Wednesday, September 22, 2010


I moved into the Hotel Belleclaire on Broadway. This was an old hotel, turned residence hotel. Historically, it had been the first hotel to have ticker tape machines for use by guests—on the top floor. But at this point in history, it was a community of people who were either down-and-out or on the upswing but not yet successful. I found out about the hotel from Dickran Atamian (Ritchie), a friend of my piano teacher. Dickran was hitting the big time and had moved a grand piano into his room. Somewhere around that time he won the Naumberg piano competition, played his first Carnegie recital, and was featured in an article in the New Yorker.

I very quickly found a job at the stoves of Laurent Restaurant, located under an exclusive hotel on 57th Street. We served the occupants of the hotel, which included Richard Burton, the actor, and Salvador Dali, the painter. The Laurent family was super nice. Mr. Laurent was quiet and unassuming. The chef of the kitchen was a Spaniard, and he treated me with respect. I worked as a Chef Tournant, doing the seafood station as well as the stoves. The food was great. I gobbled oysters and smoked trout. At one point, I cooked calf liver for Richard Burton’s dog, and I sent a platter of sea urchins out to Salvador Dali. I enjoyed working in this restaurant; it was good food, well prepared, nothing special, but the people were very nice—the owners, the wait staff, the chef, everyone. In the afternoons, we played Hearts and spoke Spanish.

While working for Laurent Restaurant, I looked for a second job, as I knew that I would have to pay a lot of money to get a divorce and to settle other things in Austin. I figured that, if I had to work so hard, I might as well make the jobs interesting. I talked to the chef of Waldorf-Astoria, Josef Schmidt. In his Germanic style, he responded, “You can’t work a second job and do well. You can’t work both in the kitchen and the bakery, either. You have to pick a single career and stick with it.”

I found a job with Éclair Bakery. This was a small chain of retail shops, one located in Grand Central station. The original location was a restaurant/bakery that served Viennese food. The owner was a Viennese man who fled the Nazis right before the Second World War. I met him at the central bakery, located in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which in those days was a rather dangerous part of Brooklyn. My days became even more complicated. I worked from 3 PM to 11 PM at Laurent Restaurant, then from midnight until 6 AM. I then took the train to Manhattan, ate breakfast at a Greek diner, then went to sleep at 8 AM and slept until 2 PM.

The Hotel Belleclaire had some interesting tenants. Right about that time, New York State released a lot of mildly schizophrenic patients from their institutions in order to save money. These people, usually harmless, checked into residential hotels such as the Belleclaire. We had a talk, skinny woman with aquiline features who stood in a corner of the lobby and made insulting remarks about people as they passed. For example, she might say, “Oh, look at those thick ankles!” or, “Oh dear, you’re looking tired today!” Another man would pace the sidewalk in front of the hotel. He would suddenly run up behind a passer-by and crow loudly.

One morning, I had just gotten to sleep when I heard two men knocking on the door of the lady who lived next to me. They knocked and knocked. One said to the other, “No one has seen her in two weeks.” They opened the door and one said, “Oh, the stench! Quick, burn some coffee!” After that, I fell asleep.

During this time, I had dinner one evening with Mimi Sheraton, who was the New York Times food editor. She took me out to one of her favorite restaurants. I remember walking down the street very cockily, swinging my umbrella around a la Fred Astaire. I was so pleased with myself. The dinner was not particularly satisfying. She thought I made a bad menu selection and was pushing me to order the steamed lobster. Instead, I ordered something very French and saucy. Mimi Sheraton, if she ever was a Francophile, had long since given up on French cuisine and was more interested in the essentials such as the freshness of the product.

The reason I was so lucky as to deserve her attention had to do with her visiting Sweetish Hill. She and Patricia really liked each other. I had cooked a version of Caille en Sarcophage (see Babette’s Feast) which at the time I didn’t know the name for. Mimi never knew that I was a business owner; she was under the impression that I worked for Patricia.

During that fall, I worked in both jobs. Meanwhile, I let Mimi know that I was looking for something better, perhaps a position of responsibility. She contacted Roger, a restaurant consultant, who found me a job in Washington, DC. Someone he knew, a man named Irv, was starting a restaurant on Capitol Hill and was looking for someone to help him plan the menu.

While I was working at Éclair, I started to gather experiences that I found rather interesting. My job was basically to fill éclairs, fill cream puffs, and glaze them. I was working in the cake and pastry decorating room. I don’t remember much about the personnel, except that a couple German bakers kept to themselves in the corner. They were quite unfriendly to the other workers and didn’t like sharing their expertise with anyone else. But I did get the opportunity to make some observations, and these contrasted with my own experiences. They are:

1. The pastry cream they used contained no eggs, no dairy products. They used a mix from Caravan Products. It contained Yellow Number 5 in lieu of egg yolk and titanium dioxide (the opacifier of white paint) in lieu of milk. The starch in this mix was predominately modified amylopectin (branched chain), which had freeze-thaw stability. Thus, they could bring water to a boil, whisk in sugar and the powder, cook, then pour into buckets and freeze, then defrost as needed. The advantage of using this mix was two-fold: economy and stability. It’s a lot cheaper to use thickened water than milk and eggs. And, because the starch could tolerate freezing and thawing, you could make up huge batches, thaw them as needed, and pipe into the pastry. It was also possible to fill the pastry and freeze it and thaw the filled pastry as needed. Microbially, it was more stable because the number one pathogen, Staphylococcus aureus, is especially adapted to a high-sugar, high amino acid environment. The mix has sugar but little in the way of amino acids.

2. The whipped cream they made was a brand called “Instantwhip”. I learned from this that the artificial whipping creams are called “whipped toppings” and that they are essentially emulsions of hydrogenated fats designed to have high enough melting points that they hold well on the outside of a cake but not so high that they feel overly waxy in the mouth.

3. In order to glaze fruit-topped pastries, the bakers used agar-agar. The traditional glaze was either apricot or raspberry jam, thickened with pectin. A gel made from agar-agar, which is extracted from seaweed is as clear as a pectin gel but much stronger. For example, they made banana cream pie, consisting of a baked pie shell filled with a cream made of the pastry cream and Instantwhip (so-called Diplomate Cream) topped with banana slices and glazed with yellow-dyed glaze. A pectin glaze could never hold the banana slices on, but an agar-agar glaze could.

4. Cakes glazed with “chocolate” such as Sachertorte, a Viennese dessert use an artificial chocolate known as confectioner’s coating. This consists of hydrogenated fats that are easier to work with than cocoa butter, which is temperamental and temperature sensitive.

I wrote my observations up into an article and submitted it to Mimi Sheraton. I was so excited about it that I called her at home on a Saturday morning. She responded, “You got me out of the shower!” Mimi liked the article, but checked with lawyers at the New York Times. They all agreed that publishing it would make them susceptible to a lawsuit.

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