Red velvet cake, eggs Benedict, Thousand Island dressing, Waldorf salad — they’re culinary classics at this point. But before they reached commercial stardom, they were just the gastronomic musings of chefs at the Waldorf Astoria New York.
And, if 13-Michelin-starred chef Pierre Gagnaire has anything to do with it, the next iconic dish to have Waldorf roots will be a pumpkin and foie gras velouté (served with brioche of comté and beet root, naturally).
This story first appeared in the December 17, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Gagnaire, 64, was born to be a chef. A native of Apinac, France, Gagnaire is the son of restaurant owners. He nabbed his first official apprenticeship at a restaurant in Lyon when he was only 16 and never left the kitchen. After a few cooking stints around the world, he returned to his family’s restaurant in Saint-Étienne, Le Clos Fleuri, in 1976, where he earned his first Michelin star, and later opened his first solo restaurant in 1981.
He has gone on to build a small empire. These days, he splits his time between his home in Paris and his restaurants around the world, including Berlin (where he is the executive chef at Les Solistes at the Waldorf Astoria), Las Vegas, Dubai, Hong Kong and Tokyo, among others.
With his poetic approach to cuisine, he has come to be regarded as one of the most creative chefs in the business. “Twombly, Pollack, Bruce Springsteen, The Beatles, Chet Baker,” he says, ticking off his sources of inspiration. “My passion for the artist is a part of it, but it’s also about my team, the guest and the final product. My passion is to give pleasure on the plate.”
His gastronomic approach remains the same at all of his outposts — it’s about “facing tomorrow,” but being “respectful of yesterday.”
At Les Solistes, which earned a Michelin star in its first year, that ethos is reflected in his fresh take on classic French dishes. For example? His seasonal interpretations of foie gras. The current offering is cubed duck foie gras and red tuna, served with a salad of chicory and grilled leeks, seasoned with cold-pressed hazelnut oil. The dish is topped with toasted hazelnuts and jellied kombu stock.
“I like this dish a lot because it’s simple and light. It combines the spirit of slowly moving into winter,” says the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, Roel Lintermans, who works with a team of 12 chefs under Gagnaire’s direction.
On a recent visit to the 80-seat, contemporary dining room, the tasting menu (the restaurant also has à la carte options) included sea bream poached in chorizo butter and served with pumpkin gnocchi; pan-fried supreme of grouse with juniper, and a variation on a porcini dish, served with a cold infusion of coffee ice cream flavored with thyme. The finale was Gagnaire’s Grand Dessert, which included a combination of five different berry and chocolate confections.
Gagnaire insists there are no specialties on his menus. “There is no star dish,” he says. “We always try to be inspired by what we see, feel, and discover — we try to capture the spirit of the time.” (When he isn’t on the clock, he counts potato dishes — mashed, fried, whatever — amongst his favorite things to make for himself.)
Most recently, he dreamed up a special fall-inspired dish, the aforementioned pumpkin and foie gras velouté, with James Beard “Rising Star” chef Chris Kajioka (a Per Se alumnus and the former executive chef of Vintage Cave in Hawaii). The duo teamed up to unveil the Waldorf Astoria’s just-launched culinary program, Taste of Waldorf, which matches its master chefs with the James Beard Foundation’s emerging star talents.
Other participants include Heinz Beck (the man behind Rome’s only three-Michelin-starred restaurant, La Pergola at Rome Cavalieri, Waldorf Astoria Hotel & Resorts); the award-winning brother duo Chris and Jeff Galvin (of the Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh), and risings stars like chef David Posey, formerly of Blackbird restaurant in Chicago.
The final dish, which will be determined when all of the chefs prepare their creations for a team of top judges in New York in February, will land on 28 menus around the globe.
“Pierre is legendary,” Kajioka says of his collaborator. “For every cook who aspires to work in Michelin-starred restaurants, he’s truly a genius. That’s what everyone has labeled him as.”