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Grilled In a Minute: David Garcelon

Julie Mautner / October 15th, 2012

Born and raised in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, Canada, chef David Garcelon took his first kitchen job at age 14. He earned degrees from Cornell University and the Culinary Institute of Canada and went on to lead some of the largest hotel kitchens in the world. As culinary director at The Waldorf Astoria New York, Garcelon oversees all culinary operations of this legendary 1,413 room hotel. The Art Deco masterpiece occupies an entire block of prestigious Park Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, where it has been since 1931 (32 years after it originally opened), and earned official landmark status in 1993.

“As someone who has worked in hotels for the majority of my career, the opportunity to be part of The Waldorf Astoria is something I’ve always dreamed of,” he says. “Leading kitchens where numerous iconic dishes were created instills a powerful drive to expand and innovate.” Among the dishes credited to the Waldorf kitchen over the years are veal Oscar, lobster Newburg, eggs Benedict, and (of course) the Waldorf salad. The hotel also is said to have helped popularize Thousand Island dressing and red velvet cake.

Prior to joining The Waldorf Astoria in 2011, Garcelon served as executive chef of the 1,364 room Fairmont Royal York hotel (Toronto), home to Canada’s largest hotel kitchen. As an advocate for local and sustainable sourcing and purchasing, Garcelon oversaw the rooftop herb garden—the only one of its kind in Toronto—and, in 2008, established a rooftop apiary. He has also been executive chef at The Fairmont Southampton (Bermuda), The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge (Alberta), and Delta Lodge at Kananaskis (formerly CP Hotels) in Alberta.

Garcelon is a Certified Food and Beverage Executive (The American Hotel & Lodging Association) and a Certified Executive Chef (American Culinary Federation). He has earned numerous AAA Five Diamond Awards and scores of other industry accolades in both Canada and the U.S.

Garcelon and his wife, Kylie, an industry professional, live in New York City. They have two children, Chris and Eric, who are both currently in college in Canada.

David, the Waldorf is such an institution, an icon! Tell us about one or two of your more fabulous events or guests.
There have been so many exciting events, but one of my annual favorites is Bette Midler’s “Hulaween” Costume Ball, in support of the New York Restoration Project. We work with a different guest chef on the menu each year, and it’s a lot of fun. The celebrity guests in costume always enter the ballroom through our banquet kitchen, and my team really enjoys that. Over the years we’ve had Stevie Wonder, Martha Stewart, Sheryl Crow, Yoko Ono…

Tell us something cool or surprising about the Waldorf that our readers may not know.
A couple of things come to mind, such as the scale of our operation: My brigade of 148 cooks and chefs operates 24 hours a day and prepares more than 600,000 meals per year. In April 2012, we began installing a chef’s garden on the 20th floor roof of the hotel, and our team of carpenters has just finished building eight raised beds in which we’ll grow herbs, vegetables, flowers, and fruit, in partnership with The Horticultural Society of New York. We already have six beehives and expect to harvest more than 200 pounds of Top of the Waldorf honey our first season.

Who or what was your earliest culinary influence?
I grew up in a small town with a large rural population. Most families had their own gardens, and almost all meals were eaten at home. My mother and grandmother cooked from scratch, and we ate with the seasons, looking forward to fiddleheads and asparagus in the spring, fresh corn in the fall, and lots of fresh seafood year-round.

What was the most important thing you learned in culinary school?
We learned primarily classical French cuisine and techniques, and I believe that is the ideal foundation on which to build your skills as a chef. I also learned how to open a beer with a French knife the first week!

What was your worst job ever?
One summer I worked as an assistant to a gas company repairman, installing furnaces, hot water heaters, kitchen equipment. It was a hot dirty job that made a cook’s job look pretty appealing!

What’s one thing in your kitchen you couldn’t live without?
It’s all about the ingredients. The best chef in the world, with the best equipment, can’t produce great food if the ingredients aren’t up to par. We work very hard with our suppliers and producers to ensure my team starts with world-class produce, seafood, meat, cheese, et cetera.

And what’s one thing you’d love in your kitchen but don’t have?
There isn’t much we don’t have, but our kitchen is 81 years old and, while it’s been modernized and we continually upgrade our equipment, we don’t have Combi ovens. They’re definitely on my wish list, and we’re working on a plan to install 10 of them.

Who would you love to cook for that you haven’t?
Neil Young!

What’s the one cookbook you use most often?
All of Thomas Keller’s books. You can always rely on the recipes being perfect and a great starting point from which to inspire our chefs and cooks. His cuisine focuses on the best ingredients prepared with impeccable techniques.

What’s your idea of late-night snacking bliss?
Hot dogs with fried onions and Dijon mustard.

And what’s one thing that you’ll never ever eat?
We do an annual dinner with the Explorers Club, where we prepare “Exotics” for the reception: insects, scorpions, tarantulas, et cetera. My team does a great job with this, but the food is not for me!

What was the very worst day in your culinary career?
We were to do off-site catering in the home of the president of the hotel company I was working for at the time, with 20 senior executives invited. My sous chef, who was handling the event, got the date wrong. I was sound asleep at home on a Sunday afternoon when my phone rang, telling me that our president had arrived at his house and found we weren’t there preparing the dinner. We pulled it off, but I really felt as if my career was flashing before my eyes.

If you could drink just one wine for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Sea Smoke Pinot Noir.

And if you could work with one chef, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
Escoffier. He was a hotel chef like me and did so much to elevate the profession.

What’s your favorite thing about your job?
The Waldorf Astoria is one of the most exciting places in the most exciting city on earth…and our kitchen is the heart of it. We host guests from all over the world, every day, and cater events for business, entertainment, sports, diplomats, weddings, society galas, you name it! Talk about never a dull moment! And it’s been like that for over 100 years.

And your least favorite?
An average of 150 emails per day.

Tell us one personal goal or fantasy not yet attained.
I’d like to spend a couple of months eating my way around Europe, in the smaller towns and villages.

OK, so what one behavior guarantees you’ll fire a sous chef?
Dishonesty. I trust my team implicitly, and if you break that trust…game over.

And your best advice for a young cook just starting out?
First, make sure you really love the profession. Not just parts of it but all of it, especially the pressure…because for most people, cooking makes a better hobby than a profession. And make sure you’re learning every day. If you’re not finding something to learn where you’re working, move on. The best advice I ever got was “When you think you’re good, you’re finished.” Keep striving to get better all the time…and keep your ego in check.

If not this, then what? Meaning, what would your second career choice have been?
I thought about law—I like to argue and debate—and I find politics fascinating. But I’m quite happy I chose the kitchen instead!