Food Story

I’d like to tell you Joe Baum who created 167 restaurants in his lifetime.  Among them were the four highest grossing eateries in the United States. They were Windows on the World, The Rainbow Room, The Four Seasons and Tavern on the Green.

Joe’s philosophy was simple: “Our product,” he said, “the measure of our success, is pleasure. We are in the pleasure business.  We are organized, equipped and staffed to supply pleasure, at a profit, which means that any threats to pleasure are bad for business. We must constantly ask ourselves, “What more can we give?” What will it cost you to give ‘em a glass of champagne or an extra oyster? The more pleasure you give, the more you will receive along with at least temporary job security and higher fees.”

To illustrate the lengths Joe would go to provide his guests with a memorable occasion, I’ll tell you a little story. One evening Joe hosted a dinner for the elite Confrerie des Chevaliers du Testevin at The Four Seasons restaurant in New York City. The Chevaliers were lifelong gourmets and wine  connoisseurs without peer and this would be the ultimate test, even for the greatest of restaurateurs.

Joe planned and planned, and planned some more, and finally, the day before the dinner was to be held, the entire staff of the restaurant staged a full dress rehearsal of the exact meal.

The menu was extraordinarily complicated. Custom-made pyramid-shaped molds were manufactured.  They were designed to enable the chefs to fill them with pyramid-shaped triangles of veal loin that were then inserted int the center of the fillets of beef…foie gras was placed inside the veal, truffles were positioned inside the foie gras…The entire presentation was created out of a progression of pyramid shapes.  Everything was what we would now call —over the top.  (The dessert of Pears en Chemise, the chemises (nightgowns) were made of gold leaf).

Never one to miss an opportunity to turn simple abundance into wild excess, Joe hung Chevaliers’ ribbons from the ceiling enfolding each table as though it was a small pavilion. As a final coup, he built a platform into the restaurant’s famous 20 foot-square marble reflecting pool in the center of the room so the waiters appeared to be walking on water.

Mercifully the actual feast went off perfectly but early the next morning, after a sleepless night, Baum grabbed the publicity man by his lapels, demanding to know the Chevaliers’ reaction to his extravaganza.

“Well, Joe,” said the cornered P.R. man, “The Chevaliers where so overwhelmed that they met at their hotel last night, after the dinner, to pass an extraordinary resolution — and here’s what they said: We, the Chevaliers of the elite Confrerie, resolve unanimously that your was the finest meal every served in the history of the world!?

Baum let go of the man’s (Roger Martin’s) lapels and reflected for a full 10 seconds; then Joe blurted out, his face red with rage, “Goddamit, that just not good enough. Get me the chef. GoddamitGODDAMIT!!!

Perfection is only rarely achieved. Striving for though is a worthwhile endeavor…

 

 

Final Windows on the World Meeting

The CEO of Windows on the World, Joe Baum loved meetings, the bigger the better. He preferred that everyone crowd into his office, but now and again we met in architect Hugh Hardy’s vast studio on Broadway and 18th Street, as we did at ten a.m. one chilly day at the end of October 1995 to review the progress of the vast Windows on the World enterprise.

Eighteen experts in various fields gathered around the table in Hugh’s conference room. Blueprints of the 106th and 107th floors covered one entire wall. On the other three walls were dioramas of color-coordinated paint chips, tile patterns, carpet swatches, chair designs, bathroom fixtures, and samples of end tables for the seating areas, along with hundreds of other prototypes. Exhibited along the length of a very long table in the adjoining room were scale models of The Restaurant, The Greatest Bar on Earth, The Cellar in the Sky, and the Private Dining Suites. Here, too, were actual samples of crystal, flatware, salt and pepper shakers, and serving dishes. Famed graphic designer, Milton Glaser’s displayed his china patterns in the form of paper mock-ups because all the tableware was still being manufactured in England. His colorful menu designs were carefully placed on the tabletops. Drop-dead gorgeous boys and girls were standing by to model the waitstaff uniforms that had been specially made for the occasion.

Computer models were keyed to show lighting plans—how each space would appear in the early morning light, at high noon, with seven-eighths illumination, with dimmed twilight, with flowers on the tables, without flowers, with seated guests, and with projections of traffic patterns as guests left the tables or waitstaff entered from the kitchen. Sound levels could demonstrate the acoustics in the bar with live music. Months in advance of the completed construction, it was possible to hear and see how each part of the space would operate when the guests arrived.

Joe was poised halfway along the side of the table, facing away from the windows. He always refused the head seat. Already he was lighting a third cigarette, though two others still burned in the ashtray. Hugh Hardy sat beaming in the middle of the table, surrounded by six of his eager associates, including Pam Lauffler, the super-organized and hard-working senior project supervisor; Caroline, the interior decorator; and the young Brazilian architectural postgrad intern who was assigned to draft the collateral designs. Milton Glaser was there—he had worked with and admired Joe for many years. Tony Zazula was on Joe’s right. Tony was Joe’s most trusted adviser, friend, and director of the private dining services that occupied the entire 106th floor and generated most of the income.

