Le Cirque's High-Wire Act 3
David Leite - July/August 2006
Willing to brave the whirl of tricky social currents once again, Sirio Maccioni raises the curtain on his third New York City version of Le Cirque. Its gleaming kitchens, devoid of techno bells and whistles, reveals that old guard diners will find the maestro is forever the classicist.
The white-tiled kitchen is a cacophony of voices, slamming sheet pans, and clanking Mauviel copperware so new they still wear their factory spit-and-polish. It's noon on a Saturday in mid-May, and it's the first time the kitchen staff of the third incarnation of Le Cirque, this one in the brand-new Bloomberg Tower on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, has gathered. Furtive glances cut across the room, but the cooks aren't sizing up executive chef Pierre Schaedelin, wondering who he'll axe over the coming weeks, but rather they're eyeing an elegant man dressed in a natty blue blazer, tie, and striped shirt: the 74 year old impresario and restaurateur Sirio Maccioni. For his part, Maccioni is momentarily preoccupied. Pummeled by a cold, which has rendered his voice raspy, he's asking anyone who can hear him over the clangor for sugar for his coffee. One attentive young cook brings over a small bowl and nods with slight deference. But it's not a sycophant Maccioni's after. What he wants more than anything is for the coming week to be over.
Maccioni sits at the dusty chef's table, which is covered with a sheet from a scroll of butcher's paper. On it are long columns that schedule—almost to the minute—the six days leading up to the moment he'll throw open Le Cirque's doors anew for the third time. His coffee cup leaves tan rings on top of the column titled "Thursday, May 18th," the day of the no-holds-barred, invitation-only opening party.
Maccioni looks around at the earnest faces of the 50 cooks crowding the kitchen, then asks in his chopped English: "Does New York really need another Le Cirque?" It's the kind of question that shocks, not just because of its weight but because of who's asking it. Indeed, does New York need another iteration of the high-octane social feeding spot of which one guest famously said, "It's the only place I feel comfortable wearing my real jewels?" But when questioned how difficult it is to get a reservation, Maccioni replies with a satisfied sweep of his hand, "Filled through the end of July."
It's this unfettered contradiction—vacillating between abject worry and easy confidence—that has driven the man from his early days at The Colony, through the original Le Cirque opened in 1974 and its millennium follow-up, to this $18 million third act. This Maccionian paradox is a touchstone that has navigated him through more than 50 years of enviable success. Without it, others say, he would be rudderless. And, not surprisingly, contradiction is what has shaped the newest addition to his family's empire.
"This isn't a Thomas Keller kitchen," says designer James Davella of the gleaming à la carte kitchen, one of three spaces Le Cirque will use to cook for its socially and culinarily insatiable crowd. Davella, who recently joined Ricca Newmark Design in New York City as a principal, clarifies what makes Le Cirque different—almost anachronistic—compared with other high-profile, highly marketed restaurants: "Keller is one of these new chefs who's into food chemistry. Not us. Yes, we have a sous-vide machine, but it's sitting in my office. It's going over there sometime."
He explains that from the outset the Alsatian born Schaedelin made it clear to him and to architects Adam Tihany and Costas Kondylis that the 8,000 square feet of Le Cirque's three sleek kitchens, which scream out for high-tech chef gadgets, would be fitted traditionally. All it takes is one look at Schaedelin's CV to understand why: he's worked at, among other places, Alain Ducasse's Le Louis XV in Monaco, Auberge de l'Ill in Illhaeusern, and Au Fer Rouge in Colmar, the latter two in his native province, and Le Cirque 2000, where he was the executive chef when it closed on New Year's Eve 2004. All are paragons of la cuisine classique. "I was thinking blast chillers, combi-ovens, and pressurized kettles," adds Davella, "but in the end we toned it down with more straightforward equipment. And it was exactly the right thing to do."
Marco Maccioni, director of the new Le Cirque and the middle scion of Sirio's triumvirate of restaurateur sons that also numbers Mario (director of Le Cirque and Circo in Las Vegas) and Mauro (director of Osteria del Circo in New York City), offers a reason as to why the kitchen is bereft of chef toys. "My father practically invented the art of turning tables gracefully," he says. "And that meant having a hardworking kitchen [at Le Cirque and Le Cirque 2000] that could cook for that number of covers, and we needed the same thing here."
Once the new kitchen was designed to seamlessly juggle a night full of demanding, sometimes capricious guests, it was Schaedelin's turn to build a menu that took advantage of the space and balance not only Le Cirque classics but also a raft of innovative dishes meant to quietly whisper in the ear of even the most jaded diner, "This is not your grandmother's Le Cirque." He admits, though, it'll take some time to finesse and winnow down the menu because it's too vast—a Le Cirque trademark. "I keep eliminating dishes to make sure we can do the others perfectly." says Schaedelin.
