At home in the world at ‘Taste of Waldorf Astoria’

Sure, I love to travel, but sometimes I just like to sit back and soak it up at home.

Earlier this year, I was invited to take part in an extraordinary international event that had the advantage of taking place pretty much on my doorstep. In a very cool, culinary collaboration called “Taste of Waldorf Astoria,” now in its second year, James Beard Foundation “Rising Star” semifinalists partner with established Waldorf Astoria chefs from around the world in a yearlong competition to find a new dish to add to the repertoire of iconic dishes that have been created at the flagship New York hotel.

You yawn — but I don’t use the word iconic lightly. Eggs Benedict, originally created as a hangover cure (protein and carbs, can’t argue with that) made its debut in 1893, would you believe? And Waldorf Salad, the inspiration of legendary maître d’hôtel Oscar Tschirky, came along three years later. Red Velvet Cake, meanwhile — borrowing from Southern recipes and adding red food-coloring to the mix — burst onto the hungry New York scene in the 1930s. So any new “iconic” dishes have big spoons to fill.

In this year’s competition, five chef partnerships reached the last round, the great cook-off being held in Manhattan at the end of February.

Arriving at the Waldorf on a filthy, wet, New York winter’s day, I must confess I was a little confused when the obliging chap at the front desk said to me, “Excuse me, sir, but I see you have already checked in.” Well, that was news to me, I thought, but, being English, I said nothing of course. “And how was the flight in from New Orleans?” Curiouser and curiouser, I mused, having just taken Metro-North from White Plains, but I still said nothing and instead just looked blankly into the middle distance. These front desk clerks can be an odd lot.

Then just in time — before I headed up to room 1515 and found myself in bed with someone else’s wife — the penny dropped and I remembered that one of the finalists was another Jeremy Wayne (seriously), the chef de cuisine at San Francisco’s celebrated La Folie restaurant. Mystery solved.

It did occur to me at this point that in all “innocence” I might be able to charge Champagne and caviar  — or how about some expensive trinkets from those glitzy hotel showcases? — to the other Jeremy Wayne’s hotel bill and get away with it, but then I realized that the other Jeremy Wayne might be able to do the same, so I dropped the idea like a hot rock and explained to the agent where I thought the confusion lay.

During a tour of the property that afternoon, I learned many interesting and arcane facts about the fabled Waldorf. That it was the first hotel in New York to offer room service, for instance, or that the Grand Ballroom was the first — and still is — the only four-story, two-tiered ballroom in the city.  Or that the hotel’s Empire Room helped launch the careers of Frank Sinatra and Diana Ross. Or — my favorite of all, and there are many — that FDR, who always avoided having to “walk” in public, would enter and leave the Waldorf via a hoist through a ceiling panel in his train compartment, which led to a trap door, which in turn would deposit him on the sidewalk right outside the side entrance of the hotel, which over ground or under ground is, of course, just a few yards from Grand Central Terminal. Handy.

But back to the “Taste of Waldorf Astoria” 2016 and the star-studded finale in the hotel’s Vanderbilt Room. Talk about “Around the World in 80 Days.” This glittering evening event was more like “Around the World in 80 Minutes” — or even less if you, like me, are a dab hand at appearing insouciantly at the front of the buffet line as if you have been standing there all along, an offense we refer to as “queue-barging” in my native, well-behaved England, where this is generally punishable by death.

First up, there was the exotic-looking Beech Anemone, the entry from Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam, a bosky native mushroom paddling in smoked egg yoke and creamy gouda. Delicious, if not my first choice, although it did remind me I have not been to Amsterdam in years. Time to get my clogs on. And next, from Waldorf Astoria Beijing, a spring roll — a little stunner of Chinese nappa cabbage wrapped around minced Wagyu beef. Yes please — I could eat dozens of these.

There were especially long lines at the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem’s cooking station, for a dish by Waldorf Chef Itzik Mizrachi Barak and his chef partner, Joseph “JJ” Johnson, executive chef of The Cecil in Harlem. Their Seven Species was a riff on the seven special agricultural products of the Bible. That one will be hard to beat, I thought, by now starting to feel just a little full.

Then back across the Pond and sweeping south to New Orleans, for my namesake Jeremy Wayne and Waldorf chef Stefan Kauth’s Cajun-spiced Gulf Shrimp with Cappeletti, surely a contender — and getting my vote for obvious reasons, which had nothing to do with food. Finally, up to Waldorf Astoria Orlando, for Sable Fish With Florida Truffle, which, whatever you think about sable fish, I can tell you was not half bad. Swimmingly good, in fact.

The winner? It was that pretty amazing Jing Roll, from Waldorf Astoria Beijing, which will soon be on the menu at 25 Waldorf Astoria hotels worldwide, if it’s not there already. But you know what? I rather like the idea of eating it at source. So now I’m counting my cents, digging out my old renminbi, and, soon, with any luck, I’ll be China-bound.

So gè bão, as they say in the East, and watch this space.

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