Irene Sax - April 2002
Food Arts presents the April 2002 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to John Doherty, executive chef of New York City's Waldorf-Astoria hotel, for being a leader in returning hotel dining to the days when the original Waldorf and its Gilded Age "grand hotel" peers drew the capitalist cream with the quality of their food.
Doherty has never been afraid to shake things up. Once he became the Waldorf's executive chef in 1985 at the unprecedentedly young age of 27, he began to entertain the press at long formally set tables in the middle of the kitchen's hubbub, showing them his commitment to freshly thought-out contemporary cooking while staying in touch with classic French tradition.
It's the job he wanted when he was a student at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and told a chef/instructor that one day he hoped to work at the Waldorf. He still doesn't know where he got the idea. Although he's a native New Yorker, he had never set foot in the fabled hotel. "I must have heard the name or seen it in a movie and associated it with glamour and quality."
While still in school, he externed under the Waldorf's chef, Arno Schmidt, then returned to the hotel two days after graduation. He worked in many of the hotel's kitchens, including the one for room service. That's where he learned to deal with the iron whims of VIP customers like Imelda Marcos and Frank Sinatra, a skill that helped him during this February's World Economic Forum, relocated from Davos, Switzerland, when his staff hunkered down to prepare 25 to 40 events a day, many of them attended by heads of state. For the duration, every dinner, he says, was a VIP dinner.
Today he oversees an enormous operation with annual sales of $47 million and a staff of 150 cooks serving about 3,000 meals a day. The kitchen is the size of a city block, where every operation has its own area and its own chef. In addition to events and room service, the hotel operates five bars and four freestanding restaurants: Bull & Bear, a classic steakhouse and bar; Oscar's, an American bistro; Inagiku, a Japanese restaurant; and Peacock Alley, a fine dining restaurant named for the world famous fashion-flaunting promenade at the original Waldorf, that is currently being rethought.
But, despite his administrative burden, Doherty is still a cook. As he rose through the ranks at the hotel, he completed stages in kitchens in Belgium, the Netherlands, and France, including one at Georges Blanc. When he arrived at the Waldorf, classical haute cuisine still ruled. These days, he says, his taste has become simpler.
"As I get older, I like fewer flavors on a plate. Zucchini is a wonderful vegetable, and if I use it, that's what I want to taste. Every ingredient I choose has to contribute something to the plate. Our customers are happy with this style. Nobody is sending things back."