1950s Archive

The Ritz in Retrospect

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Mr. Goelet still wasn't satisfied. It bothered him that we had nothing comparable to the French terrasse, the outdoor or garden spot where Parisians love to sip their vermouth cassis or have a light meal. Busy and dusty, Madison Avenue certainly offered no suitable place for this. But Mr. Warren found a solution. He designed a garden for outdoor eating in the space between the Ritz Hotel and Carlton House, which is the connecting building of huge apartments served by the Ritz. The décor was Japanese, tables ranged under pagodalike awnings along a winding, rockstrewn stream with tiny islands, goldfish darted through the water, and bird cages hung from trees. The whole effect was one of exquisite charm.

But Mr. Goelet felt we needed still another eating place, for evening dinners in summer. And again, Mr. Warren found an answer; this time he arranged a Roof Garden Restaurant in the space which opened off the fourth floor over the newly completed ballroom addition. No high buildings interfered, there were only private houses on the side streets off Madison Avenue. When they did rear up and overshadow our Roof Garden, we closed it.

I worked directly with Mr. Albert Keller, the general manager who eventually followed Mr. Duncan Harris as president of the Ritz-Carlton, and I considered myself very fortunate. Trained by César Ritz himself, Mr. Keller had already made a reputation as a manager and as an international gourmet before coming to this country. To me, who knew the Paris and London hotels so well, he had the genuine Ritz touch. The guests loved his graciousness, and the employees were devoted to him. A typical gesture was the one he made when he received the Légion d'honneur decoration for the contribution he had made to French culinary art. He ordered case upon case of champagne sent to the kitchen and then came down and treated everyone right down to the Senegalese who mopped the floors—at least a hundred chefs and other help.

The food served at the Ritz, and that has been my responsibility, has always been of prime importance. Mr. Goelet, Mr. Harris, and Mr. Keller each made it very clear to me that our cuisine could nor be second to any in the world. And they all enjoyed a world-wide experience in line food. Money was no object; leave it to the wine cellar to show the profit—or to the rooms. I was even scolded once by Mr. Harris for making too much money on the kitchen. He thought I was not giving the guests the best that the market offered. I had to convince him that efficient management and elimination of waste could be the cause of profit. When I showed the Board of Directors that it was impossible to serve the perfect meals of a Ritz cuisine in a Roof Garden five flights from the kitchen and on the other side of the building, they never questioned it but gave me a free hand to plan and equip a kitchen near the Garden to take care of dishes that must be cooked immediately before being served and must be brought to the table without any delay.

Our food facilities were as complete as we could make them. Many were unusual. For example, we bought green coffee, roasted it daily, and ground it before each meal. The blend was decided on by coffee connoisseurs—twelve pounds of Maracaibo, eighteen of Mocha, and thirty of Java. I recall Frank Munsey, who was most particular about coffee, saying that there was no cup of coffee so good as ours no matter where he went.

We made the finest chocolates and bonbons in our own confectionery kitchen and packed them in very beautiful imported boxes. None of them was for sale, however, but were gifts for our guests. Everyone living in the hotel received a beautiful box on Christmas morning—unless Mr. Keller knew that a jar of Strasbourg pâté de foie gras would be preferred. Every lady in the cleaning room was given a box on the opening night of the Horse Show, and it was specially designed for the occasion, sometimes in the shape of a horseshoe.

We had a chef charcutier in charge of making all the pork sausages, headcheese, pâtés and so on that we used for hors-d'oeuvre. The ice-cream plant was large enough to take care of freezing many differently flavored ice creams and all the special frozen desserts, sometimes thousands of individual molds, and also included equipment for making the large decorative forms of ice that are lighted up and displayed at banquets. Smaller forms were made daily because we always served melon in a molded piece of ice.

There was a tank for keeping fish, especially trout, so fresh that they could literally jump from water to stove. And an oyster bar was set up in the kitchen to take care of guests who were oyster fanciers and liked to eat them the instant they were opened—and keep on eating them, too, beyond the usual mere six. Every evening there was a group of bons vivants in evening clothes, tails and high hats, crowding around the oyster bar.

When Prohibition sneaked onto the scene, it didn't take long, however, for the trend to start away from fine cooking and gracious dining. Who is interested in the nuances of flavors if the palate has been dulled with bathtub gin? Or why should restaurants vie with each other to attract gourmets when everyone was being taken in by speakeasies? The Ritz-Carlton was more fortunate than many places because our guests continued to travel abroad and so kept the spark of the haute cuisine alive in this country. But fine cooking slipped badly during prohibition, mainly because the dining room was suddenly on its own and had to make a profit. No longer could the kitchen count on the bar and the wine cellar to supplement its earning. The lush years up to 1929 were able to carry us through this difficult period because people had so much money to spend, but when the crash came, even we found it rough going until repeal gave us a new lease. Again the Ritz-Carlton was more fortunate than many hotels in having most of its older men, who had come originally from the Ritz Hotels of Paris and London, still on hand to help restore the old standards. Dozens of my chefs had never worked anywhere else. Even now I have a chef boucher, Henri Baritaud, who has been with me since the opening and a first assistant, Louis Magnin, who has seen thirty-eight years in our kitchens.

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