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Who is John Doherty?


Fat Guy
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John Doherty is hardly a household name, even among those of us for whom names of chefs are household names. Yet he has fed more heads of state than any other chef, not to mention his fair share of dignitaries, moguls, celebrities, wise guys, beautiful people, ugly people, and just about every other category of people. John is the chef at the Waldorf=Astoria.

As a corporate chef feeding thousands of people a day, however, John rarely gets to put his highest level of personal signature on a given plate. There is no "Café John" at the Waldorf where you can go and have his personal cuisine. Indeed, from the perspective of pretty much everybody other than his inner-circle staff, there has never been direct proof that the guy can actually cook, save for an episode of At The Chef's Table devoted to him.

I visited the Waldorf kitchens and spoke to John while researching my book, and I developed instant respect for him. So it was great news when the Waldorf's PR people contacted me to say that John was going to prepare a series of private chef's table dinners throughout 2004. And it was even better news that John was going to do a media preview where 30 legitimate reporters and I could have this experience for free.

I've been to quite a few chef's table dinners over the years -- publicists love to set these things up even though they're rarely worth writing about -- and they've ranged from pretty bad to pretty good. This is the first one I've attended that was categorically excellent, or even worth posting about. It was, I realized afterwards (because I was so not expecting it, it came as a slow realization), one of the best meals I've had in recent memory. It would have been well worth the $150 price tag, especially given that the tariff includes a ton of Champagne and hors d'oeuvres, a three-course dinner plus an amuse that would qualify as a full course at most restaurants, wines paired with every course, radically unremarkable coffee, and all taxes and gratuities.

The hotel's staff meet you at the big clock in the Waldorf's lobby and escort you upstairs and through a service entrance to the kitchen. The kitchen takes up an entire square block -- the whole footprint of the Waldorf -- and parts of it are split-level so it's actually larger than a square block in terms of square footage. It's not currently the largest kitchen in the world (the Bellagio is definitely larger, and there may be some others) but it's damn big. The dining area for the chef's table dinner is right at the end of one of the service lines, and they bring in plants and interesting tablecloths to soften some of the kitchen's hard edges. The first 45 minutes or so of the dinner are occupied by a Champagne (Jacquesson rose I think it was) and hors d'oeuvres reception. The hors d'oeuvres are served on platters right off the line, and constantly replenished. Each of several sous-chefs handles one of the platters -- some of the presentations are pretty nice, such as a pea custard-soup-type treat served in an egg shell and garnished with bits of ham. You could easily be served something just like one of these as a course at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Europe (ahem, Arpege). Here you can eat twenty of them if you like.

One thing I noted that was interesting to me about the hors d'oeuvres, and that carried through the meal, was that the cuisine was so totally contemporary. John and his crew of chefs and managers, all with long lists of impressive credentials, make it their business to dine, travel, and study what's going on in the top restaurants all over the world. If like me you've only been to the lower-rent Waldorf banquets, this seems surprising, but apparently they do food like this all the time for those who are willing to pay for a certain level of banquet service. Also during the hors d'oeuvres service, you can chat with the various cooks, the chef, and some of the managers, who will if asked take you for quick kitchen tours. You can see the rotisserie oven, the only surviving one of its kind, that has been operating continuously since 1931 and that can hold something like 1500 chickens. You can see the rows of 80-gallon stockpots and all kinds of other impressively large-scale apparatus. It's hard to spend the 45 minutes well, because you need to eat as many of each of the 8-10 hors d'oeuvres as possible and drink a lot of Champagne while talking to the cooks and managers and touring the kitchen.

There were two amuses, served such that if you're a couple you get one of each. The first was the meat of half a lobster on a bed of mango (mango is one of the very few things I don't eat so I didn't note the other flavors), and the other was a platter with four ceramic spoons (the platter was crafted so as to conform to the spoons -- I think it's a Portuguese ceramic item intended for tapas bars) each with a different taste: mushrooms, baby white asparagus, etc. The so-called appetizer course (I mean, we had been eating for an hour and a half at this point) was branzini with licorice root, fennel pollen, and brown butter, paired with Aigle Blanc Vouvray 1996. This was the dish and pairing of the night, with the vanilla in the Vouvray picking up the licorice and fennel flavors in a freakishly good marriage. Lots of picky food writers in the room, all making comments along the lines of "I didn't know what to expect coming in, but this guy knows his shit." The big meat course was roast rack of lamb with braised shank, artichoke hearts and tomato fricassee, paired with Kazmer & Blaise pinot noir. A terrific dish from both a product and execution standpoint, and fitting nicely into the progression of the meal.

