Henrik Olund
On the tray, slim glasses of tomato consommé garnished with micro basil leaves and canapés of tuna tartare on disks of mango gelée.
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The Plaza Reborn

Irene Sax - September 2008

With a kitchen rivaling the size of a football field and its very own dedicated caterer, a grande dame is once again the it girl.

It's a wedding! An awards ceremony! A charity ball! The room is gorgeous, the flowers showy, and the guests are even more so. But the food—well, what can you expect when you're feeding 600?

You can expect a lot at the newly renovated Plaza hotel. Not only have the building's owners signed a 25 year agreement with a catering company to operate and manage all their private events, but they've also built a huge kitchen to help it bring restaurant-quality food to one of New York City's premier locations.

The Plaza, of course, is the grand Renaissance-style building across from the south­east corner of Manhattan's Central Park. Built in 1907, it's where the fic-tional Eloise frolicked in the halls; where Truman Capote held the Black and White ball; where Mick Jagger, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Time magazine all celebrated important birthdays; and where Patricia Kennedy and Peter Lawford, Julie Nixon and Dwight David Eisenhower II, as well as countless other well-heeled couples were married in the cream and gold splendor of the Grand Ballroom.

When Elad Properties bought the hotel in 2004, they began a $400 million renovation that transformed much of the space into high-priced condominiums, reducing the number of guest rooms from 805 to 282. But much of the Plaza's glamour has always shone in its private parties, and the contract to operate and manage these was awarded to Central Park South Events at the Plaza, a joint venture between Delaware North Companies and Great Performances.

Delaware North provides hospitality at some of the country's best-loved tourist attractions, including the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, and the U.S. Mints in Philadelphia and Denver. Great Per­form­ances is a 30 year old New York catering company known for delivering restaurant-quality food at places like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Sotheby's, and Jazz at Lincoln Center.

And although both firms are highly experienced, they met new challenges when they took on the restoration of the Plaza Ballroom, the creation of seven private meeting rooms, and the construction of a new kitchen that's dedicated only to CPS events held in these spaces--all in 30,000 square feet on two floors. The old kitchens have been redone to do room service and to cook for the Palm Court, the Champagne Lounge, and the Rose Club.

One challenge was the public's expectations. Even people who have never stayed at the Plaza may have had tea at the Palm Court, read the Eloise books, or seen black-and-white photos of masked celebrities at Capote's party.

Another was the problem of running an active and noisy kitchen next door to apartments bought for several million dollars. The solution was to build an L-shaped wall of walk-ins with four-inch solid foam insulation, creating a barrier deep enough to deaden any sound.

Even more challenging were the demands of New York City's Landmarks Commission, which had its own ideas about everything from the color of the Grand Ballroom's walls to the placement of the kitchen's gas lines. To discover the original wall color, a chunk was chipped out and sent to a forensics lab.

Investigators stripped off layers of painted plaster going back to 1929, when the Ballroom was enlarged and renovated, and discovered that the color at that time was, unfortunately, "very very peach," says Great Performances' Dean Martinus. "We negotiated with them. It's such a beautiful room. Did we really have to make it peach?"

That negotiation turned out well—the walls are now the color of heavy cream—the matter of the subfloors was something else. When the Landmarks people looked at plans for the kitchen, they said that gas and water lines could not be laid under the floor because that space was protected. CPS Events solved the problem by building up the kitchen floor. It is now 18 inches above the level of the Ballroom, with gently sloping ramps at both ends to connect the two.

Go up the ramp at the west end of the Ballroom and you pass freight elevators from a loading dock on 58th Street. You walk past banqueting offices and rooms for uniform storage, IT and electrical equipment, and, beyond that, a room for dry storage and a beverage area housing coffeemakers and ice machines. As you turn right into the kitchen, you see five walk-in refrigerators large enough to hold the rolling carts trucked up from Great Performances' commissary on Hudson Street in SoHo.