In the restaurant, food is served in three locations, each with its own specialty. The main dining room, which accommodates approximately 100 people, is all about à la carte dishes, with choices such as sweet English peas and wild mushrooms; Alaskan black cod with mussels, razor clams marinière, and a gratinée of chorizo; and South African jumbo langoustines served in a red curry/ginger bouillon. For tables confounded by the breadth of options, a $135 seven course dégustation menu is available.
The 65 seat bar specializes in Le Cirque classics, including Dover sole meunière, côte de boeuf for two, and osso buco with risotto Milanese. Die-hard fans can once again get their fix of pig's feet stuffed with black truffles, rabbit in Riesling, and boneless stuffed sardines niçoise. Also available are $36 four course lunch boxes, which can be eaten in or taken out. Oddly enough, pasta primavera, a Le Cirque go-to for more than 30 years, has been retired. When asked why, Sirio just shrugs. "Old."
Rising behind the bar is a massive 27 foot wine tower, weighing in at four tons. According to wine director Isabelle Husser, who has worked at Le Cirque for four years at three locations, the tower houses 2,500 bottles of reds, a mere fifth of the entire collection. Plus there will be 12 reds, eight whites, six sparkling wines, and eight dessert wines available by the glass. To satisfy the restaurant's old guard as well as a new generation of upstart, very knowledgeable enophiles, she has parsed the list by country, its top varietals, and preferred estates. "It was important to me to carefully pick only those wines from each country that reflect its character, its history," she says. She and her all-female five person team are already getting a workout running up and down the stairs of the tower as well as to the 80 seat private dining room on the balcony hovering above the main floor.
In this third area, special menus preside. What's served is predicated upon who the guests are, what the occasion is, and why it's being held. But in true Maccioni style, cross ordering, regardless of location, is never a problem. In fact, it's encouraged. "If someone comes into the dining room and wants bouillabaisse, they get bouillabaisse," Maccioni says. "What am I going to say: ‘Eat at the bar?'"
In a reversal, there's one area whose design was determined by the menu: the dessert plating station. "The dessert course is when Sirio gets to shine," says Davella. "That's circus time. You get something whether you order or not, and everyone takes a bite." To stoke the anticipation for sweets, Tihany and Davella designed the open dessert plating area just off the dining room. "It encourages customers to walk by, ask questions, get excited," he adds. There they can watch classic plates being readied before being paraded out: crème brûlée, the Le Cirque chocolate stove, and bombolini, as well as new creations including fresh Cavaillon melon and Port in caramelized puff pastry and Caribbean chocolate parfait with spiced sea salt caramel. "With Sirio, there are no curtains like in The Wizard of Oz," he says. "If a customer wants to wander through the place, he can."
And if that customer happened to wander through the à la carte kitchen, he'd find a modest-size L-shaped room. At the far end of the longer section is garde-manger, at this moment quiet as a lone cook swabs her station. Continuing to the right along the wall is the hot appetizer station. It's kitted out with a cooking batterie of a Jade oven with two open burners, a graduated French top, and a salamander; an Electrolux pasta cooker, which keeps a constant stream of clean boiling water at the ready; a mini Sodir stone-hearth oven for pizza, tartlets, and other bar foods; and, as a nod to the evolving tastes of New Yorkers, a panini maker, new for Le Cirque. Running down the middle of the section, and dividing the waitstaff from the cooks, is a pickup table with heat lamps hovering three feet above.
At the right angle, where both sections of the kitchen meet, is where Schaedelin calls orders to chef de cuisine David Werly and executive sous chefs Jason Kallert and James McDevit. "I don't have an expediter," he says. "I want to see everything that leaves this kitchen." And to drive home the point, he adds: "Everything." From his perch, he commands a panoramic view of the entire kitchen, from garde-manger to his right, to the waiters' pass and chef's table before him, to the Blodgett convection oven and infrared broiler to his far left.
As an example of the quirks of the Maccioni family that shape the new Le Cirque kitchen, behind Schaedelin sits the pasta maker that, according to Marco, his mother, Egidiana, has used for more than 20 years. On this afternoon it's cranking out long sheets of dough for hundreds of spinach barbagiuans, large deep-fried ravioli from Monaco, that a line of eight cooks are assembling on the hot appetizer pickup table, which between service does double duty as a prep surface.