The dessert was ambitious and great looking -- "Caramel Luster: Flourless Chocolate Cake, Vanilla Panna Cotta, Soft Caramel Mousse, Caramelized Almond and Chocolate Sorbet" -- but it tried too hard and ultimately had the signature of a hotel or cruise ship pastry kitchen on it, wherein the sculptural and performance aspects overtook the flavor and texture considerations. The savory part of the meal was surprising exactly because it was so non-hotel-ish. The coffee was poor. But the Ferrari Carano El Dorado Muscat Noir (a red Muscat) was a fun ending.

Throughout the meal, John came around to various tables and asked for volunteers to step away from their tables for a few minutes in order to participate in plating up the courses. The attendees seemed evenly divided between really wanting to do this and really not wanting to -- which was fortunate because they could only handle a limited number of volunteers. I did not choose to participate, but I can't deny that the people who did enjoyed themselves immensely.

These dinners will occur throughout 2004, on May 7, May 19, June 4, Sept. 15, Sept. 24, and Oct. 8. The reservations number is (212) 872-1275. To read a bit more about John Doherty, have a look at the piece Marian Betancourt did for the Associated Press (you can read versions of it here and here).

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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My dining background hardly qualifies me to comment on this, apart from noting with interest how the staff maintains its competitive edge and the fact that, given the opportunity, they can produce food far above the pedestrian fare one usually expects from hotel restaurants.

What I really found interesting, yet depressingly predictable, was this

It would have been well worth the $150 price tag, especially given that the tariff includes a ton of Champagne and hors d'oeuvres, a three-course dinner plus an amuse that would qualify as a full course at most restaurants, wines paired with every course, radically unremarkable coffee, and all taxes and gratuities.
The coffee was poor.

I added the emphasis and I shouldn't be surprised but it still amazes me how little attention is typically paid to coffee quality at even the highest levels of cuisine (Gramercy Tavern in NYC being an exception - the coffee I had there was exceptionally good - I"ve since been told that they serve Puerto Rican Yauco Selecto).

If you wish to bitch, moan and sing to the chorus a bit more on this topic....

Good Coffee In Expensive Restaurants - why not?

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The coffee was poor.

I added the emphasis and I shouldn't be surprised but it still amazes me how little attention is typically paid to coffee quality at even the highest levels of cuisine (Gramercy Tavern in NYC being an exception - the coffee I had there was exceptionally good - I"ve since been told that they serve Puerto Rican Yauco Selecto).

If you wish to bitch, moan and sing to the chorus a bit more on this topic....

Good Coffee In Expensive Restaurants - why not?

That is a shame. Didn't Peacock Alley used to serve "La Colombe" from Philadelphia?

Great report Steven.

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Always glad to be a source of intrigue, but this is pretty pedestrian stuff I'm afraid: two family members get pretty bad (like major swelling-puffing) allergic contact dermatitis from mangoes. I've never experienced more than a mild tingling of the lips, but I'm told the reaction can get worse. Apparently the reaction people have is to the oils in the skin of the fruit, so you're safe if you're just eating the inside, but if the fruit isn't handled well by the person preparing it then some of those oils can get onto the flesh of the fruit. So it's one of those situations where I say, what's really the point of pushing the limits of this thing? I so rarely encounter mangoes anyway that when I see them I skip them. If I'm on assignment and need to write about something with mango in it, I taste it, but otherwise no.

