Food Arts presents its July/August 1991 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Joseph H. Baum, visionary restaurateur and concept creator.
No other restaurateur has been involved in the creation and operation of as many legendary restaurants. The Four Seasons, Windows on the World, and The Rainbow Room are not only enduring classics but top money-makers as well. Others, like La Fonda del Sol and The Forum of the XII Caesars, though now defunct, live on in the memory of New York's dining public.
Baum has been called the father of the glamorous theme restaurant; credited with designing the stemless brandy snifter and originating the technique of removing a dirty ashtray by covering it with a clean one; and accused of launching the "Hi, I'm Doug. I'll be your waiter tonight" syndrome.
Baum joined Restaurant Associates in 1953 and became president ten years later. He opened the company's first full-service restaurant, The Newarker, at Newark Airport. In 1970 he left to start his own firm; today the New York City-based Joseph Baum and Michael Whiteman Company operates The Rainbow complex at Rockefeller Center and is involved in dozens of consulting projects throughout the world.
Baum was to the business born: His parents operated hotels in Saratoga Springs, New York. As a young boy, he became enamored of the "sensuality and the fun of the summer resorts." Of all the sights and sounds and smells that made up this fascinating world, Baum loved best the fragrant, freshly laundered tablecloths hanging on the line to dry. Even when he was the butt of a joke (when he was 12, the cooks sent him out to hang blintzes on a clothesline), Baum loved the humor and the camaraderie of the people who worked in the kitchens.
Baum speaks frequently of the sensuality of restaurants, rubbing the tips of his fingers and thumbs together as if his feel for the business resides right there. "It's very physical," says this consummate choreographer of the culinary stage. "You can feel it when the room is really spinning. If anything goes wrong, you have to sense it and act quickly." A passionate perfectionist, he likes his tablecloths "sexy," his napkins crisp, his silver shiny, his tables 28 and a half inches high, his chairs leather.
Baum also talks about the magical qualities of restaurants, of New York City and of The Rainbow Room in particular. "When the lights creep into The Rainbow Room at night, you can believe in magic," he says. And while most people experience that romantic effect on an anniversary or birthday, Baum is thrilled by it every night. In fact, he says there's no place he'd rather be than in The Rainbow Room on the 65th floor of the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center, "in the center of the center." Now 70, Baum is still in love with what he does and the city he does it in. "I really believe New York is the dining capital of the world," he says.
"Ich bin New Yorker."
"Ich bin restaurateur."