The chief financial officer was there, too, leaning over her briefcase in search of yet another spread sheet. Next to her was a partner from Frank Sciami, the construction contractor. He was impatient to get to his feet and explain the intricacies of his plans for the air conditioning, ventilation, electrical wiring, plans for removing the asbestos, and the elegant simplicity of the new plumbing lines. The garbage-removal expert was invited but didn’t show up. The kitchen architect was there, though, fingering his rolled-up design for the cooking surfaces. Michael Whiteman was there, with Dennis Sweeney at his side. Carrie Robbins, the uniform designer was giving last-minute directions to the models. Joe’s new partner was there, too. He did not appear happy. I was there taking notes for a planned PBS program that would chronicle the rebuilding of Windows from conception to grand opening. (Ultimately this project was abandoned. Although I pushed hard for it, the new partner rejected the idea.)

Joe signaled the opening of the meeting. True to form, he appeared completely oblivious to his surroundings and all the preparations that had been made for the meeting. “I don’t want guests looking at the inside of the kitchen sink,” he said, looking from one to another to see if anyone was following his line of thinking. No one was. Not one of us had the slightest idea what he was talking about. The translation of Joe’s pronouncement was: when seated, guests can’t see the top of a gueridon, the tableside carts on which a waiter carves a chicken or takes a fish off the bone to present it with a flourish to the guest. Because the diner’s eye level is below the surface of the cart, what they see must be attractive.

Joe loved gueridons not only because he believed that personal service honors the guest, but also because the movement of the roving carts adds a theatrical element. Gueridons, therefore, like every other detail, had to be reexamined and reevaluated as though they had never before been a fixture of the most elegant dining rooms. Milton Glaser, who immediately grasped the situation, made a note to supply a screen of the cloud design logo he had created for use throughout Windows, to be placed on the sides of the cart. “And,” Joe added, as though reading Milton’s mind, “The colors are to be reflective of the uniforms and other elements within the rooms.” Milton nodded. After a moment, while most jaws were still slack with incomprehension, Joe remarked, “It may sometimes be necessary to bank two gueridons side by side, so this should be taken into consideration. If oval sides are incorporated into the design this will limit their function.”

Without actually acknowledging it, Joe had changed the agenda for the meeting. Instead of making decisions on the many exhibits, he was ordering a total redesign of a gueridon — an entirely new fabrication that he said “was not to be derivative or adapted from a traditional or existing form.” “How many gueridons are we talking about?” asked Hugh. “Sixteen,” answered Joe instantly, without explaining how he had arrived at this figure. Pam, the project supervisor, scribbled a memo to herself to meet with glass and glazing-material manufacturers and explore the availability of cast stone in a variety of colors.

Quickly Joe added several other stipulations. A second pack of cigarettes was puffed into ashes. No one complained, though occasionally the new partner made a small cough of protest. On and on Joe went. Joe’s new partner, who had been tugging his Burberry scarf this way and that, pulled on his raincoat and left without saying whether or not he planned to return. Lunchtime came and went, noted but unobserved. The designers gazed wistfully at their models. Others toyed with pens, considered what to have for supper…and how to murder Joe. At long last, pushing his chair back, Joe got unsteadily to his feet. Signs of his mortal illness were already apparent. The meeting had lasted four and a half hours. Just as everyone was heaving a huge sigh of relief, Joe flung out a warning. “A gueridon should not cost more than an automobile,” he announced, though of course we all knew that it would, and that it would never be built. His partner wouldn’t allow it.

Later, seated in the bar, Joe asked me what I thought about the meeting—without, as usual, waiting to hear my opinion. We both knew the entire meeting had been an exercise in irritating his partner, so Joe considered the occasion a smashing success. Gathering his strength, he suggested that we compile a “To Do” list to make sure we would be ready for the grand opening scheduled just eighteen weeks ahead — before the scheduled opening on June 27, 1996—Between drinks, I dutifully wrote down everything he said…word for word…

1.   Finish building The New Windows on the World — from scratch.

2.   Make sure the tables, chairs, china, glass and knives, forks and spoons, salts and peppers get to the restaurant on time.

3.     Order 550 pairs of pants, shirts, dresses, jackets, and other articles of clothing for the waitstaff and the uniforms for the 52 cooks.

4.  Find a chef — actually 4 chefs.

5.   Buy some silver polish and vacuum cleaners.

6.   Get some coat hangers.

7.   Fix the crooked origami tile on the north west corner of the ceiling in the restaurant.

8. Order 2,000 bottles of beer and 700 bottles of wine and some champagne and coffee.

9.  Decide if 6 (10 7/8″) plates, 6 bread and butter plates, 12 forks, 12 knives, 6 glasses, salt and pepper and flowers will fit on a 27″ table — bearing in mind orders, with hefty non-returnable deposits have already been made for the china that was being manufactured in the north of England.

