow me to try and paint a picture over the next couple of articles.
A TYPICAL DAY
It’s 6 a.m. on any day of the week as Don the Banquet Chef walks through the doors to the sub-basement kitchen. His excessive weight seems to be a burden at this time of the morning, but he manages to shuffle in carrying a paper bag that held his nourishment for the day – a bottle of vodka and two six-packs of beer. He slid his package into his kitchen locker, hung up his jacket and walked with a limp over to the pastry shop. Patsy the Pastry Chef had been at work since 4 a.m. and was sitting down with another cup of black coffee when Don entered his domain. They nodded to each other (rarely speaking) as Don moved towards the chef’s liquor cabinet. Don poured himself the equivalent of four shots of rum, kicked it back, and paused for a few moments as color started to return to his face. He was getting ready for a hard day in the kitchen.
Breakfast was in full swing at the Beef Baron Restaurant and the hotel coffee shop. It was rare to see more than one person on the breakfast line unless the hotel was full. This breakfast cook who was Hispanic and very quiet about his immigration status, was the most competent, fastest line cook I had ever seen. To this day I still have flashbacks of watching him pump out hundreds of breakfasts without even breaking a sweat. The Beef Baron also had an omelet bar with a separate cook (unusual for the 60’s) so some of the pressure was off the kitchen line. Don would usually grab a pan and cook his own eggs without getting in the way of the line. He polished off four or five scrambled eggs and a handful of bacon, downed a few cups of coffee and was ready for action by 6:30. Today would be busy with banquets in nearly every space that the hotel had to offer.
The first call to arms was prepping prime ribs for the evening banquet of 1,200 in the Grand Ballroom. Back then ribs didn’t arrive trimmed and tied so Frenchie the Butcher had worked all day yesterday to prep the 55 ribs for the party. In those days the ribs for a party were prepped by trimming the fat cap, cutting away the rack of bones and then re-tying them to the roast – this way the flavor from the bones and fat cap were absorbed by the eye of the meat, but at slicing time cutting the strings would allow both to fall to the side. Don knew that even with the full battery of deck ovens and under-ovens on the flat tops, he would need to roast the meat in two batches. This meant that the first batch would need to be in the oven by 8:30 a.m. and the second batch at 12:00. He would keep most of the first batch rare and hold them in the warming units that lined the kitchen walls. By the time of service these roasts would be closer to medium. The second batch would be timed to come from the oven at rare and medium rare.
Roasts were lined up two per strap roasting pan tipping each vessel at more than 50 pounds. Some garlic, split onions, oblique cut carrots, salt and pepper and a few sprigs of fresh thyme and pans were ready for the oven. At 8:30 – 30 of the 55 roasts were slid into 400-degree ovens for the first 45-minute sear. The temp would be dropped to 350 for the balance of roasting. Once the first batch was in the oven, Don proceeded to line up the remaining 25 for the second batch. By 9 a.m. Don had completed the most time sensitive work for the day. His support staff of cooks would arrive at 10 and he had loads of work for them to do. He took his first break of the day by visiting his locker, opening two bottles of beer and taking a few swigs from the bottle of vodka – it was just barely past 9 a.m.
***Stay tuned for part two of this three part series.
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*PHOTOS: The Buffalo Statler Hilton Hotel
The Statler Grand Ballroom
Me as a young line cook circa 1970