The shorter section of the kitchen is anchored by a hulking Molteni cooking suite. Bright fire-engine red, the suite has two graduated French tops—the left for meats, the right for fish—plus six open burners. On the right wall resides the grill area: a Jade char-broiler, deep fryer, and stove with two open burners and two graduated French tops. Beneath the convection oven and infrared broiler at the far end of the section is an innovation Schaedelin insisted upon: mini lockers for his cooks. These 20 drawers keep the cooks' knives out of the way and off tabletops. Wrapping around the rest of the kitchen is undercounter and mis en place refrigeration, all by Carbone Metal Fabricators.
Accommodating the hustle and flow of the private dining room upstairs is a tiny wedge of a banquet kitchen, which Schaedelin estimates to be no larger than 300 square feet. But packed into that space is a cooking lineup that comprises a Jade stove with four open burners, a salamander, and a deep fryer, along with a double-deck Blodgett convection oven. Because the space also acts as a support kitchen designed to supply the à la carte kitchen with stocks and sauces, it's outfitted with two 40-gallon Market Forge steam-jacketed kettles and a 30-gallon braising pan. For private parties, the banquet cooks co-op the à la carte kitchen, where the food is cooked and then sent upstairs to be finished or held until ready to serve.
Although dessert has played a defining role in the history of Le Cirque, little real estate is devoted to it. Yet each square foot is put to brutal work. Adjacent to the banquet kitchen, in a space the size of some people's walk-in closets, pastry chef Regis Monges is armed with two double-deck Blodgett convection ovens, two Hobart mixers (20- and 30-quart), four Jade open burners, a Carpigiani gelato maker, a Novachoc chocolate machine, and a Sodir plate finisher. To keep order, a nook just large enough for a speed rack keeps it within reach but out of the way.
The least glamorous but largest of all three spaces is the prep kitchen, located on lower level three. The room has three discrete work bays for meat, fish, and vegetable production, each with its own refrigeration unit. Here a fishmonger, meat butcher, and vegetable prep cooks break down and portion out food, then send it up to the first floor à la carte kitchen or to the second floor banquet kitchen.
With 8,000 square feet, three levels, long hallways, and service elevators and staircases, this kind of space cries out for state-of-the-art equipment for communication as well as synchronization of dishes and courses. But Sirio holds firm. "We don't have headsets," says Schaedelin, "Sirio doesn't want them, but it's a good idea. I think we should have a few walkie-talkies. Now we're using our own cellulars, but if we give him the bills for a couple of months, I'm sure he'll change his mind." For now, cell and kitchen phones will be the nervous system that links together the disparate parts of the restaurant.
Back in the à la carte kitchen, two older gentlemen in modest attire enter and nod to Sirio. As if he were greeting heads of state or Hollywood royalty, Sirio extends his hand warmly, motioning for his friends to sit at the chef's table with him. The three men laugh and exchange pleasantries in rapid-fire Italian. "See!" he says, "Everyone comes to Le Cirque for a good time." Then, as if on cue, his brow creases with worry. The circus continues.
Deciphering the dress code
Since its inception, Le Cirque, whose customers have included everyone from the King of Spain to Nancy Reagan to Barbara Walters to Henry Kissinger, has been synonymous with, as Sirio Maccioni says, "beautiful women, lovely meals, and fine clothes." But it's this last pillar—clothes—that had him wracked with anxiety, attempting to reconcile his genetically encoded desire for elegance with today's fashion climate of ripped hip huggers and cropped tops. This battle for supremacy between formal and informal reached an uneasy détente with the adoption of "business attire" as the official dress code descriptor. "That's what we'll tell people." says Marco Maccioni. So, is this code for a jacket and tie? "Not necessarily." he says. "My father would rather see someone come in wearing a beautiful pair of jeans and a crisp shirt than a rumpled, stained suit." Regardless, there's a cache of jackets, just in case.
Braising pans Market Forge
Chocolate machine Novachoc
Coffee/espresso machine illy caffè
Convection ovens Blodgett
Cooking suite Molteni
Deep fryers Jade
Gelato display Regal Pinnacle
Gelato maker Carpigiani
Heat lamps Merco Savory
Infrared broiler Jade
Mini stone-hearth oven Sodir
Panini maker Electrolux
Pasta cooker Electrolux
Plate finisher Sodir
POS system Micros
Refrigeration, reach-in Electrolux, Carbone Metal Fabricators
Refrigeration, walk-in Kolpak Industries
Refrigeration rack systems OmniTemp
Sanitation system Ecolab
Steam kettles Market Forge
Ventilation hoods Gaylord