Anyone used to cramped restaurant kitchens has to be impressed by the size and openness of this one. There's a cooking line along the south wall, a sandwich and salad area across from it, a wall of walk-in refrigerators at the west end, and a cleaning area at the east. In between are what seem like acres of empty space.

This is no accident. The open-plan kitchen was designed by architect Richard Bloch with input from kitchen experts from Great Performances, Delaware Limited, and M. Tucker, which supplies and installs commercial kitchens.

From the start, three ideas influenced their design. First was the unusual length of the commitment. Because appliances have to last for 25 years, all were chosen for quality and durability.

Next was the time pressure of serving banquet meals for large numbers of guests. By leaving the center of the kitchen free of permanent fixtures, the designers made it possible to roll in stainless-steel tables on which the staff could set up 350 heirloom tomato salads or 600 chicken roulades at one time. And if that setting up required a hot food cart or an electric slicer, there are 10 ceiling-mounted electrical cords and reels with cables that could be pulled down to plug into the carts.

But the overriding concept was flexibility. The kitchen has to work both when there's a single lunch meeting in one of the third floor suites and also when all seven of the suites are booked and a wedding for 500 is being celebrated simultaneously in the Ballroom. It has to work when all, some, or none of the prep work is done at the Great Performances commissary downtown.

The solution was to build a double hot line. It's laid out mirror-fashion, with combi-ovens at either end. Next to them, working toward the center, are two Garland ranges with salamanders, and then two convection ovens. In the center of the line are an upright broiler, a tilting skillet, and a double fryer, all meant to serve both sides of the line. The advantages are obvious. When the Ballroom is fully booked, both sides will be in use; when the party is smaller, just one side is active, and when both floors are filled, one half may be working on one party and the other on another.

Parallel to the line is a pick-up table and, opposite that, prep area with a vegetable sink, a refrigerated sandwich and salad area with a cutting board, a reach-in fridge, and an ice cream station with a built-in dipper well. The plan was that this area could be used for last-minute emergencies: if a guest announced that he couldn't eat anything on the menu, a staff member could retreat here to make a salad or sandwich.

And finally, as in all kitchens, there are the dirty dishes. Just past the garde-manger area is a narrow room with sinks for washing pots. Beyond that is a long stainless-steel table with rollers that carry crates of soiled dishes through showers of detergent and 180°F water, push them through fabric strips like those at a car wash, and discharge them onto a table, ready to be moved onto mobile carts.

Even this, however, isn't quite the end. Upstairs, a compact pantry for the suites contains a coffeemaker and an ice maker, a commercial microwave oven, and a dishwasher that runs through its cycle in 90 to 120 seconds.

What kind of food will these kitchens produce? Definitely not old-fashioned banquet fare, although executive chef Chris Hark­ness promises to offer nostalgic chicken hash as an homage to the Black and White Ball.

Sensitive to current interest in eating locally, Great Performances brings in fresh local produce from its own farm upstate—they call it the "100 mile menu"—and keeps up with the latest in restaurant trends. They might serve hors d'oeuvres like crab cakes with smoked chilies, seared tuna on a lotus root crisp, and grilled figs wrapped in duck prosciutto. They could offer a main course of mushroom crusted loin of lamb or roasted cod with preserved lemon risotto, followed by salad and cheeses from local dairies.

And for dessert? You can't do better than Eloise's mini sundae, with enough chocolate, caramel, and whipped cream to gladden the heart of any exuberant 6 year old.

Equipment

Banquet broiler Garland
Banquet carts Carter-Hoffman
Combi-ovens Alto-Shaam
Convection ovens Garland
Dishwasher Hobart
Disposal system Salvajor
Double banquet broiler Garland
Fryers Frymaster
Ice Machines Scotsman Ice

Systems

Ranges Garland
Refrigerators Traulsen
Slicer Hobart
Tilting skillet Cleveland Range
Walk-in refrigerators Harford