NEW YORK — Pinch me!
I’m on the 18th floor of the famous Waldorf Astoria in midtown Manhattan standing beside the hotel’s executive chef David Garcelon while he makes a Waldorf Salad. (You can listen to my conversation with David here.)
Adjacent to the small space we’re in is a spectacular, bling-bedecked ballroom where, he explains, a rectractable roof once meant people could dine and dance under the stars above Park Avenue.
I know Garcelon from his days as executive chef of the Fairmont Royal York hotel in my home-town, Toronto.
A year-and-a-half ago, he moved to New York to be head culinary honcho at the Waldorf – arguably North America’s most well-known hotel. He notes that the two big, vintage establishments on adjoining continents have a lot in common: “They’re about the same size and age.”
Tall, dark and handsome, Garcelon is a calm, articulate fellow used to the pressures of being in charge of a huge operation like this. He’s proud of the way things run and, before our arrival on the 18th floor, took me on a tour of the Waldorf’s huge kitchens, most of which take up an entire floor of the hotel which itself covers an entire city block between Park and Lexington avenues and 49th and 50th streets.
Talking as he works, Garcelon explains how the Waldorf Salad came to be.
“It originally consisted of three ingredients” he begins, “apples, celery and mayonnaise.”
Its origin dates back to the early 1890s and to a man called Oscar Tschirky who was the hotel’s maitre d’. “He was was the Waldorf’s most famous employee,” Garcelon continues. “He was a celebrity, a man about town who wrote cookbooks and books on etiquette.”
He is diplomatic about the real source of the salad: “Oscar was credited with its invention but it was likely first created by chefs – the team back then.”
Over the years, the dish evolved. Celebrated French chef Auguste Escoffier – “the greatest chef in the world,” says Garcelon – added walnuts and put the recipe in his book “Le Guide Culinaire,” in the early 1900s.
Garcelon’s predecessor, executive chef John Doherty, was not a fan and told me a few years ago: “I’ve never liked it. It’s apples, celery, mayo, walnuts. I think it’s rather unappealing. It’s not for me.” However, making the most of the situation, he changed the dressing, adding yogurt and creme fraiche to jazz it up.
Grapes entered the picture at some point. “I think it needs walnuts and grapes,” says Garcelon. “Apples, celery and mayo need a bit of help.”
The current version, tweaked by him, is “modernized.” It contains two types of apples cut in dainty julienne strips (red-skinned Gala and green Granny Smith for contrast in taste and colour); celery root instead of celery, finely diced; two kinds of grapes (Red Flame and green Thompson) and toasted spiced walnuts for garnish.
The dressing is a fancy take on the original mayo: a champagne vinaigrette emulsified with the addition of egg yolk and goosed with the distinctive, pungent aroma of truffle oil. “The Waldorf is a luxury hotel. We like to use the best ingredients.”
The Waldorf Astoria serves a whopping 20,000 of their eponymous salads a year. The dish has been immortalized in art that runs the gamut of sublime to ridiculous.
Cole Porter lived in one of the hotel’s exclusive towers and included it in the last verse of his song: “You’re the Top.” John Cleese (aka Basil Fawlty of British comedy series “Fawlty Towers” fame) hilariously tied himself in knots trying (unsuccessfully) to produce a Waldorf Salad for an irate American at his somewhat seedy hotel.
I, however, did manage to produce an excellent Waldorf Salad at home – almost as good as the delectable one prepared for me by Chef Garcelon on the hotel’s 18th floor.
Here it is:
I tweaked and, I think, improved a version I found on the Food Network website. I took some cues from Chef Garcelon by slicing the apples in julienne strips (by hand). I added dried cranberries – a Canadian touch – and used Honeycrisp apples which have delicious crunch and sweet/tart flavour. The dressing is sweet, simple, light and delicious; use low-fat yogurt and mayo if desired. You could use lettuce instead of arugula.
This salad is a winner and is great as a side dish with a hot main entree or as a light lunch served with soup, cheese, a sandwich or whatever takes your fancy.
1/2 cup walnut or pecan halves
2 large unpeeled apples, cut in julienne strips
2 celery stalks, sliced on the diagonal
8 to 10 seedless grapes, halved (optional)
1/4 cup dried cranberries (optional)
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 cup plain yogurt
2 tbsp mayonnaise
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley or coriander\
1 tsp honey
Grated zest of 1/2 lemon
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350F.
Spread walnuts on baking sheet and toast in oven 8 to 10 minutes. Cool; break into small pieces.
In large bowl, combine apples, celery, grapes and cranberries. Sprinkle with lemon juice.
For dressing, whisk together yogurt, mayonnaise, parsley, honey, lemon zest and pepper. (If making ahead, refrigerate until ready to use.)
When ready to serve, toss apple mixture with dressing to coat. Arrange arugula on platter or in serving bowl. Spoon salad on top. Sprinkle with walnuts.
Makes about 4 servings.