When the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel opened in October of 1931, it was the world's largest and most luxurious hotel, affording a grand introduction by President Herbert Hoover over broadcast radio. Now with an established 75-year old tradition of elegance and grandeur behind it, the Waldorf continues to impress in its present-day incarnation. Though once the home of three five-star generals (Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur and Omar Bradley) and the catalyst for the careers of Diana Ross and Frank Sinatra, perhaps the most famous legacy to come out of the Waldorf comes from its kitchen: the Waldorf Salad, a magical concoction of apples, celery, walnuts, and mayonnaise that makes a reliable presence in cookbooks far and wide.

Beyond the salad and beyond the fancy ballrooms, the Waldorf's main kitchen is the largest in New York City, stretching a full city block and catering to thousands--on average--a day. Executive chef John Doherty, a two-and-a-half decade veteran of the hotel, orchestrates a massive staff that kicks off its morning preparing stock out of 1,000 pounds of bones.


In addition to the regular bustle of the kitchen, Doherty offers a Chef's Table dining experience to the public several times a year, inviting up to 30 at a time to feast their eyes and watering palates on the kitchen's creations. Sitting just feet from the open range, chefs prepare the food before the diner's eyes, sauteeing, plating, and grating truffles at an arm's reach away. A five-course seasonal menu commences with an introduction to the evening's staff and an informal champagne and hors d'oeuvres reception. On a recent night, sautéed foie gras on a ginger crisp with caramelized apples and apple salad emitted the flavors of fall, simultaneously fatty and supple, sweet, but with a spicy crunch. Petite fingerling potatoes were dotted with crème fraiche and topped with the salty decadence of caviar; foie gras made a repeat appearance as mousse wrapped with mango and topped with black truffle.


Doherty, whose decadence clearly knows no bounds, supervises cooking, acts the genial host, and enjoys a bite here and there. Once seated, (thirty diners are split between two large communal tables adorned with autumn's bounty), five courses come gradually-but-endlessly. On this night, we first enjoyed a trio of small salads: a grilled baby artichoke, a sea bass ceviche, and a shrimp salsa with a fried plantain chip. Presented in dainty white spoons and served with the sommelier's choice champagne, the Lanson Noble Cuvee, sprightly flavors cleared the palate for meatier courses to follow.

Bacon wrapped lobster bathed in brown butter placed familiar flavors next to a refreshing watercress lemon salad. A third course--Gothamist's favorite--married foie gras (once again!) with salty rabbit in al dente ravioli swimming in a parmesan cream sauce and topped with freshly grated white truffles from Alba, Italy, currently in season and ready for consumption, much to Doherty's joy. After a breather (tour of the kitchen), stretch, and glass of water, course four, sirloin with spaetzle, creamed spinach, and a red wine sauce tipped the scale from fancy to pure indulgence.


Like all good meals, this one ended on a sweet note: glazed beignets (fancy for mini donuts) arrived on a partitioned plate with caramelized apples and cinnamon ice cream, a deconstructed apple pie that works best if eaten in tandem. Aside from the food--which is refined in presentation, memorable for its richness if not innovation, and an encyclopedia of ingredients over the course of the night--the meal leaves the memory of experience about that night that you not only dined at the Waldorf-Astoria, but in the kitchen, and with the executive chef. At $150 before tax and gratuity the meal is certainly a splurge, but worth every penny if you consider it both dinner, entertainment, and the pleasant company of hungry strangers.

The next Chef's Table Dining Experiences are on December 15th and 20th. For more information or reservations call (212) 872-1275. Space is limited to 30 guests. The Waldorf-Astoria is located at 301 Park Avenue.