1950s Archive

Primer for Gourmets


Originally Published August 1958

When people today complain of New York's summertime heat, dust, and noise, I can't help but think of my first years here, the summers of 1911 to 1913. Mon Dieu, they were hot! Nowhere that I had ever lived in Europe had been quite so hot air conditioning, naturellement, hadn't been thought of. Even electric fans were an almost unobtainable luxury at that time. New York, especially the midtown Madison Avenue area, was frightfully dusty because the great cut that would bring trains into the new Grand Central Station had been opened up and work was going on there. And noisy? Well, just try to imagine horse-drawn traffic on streets paved with cobblestones. Yet in summer the Ritz was well filled and the timing rooms crowded every noon and evening just as they were during the rest of the year.

But there was no getting around the fact that both the mirror-lined Oval Room (our more formal dining room on the main floor) and the less formal Oak Room downstairs were hot. too hot for relaxed dining. This situation worried Robert Goeler, who built the Ritz as well as the neighboring Carlton House. Together, these two formed the famous New York Ritz-Carlton. which presented an unbroken façade on Madison Avenue. However, farther back between the two buildings was an open court almost like a huge breezeway. Mr. Goelet knew the popularity of the terrasse in French eating places and decided to put the open court to use. His architects devised a Japanese garden plan because it would best fit the area available. Its focal point, a tiny grass-edged brook, flowed lazily through the transformed courtyard. Wooden walks were laid for the tables, dwarf trees were planted, and birds fluttered and preened themselves in swinging cages. Bamboo awnings and screens and other Japanese architectural details completed the picture. And specially designed menus carried out the motif.

Only Mr. Goelet remained unsatisfied. Charming as the Japanese Garden was for luncheon and tea, he considered it a little informal for dinner. He solved the problem by adding two new rooms, the Crystal Garden for late-evening parties and the great ballroom just above it. The roof of the new wing became a roof-garden restaurant, the first restaurant of its kind, I believe, in New York.

As chef de cuisine at the Ritz, I worked out special menus for these summer restaurants, introducing new and unusual dishes. Many of our spécialitiés continue to be popular in quality restaurants. Some of them, such as vichys-soise, have become quite famous. Our cold buffet table, with its array of beautifully decorated and garnished foods, caused wide comment, as it was an innovation for New York restaurants.

In preparing this article, I tried to analyze these striking displays of cold summer foods to determine what made them so individual. The secret lies in the cook. He must take the trouble to arrange an attractive buffet and to make sure that each dish will taste as good as it looks. The actual foods are those you have been learning to cook in my primer lessons. One point I remember well: At the Old New York Ritz, cold egg and chicken dishes ranked high in popularity On our summer menus. The lightness and delicacy of these foods make them very desirable in hot weather.

In cooking eggs, the most important rule is to avoid excessive heat and overcooking, either of which toughens the white and darkens the yolk. Over-cooking explains the purplish ring that sometimes forms around the yolks of hard-cooked eggs. Most people want to know how to keep the white of a hard-cooked egg from sticking to the shell. because the egg then has an unattractive pitted look when peeled. The trick is to transfer the cooked eggs immediately from the boiling water to a bowl of cold water, and to shell them as soon as they're cool enough to be handled. The moisture condensing between egg and shell separates the two and the shell slips off easily.

I'm sure everyone knows that hard-cooked eggs are the traditional garnish for salads of fish, shellfish, chicken, and many combination chef's salad bowls. When garnishes include both hard-cooked eggs and tomatoes, the two are usually cut in the same fashion; both are sliced or quartered. If the chef slices them, he frequently places a slice of egg on top of each slice of tomato and sprinkles the yolk with a few capers or fines herbes consisting of chervil, tarragon, and parsley.

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