The Best of Both Worlds

Irene Sax - September 2008

Juggling buffet and table service, a suave New York City chef restages brunch as three-act theatre.

Let's talk about brunch. Is it breakfast with Bloody Marys? Is it lunch with pancakes and French toast? A way to skip a meal or a chance to overeat your way through a vast, even gargantuan, display? Despite this confusion, restaurants keep serving brunch and customers keep grazing their way through it, piling their plates with sweet rolls, scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, and melon balls.

Enter Kerry Heffernan, a virtuoso of brunch. His new American food has starred at Polo at the Westbury Hotel, at Danny Meyer's Eleven Madison Park, and now at South Gate at the Jumeirah Essex House in Manhattan. And at all three he turned the weekend meal into a dining destination.

At the Westbury he upgraded the classic brunch buffet, building on what he learned at The Culinary Institute of America and the Waldorf-Astoria to win attention for the aesthetic flair of the arrangements. At Eleven Madison he did a waiter-served brunch of mostly savory dishes that grew out of the regular menu. Now at South Gate he's mixing it up, offering both abundance and control in a $65 prix-fixe Sunday brunch. Patrons start by helping themselves to appetizers and breads, then order waiter-delivered main courses, and then, dismissing the thought that they couldn't eat another thing, wander back to the buffet to see what might tempt them. (Count on it.)

He likes this scheme because he can do justice to delicate crêpes or poached eggs and control their relationship to the other ingredients on the plate only when he cooks them to order. Some things don't hold up on a hot plate.

He also likes it because it makes him happy to see people eat a lot. Although a buffet promises abundance, it can be overwhelming when everything is put out at once. "If they take pancakes, they might think they shouldn't take dessert", Hef­fer­nan says. "But when the food comes in stages, first they'll help themselves to bread, fruit, and maybe smoked fish; then order a main course like quiche or hanger steak, and then go for a des­sert. It takes time. It's a real meal".

And to drink? "It's my experience that if you make Champagne available, people will have it," he says.

With this philosophy in mind, designers Tony Chi Associates created a space in which Heffernan could make it all happen. The room, called The Gallery, is open both to the hotel lobby and to South Gate's dining room. The idea, says architect William Paley, was to create the feeling of a cafe in Vienna, a bright airy space where guests could drink coffee, read the paper, and chat. Considering this, he covered the walls with bright white lacquer, constructed 13-foot high wooden doors to screen or reveal a private dining room, and laid floors of Persian Red travertine marble and bleached white oak reclaimed from the Great Lakes.

The most noticeable features of the room are five massive pieces made of glass, steel, and bright white Arabesco marble. So heavy that the floor beneath them had to be shored up with steel I beams, these permanent sculpture-like fixtures stay in place whether the room is being used for breakfast, brunch, or private dining. "Trust me: they're not going anywhere", says Paley. "That's why we designed them to look good whether they're set up or not." The biggest is a refrigerated case that displays fruit, cheese, and yogurts behind glass doors. Near­by, two towers of mirror-polished stainless steel with glass shelves hold plates, breads, and pastries.

In contrast to these glassy vertical elements, two low marble-clad counters give a feeling of solidity. Made by Regal Pinnacle in Medford, New Jersey, they're built on a substructure of steel and plywood and covered with the white Arabesco marble that Paley says is a great work surface. "Yes, it will stain with acid, wine, and fruit juice, but that's part of the allure: It's a living material that will develop a patina, like an old bakers' table".

One of the marble counters has induction warmers where Heffernan holds warm brunch appetizers such as onion consommé and English pea flan. The other is a coffee station displaying a large Franke machine from Switzerland. This is so user-friendly that a bleary-eyed hotel guest, awake at 5:30 for an 8 a.m. flight, can punch a few buttons and have a freshly made espresso in 15 seconds or a cappuccino in 20.

That the room has so many uses appeals to Heffernan, who says he's glad to be back in the hotel business after so many years at freestanding restaurants. "In a restaurant," he says, "you have four hours at most to show what you can do: You have one shot to impress. In a hotel, you have at least 18 hours and maybe several meals over several days. It's a long cycle with many opportunities for interaction. It's a relationship, not a one-night stand."