On 27 February, the Starlight Room at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, one of the world’s preeminent luxury hotels, was buzzing with anticipation. Critics, reporters, restaurant luminaries, editors, hotel chiefs of staff and chefs mingled beneath the Art Deco designed ceiling among the white high tables set to perfection and held court at the low leather banquettes around the dance floor. Yet this was no ordinary five-star Waldorf event for the rich and famous.
The evening marked the final installment of the Taste of Waldorf Astoria culinary competition, which saw five of the James Beard Foundation’s ‘Rising Star’ semi-finalist chefs paired with master chefs in five Waldorf properties around the world to create the next ‘signature’ sigh for the already iconic Waldorf menu. The winning dish will appear in twenty-nine Waldorf hotels around the world, including the locations where the chefs took to train and create this past fall – Rome Cavalieri in Italy, Waldorf Astoria Berlin in Germany, Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh in Scotland, La Quinta Resort and Club in Mexico, and Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund in China.
The New York location alone houses three incredible restaurants, Peacock Alley, The Bull and Bear Steak House, and Oscar’s Brasserie, the latter named after the legendary chef Oscar Tschirky who invented the Waldorf salad, Thousand Island Dressing and Eggs Benedict during a career that spanned nearly fifty years. The timelessness of these iconic dishes beloved by generations of critics and food lovers alike set a high bar for the chefs reach during the collaborations with their award-winning masters around the globe. The Veuve Clicquot flowed from tuxedoed waiters who glided seamlessly in between the guests and hotel chefs who chatted and debated over which chef would take top honors and be heralded into culinary immortality the likes of which only the Waldorf could provide.
The panel of judges – and oh, what a task they had ahead – included bon appétit Restaurant & Drinks Editor Andrew Knowlton, Hilton Worldwide Corporate Chef Americas, Marc Ehrler, culinary and travel expert Nilou Motamed and JBF Director of Sponsorships Yvon Ros. Eager and enthusiastic, they took their time comparing notes as the audience enjoyed a taste of each of the offered dishes from expertly prepared plates. ‘Velvety Pumpkin Soup’ was the first dish of the evening, a collaboration between Christopher Kajioka and lauded Master Chef Pierre Gagnaire of the Waldorf Astoria Berlin. The dish combined the classic American ingredient of pumpkin with the luxurious flavor of foie gras and a hint of beet root to create a warm, inviting and creamy start to any meal. To follow, ‘Celery Risotto Alla Waldorf’, the result of a week-long collaboration between chef David Posey and the decorated Master Chef Heinz Beck of Rome Cavalieri in Italy, delighted the crowd with its fanciful pairing of the oft-ignored celery root cut into a rice shape and decadent black truffle with a texture at once familiar and engaging. A risotto without the rice? The audience seemed perfectly fine with it, and plates were scraped clean over the clinging of wine glasses.
Third up was the ambitious and flavorful ‘Tierra Y Mar’ from La Quinta’s master chef Jimmy Schmidt and Eduardo Ruiz which coupled the rich and dark flavors of hearty beef belly and zesty grilled prawn over a smooth polenta to pay homage to the land and sea of California and Mexico. This would start a small trend in the evening, where dishes felt like two parts, rather than one whole flavor, which created an exciting variety for one’s palate and questioned the one note idea of an ‘iconic’ dish. To continue on track with quality meat inspired by location, the fourth dish of the evening was the rich and comforting ‘Caledonian Highland Egg’ from the Edinburgh team of groundbreaking Master Chefs The Galvin Brothers and Cara Stadler. Taking the already iconic dish the Scotch Egg and wrapping it in a venison and panko-crusted shell, the two-bite wonder was bursting with a deep and buttery flavor off set by a whiskey and honey vinaigrette. The final dish of the evening was the hotly anticipated ‘Shanghai Suckling Pig’ dreamed up by Jan Van Dyke of Waldorf’s Shanghai on the Bund and Marjorie Meek-Bradley, who took the signature earthy and spicy flavors of China to assemble an outstanding and multi-layered plate of suckling pig, scallop and simple soup dumpling.
When the tastes of each plate had settled and forks were set down, the judges, who had heaped praise and insightful critiques on each pairing throughout the night, deliberated while the audience got the chance to cast their vote. ‘Celery Risotto Alla Waldorf,’ which set the lively and exciting tone for the evening, won over the judges and Chefs Heinz Beck and David Posey took home top honors and a place in luxury culinary history. Starting March 2nd, a new generation of food lovers are now able to enjoy the new ‘icon’ in menus across the globe, engaging in a new chapter of exceptional culinary experiences. May the James Beard Foundation and Waldorf Astoria hotels continue to cultivate new talent and elevate the standard of fine dining for which they are both proud to be known for.
Sarah Hassan reports from New York City, where she is a writer and cultural critic.