Robert, yes, Peacock Alley had excellent coffee, and Owen I'm sure the Waldorf has a nice espresso setup somewhere (or in 10 different places for all I know). It's just that the whole hotel-institutional kitchen model is so different from what we normally encounter in fine-dining restaurants. If you go to Daniel, you're always going to get something that reflects a certain standard befitting Daniel. You just can't go into Daniel and say "I want to pay half as much and have crappier food." Whereas hotel kitchens can and do accommodate requests like that all the time, because they're supporting a larger operation that makes money from renting those ballrooms. So we were getting hit with the A+ cuisine but the D- coffee. I bet there's A or A+ coffee somewhere in the hotel, but for whatever reason it wasn't where we were.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Always glad to be a source of intrigue, but this is pretty pedestrian stuff I'm afraid: two family members get pretty bad (like major swelling-puffing) allergic contact dermatitis from mangoes. I've never experienced more than a mild tingling of the lips, but I'm told the reaction can get worse. Apparently the reaction people have is to the oils in the skin of the fruit

FG, you probably already know this... but yes, the reaction is to the oils just as it is with poison ivy, and for exactly the same reason: urushiol. My mother had never had much trouble with poison ivy until after her first chemo; from that point on, however, she became extremely sensitive to urushiol - got horrendous poison ivy from the slightest contact with her cats' fur, and couldn't go near the outside of a mango. She could eat the flesh, though, if it was carefully peeled, at home, by someone she trusted - i.e., me.

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  • 1 year later...

With much anticipation, we arrived at the Waldorf=Astoria last night, heading straight to the giant lobby clock just as it chimed for our 6:45 reservation time. We waited along with what seemed to be our fellow dining companions. John Doherty appeared out of no where in his chef's whites and greeted each of us, checking our names off his list while congenially chatting us up. It appeared he was as eager to get the evening under way as we were.

He brought the group up through the kitchens, stopping in the pastry room for a whiff and an explanation of what the staff was doing: in this case, preparing chocolate squares for a banquet dessert. He pointed out the smell of baking and yeast, and made mention that what we smelled cooking was our breakfast for tomorrow. More on that later. We continued past the soup kitchen, with Doherty providing narration. From there we proceeded to an area of the kitchen that had been dressed and draped to provide a comfortable dining area. The multitude of sparkling stemware and flatware served to heighten the anticipation. Mr. Dorherty explained to us that we were to help ourselves to the champagne (Pierre Jouet), served by white gloved staff. He explained that we would be spending the next half hour or so sampling a variety of appetizers: a wonderful cheese fondue, served with chorizo & bread; vegetable spring rolls; eel sushi; calamari; a wonderful gazpacho and a few others. Overall this interlude was food-wise, was just what it should have been. Fresh, somewhat innovative and plentiful. At the conclusion of this course, we were asked to take our seats at one of the three aforementioned tables.

It was announced that a representative from the wine distributor would be talking us through the wine selections. Our first selection was poured (Sauvignon Blanc 2003, Brancott Reserve) as the 'Alternating Amuse Bouche" was served. There were two choices.. well, not exactly choices. The different plates were alternated around the table, so if you were a party of two, you received one of each. These consisted of Ahi Tuna Tartare with Coconut and Currants or Crispy Soft Shell Crab with Coconut Sticky Rice and Spicy Passion Fruit Coulis. My dining partner was kind enough to trade my Tuna for his Crab, which I enjoyed immensely. The wine was an excellent choice with tropical fruit undertones (I picked up pineapple mostly).

The fish course, Steamed Pompano with Spring Vegetable Melange and Champagne Beurre Blanc, was served with a 2002 Perrari-Carano Chardonnay. Being a fish person, I liked this firm white fish and the sauce complemented it nicely.

On to a Pan Roasted Fig Glazed Squab with Goat Cheese Brulee and Whole Roasted Fig served with Chambolle Musigny. To me, squab is one of those foods that takes a lot of effort to eat with little payoff. In this case, the glaze it was coated with was tasty but trying to get the meat off the bone was an exercise in patience. Luckily, the ease in which the goat cheese brulee slid onto my spoon and down my throat more than made up for it. The creaminess set off by the tang of the goat cheese had me wishing for seconds.