10. Make an invitation list for the opening night party

11.  Hire the dishwashers. Hire a purchasing person to buy 20,000 pounds of prime beef to be delivered each week. Also 7,000 pounds of bread, pastry and cake flour, 4,000 pound of fish. 2,250 dozen eggs, 3,000 pounds of poultry, 3,200 pounds of salad greens.

12.  Hire 6 florists to arrange 3,000 flowers purchased every week.

The final item on our list is now almost too painful to share. Number 13 read:

13. Reassure guests there are no mad bombers within 500 square miles.

Windows Broke on Sept. 11

The new Windows restaurants and banquet rooms occupied two acres of space but bore virtually no resemblance to the original. When asbestos was discovered, the space had to be stripped to the steel girders. Every inch of the floors and walls and ceilings were torn down. You could walk on the 107th floor and stare down clear to the empty chasm beneath your feet.

CEO Joe Baum demanded that everything, everything, be reconsidered. I was summoned to write an essay on the very meaning of the word “restaurant.”Another day I was assigned the task of explaining the term “menu.” He insisted on knowing what people were wearing on the street, in the entrance to the tower, and on various floors of the twin towers.

To make sure we were striking the right balance I was instructed by Joe to spend some time loitering on the five floors occupied by Cantor Fitzgerald, so that I could report on the way the employees were dressed on Monday through Thursday — as well as on dress-down Fridays. We identified these hard-driving bond traders as being among our prime drinkers for The Greatest Bar on Earth.

On September 11th, 25 percent of all deaths came from this single company. Five floors of the North Tower were demolished. 858 perished. Many more drowned in an ocean of grief and despair.

 

Food Job: TV Star

Today, one hundred million households can tune into the Food Network. There are stations in New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, and Knoxville. There are viewers in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Philippines, Monaco, Polynesia, and Great Britain. More people watch the Food Network than CNN. It no longer aims to teach cooking techniques or kitchen skills. Instead, it has lurched into the production of cooking shows featuring the assembly of store-bought components, and of cooking-competition shows that choose winners and losers. It also has an unfathomable addiction to cup cakes.

What is turning this huge audience on to all of it’s culinary idols, as featured on the Food Network though my impression is that Guy Fieri takes up 23 of the 24 hours a day. (Maybe many people like him?) Vast swaths of people appear to have the time to watch others cook and eat, and exclaim how good it all smells—but to have no time to cook for themselves.

Everything smells fabulous on the television screen. This phenomenon is frequently noted by Ina Garten, the “Barefoot Contessa,” who cooks for her well-heeled pals and punctuates every divine, “how easy is that?” moment with mirthless laughter. “Smells great” and the words “quick” and “easy” are well-known to the perpetually smiling and cleavage-revealing Giada and the lovely folk who come and go promising dinners that cost mere pennies and are quick and easy…and Oh Yes! Smells Great!!!

 

Breaking into the Food Media

The Emmy-nominated food-show producer and director Irene Wong offers some sound advice:

“If you want to be in front of the camera, my advice is to watch a lot of food programs. Get an idea of why each show works. Why is Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives among the most popular shows on the Food Network? Why is Rachael Ray so appealing? They’re giving the audience something they want. Figure out how you are going to deliver what you want to say about food, but also what the audience wants to hear. Find out what your food identity is, what your food voice is. Your brand. Make it stand out from everyone else. If you’re the only person who can deliver your brand, that will make you more attractive to television executives, because you will be irreplaceable.”

It also helps a lot to take a media training course.  Performing in front of a camera is a lot harder than it looks.

 

Food Job: Lobbyist

A lobbyist is someone who advocates for someone or an organization and gets paid for influencing legislation.  Every year, $9 billion is spent on lobbying.  It is the 3rd largest budget after government agencies and the food and tourist industries.

The Restaurant Association is just one among literally hundreds of special-interest advocates operating in Washington, D.C. These include lobbyists for agricultural and fishery industries, food processors, and every other corner of the big business of food. The American League of Lobbyists says: “We want people, young people, to enter government affairs and to be part of the great American political process.”

To be a great lobbyist you must be (or convincingly appear to be) passionate and knowledgeable about the cause you are advocating. Your rolodex and personal network are your most valuable possessions, second only to grease. Greased wheels lead to access to power. 43% of former congressmen have worked or are working as lobbyist.

To get a job as a lobbyist, try volunteering for a cause…you never know where it may lead.


Food Job: Mom

The oddest “job” I have ever had was at the invitation of a very large home builder. I was asked to stand in the kitchen of a model home, look like a mom, and cook little snacks for the house hunters. It was a hugely successful promotion. Not surprisingly, everyone gathered in the kitchen. Neighbors met neighbors and shared notes about schools and other areas of mutual interest. Sales soared.