I must mention that throughout the dinner, my seat was positioned such that I could see our chef and sous chefs, etc. toiling to prepare the next course. Watching them saute, slice and plate was fascinating and truly the reason for our attendance at this event. The interaction between team members and watching chef and staff taste from a sauce pan, add some seasoning and taste again only served to heighten the expectations as the courses progressed. The service was attentive, with wait staff being carefully watched and monitored by a head waiter/manager. I must say that our waiters operated under somewhat unconventional conditions and at times, uncomfortable (bordering on impractical). Due to the nature of having a formal dining experience set up in a kitchen, the tables were very close together on some sides. This lack of maneuvering space often left our waiters stretching over us, reaching in front of us to clean the dishes of the next person and filling glasses with a lean and a stretch. I'm sure cost factors into the number of people (max 30) they fit into this small space, but it can't go without mention that three hours of shlumping one's chair forward so someone else can squeeze (and I mean squeeeeze) past or having a waiter's uniformed arm inches before your nose as he pours for your neighbor detracts somewhat from the overall experience.

Our final course before dessert was a Roast Loin and Curried Shank of Lamb with Papadum, Cucumber Yogurt Relish and Tamarind Lamb Jus (served with a Pezzi King Zinfindal Old Vines, 2000). This Indian accented dish was a spicy, meaty way to finish the main meal. A bit on the heavy side after all that came before it, the curried shank's spicy flavor had my mouth sitting up and taking notice.

(SIDE NOTE: Its worth a trip to the restroom. The facilities for the evening are actually the small bath in the chef's office. Going up there, one can see great photos of Doherty with presidents, etc. alongside a child's crayon sketch. The bathroom itself has an (obviously authentic) vintage feel. On the desk (yes, I looked down and peeked as I walked by it), a truffle market price sheet -- mmmm... truffles).

The dessert was served with an El Dorado Muscat Noir, a nice note to end the evening on. The dessert was Sauteed Mangoes, Fruit Sorbet and Caramelized Macadamias. Not a mango fan, I passed on the fruit and the sorbet. The Caramelized Macadamias were served in a white chocolate tube filled with a macadamia flavored cream. Layered beneath this cream were the nuts themselves and below that, a small almond/marzipan flavored disk. The top of this dessert tube had a small piece of edible gold leaf. Very pretty.

After our dessert and tea (not coffee drinkers, so I can't comment on the previously mentioned terrible coffee), we gathered our coats and were handed a lovely "goodie" bag, containing a catalog for the Waldorf, a Waldorf kitchen fact sheet and a wonderful cinnamon nut brioche placed in a small basket and wrapped in clear cellophane. This is the "tomorrow's breakfast" that had been baking when we toured the pastry kitchen. Delicious and a very nice way to end a special evening. Another nice touch was having John Doherty walk us back out through the kitchen hallways and direct us to the elevators.

The ride home was spent discussing our expectations of such an evening and how close the experience came to meeting them. Overall, the dinner and experience were good. Very good. Did it blow me away? No. The experience of eating in the Waldorf kitchen, in my opinion, overshadowed the food. The food itself was good, solid, "old school" type of fare. I suppose its exactly what one would expect to find at a place like the Waldorf. I've had meals where the next day, week, month, I can recite back what I was served and discuss the merits of a dish as the greatness of the preparation and ingredients have imbedded themselves in my mind (Craft, The Village Green in NJ, Lupa). This is not one of those kind of meals. Additionally, I was a bit disappointed, having read that guests are encouraged to participate in some of the kitchen activities. Here, this was not the case and for the duration of the 2 and a half hour meal, we remained in our seats, hesitant to rise for fear of having to a. climb over and around fellow guests to get away from the tightly packed dining area and b. running into busy waitstaff who were also trying to maneuver in the tight space.

One suggestion: It was nice having the wine rep there explaining why he chose each wine and what to look for when drinking it. It would have been EVEN NICER if Doherty or a sous chef or assistant could have perhaps explained a bit about the hows and whys of the menu choices. The urge to get up and walk around more of the kitchen area was strong but the opportunity to do so never really presented itself. This was a good dining experience. I'm glad I did it and the thing I'll remember a year from now is the fact that it took place in the Waldorf kitchens and I sadly had to go to work the next day.

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