Updated: Aug 27, 2022
In August of 1971, Chef Astor worked diligently on his new Autumn Menu– the culmination of all his experience, his Culinary Magnum Opus.
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By mid-August, autumn was taking the first steps of its annual, inexorable march into the Finger Lakes Region of central New York State. The sun was setting earlier, the mornings were cooler, and the Amish farmsteads were bursting their baskets with corn and tomatoes. Grapes hung ever more heavily on their vines and were starting to develop color. Even the sky was astir, seemingly organizing itself into a parade of massive cumulus clouds— slate-bellied, cauliflower-crowned behemoths that lumbered from west to east and sent blue-green shadows racing across the checkerboard of farmer’s fields and hedgerows. September was most definitely on the way, bearing the same gifts as in years previous— the deliciously cool sweater weather, the gaudy foliage, the massive influx of college students, tourists… and, perhaps most importantly, dining customers.
As viewed from the CAYUGA LOUNGE’s back veranda, with its fabulous vista of the lake and the western sky, the sun set a little farther to the left each night as the summer days gradually shortened. Chef Graeme Astor, 41, worked out here for a few hours most August evenings in 1971 on the details of his new autumn menu, and the southward drift of the sunset served as his countdown clock to the menu’s September implementation. It was a telling measure of how far he had come, how far the CAYUGA LOUNGE had evolved under his watch, that he could focus on this menu while his well-trained crew dutifully and competently executed the dinner service.
This new menu was to be Chef Astor’s career-defining masterpiece, the culmination of all he had learned in British cooking schools, Manhattan restaurants, and here at the CAYUGA LOUNGE, where he had taken over a dying hellhole of an eatery several years before and diligently built it into a premier dining destination for locals, college faculty, and visiting out-of-towners.
Astor lit another Dunhill and scribbled some more on one of his yellow legal pads. There would be no French terminology on this menu, he had decided, except where English would seem downright awkward. For instance, nobody orders snails… they order escargots… but why present, say, simple beef stew as Boeuf Bourguignon? Same with Italian and other menu languages. One thing he had learned in his brief tenure at THE FOUR SEASONS was that American food had finally arrived and needed no fancy foreign words to describe it when plain English would suffice. And of all the skills and assets Chef Astor brought to his position— from his bridge master’s sharp intellect to his rugger’s physical strength and endurance— his greatest, perhaps, was a precise instinct for the line that separates true finery from pretentious fakery… a distinction that, in retrospect, he was trained from birth to understand better than most.
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Graeme Astor’s father had been a footman in the rural Surrey household of King Edward VIII, hoping for eventual promotion to butler when, in 1936, the king abruptly abdicated. One didn’t easily jump from one royal’s staff to another’s, particularly with the whiff of scandal about. But he was immediately offered employment at a London gentlemen’s club— Boodle’s— where his well-ingrained dignity and discretion fit like old leather furniture with the dining and gaming rooms full of the cream of London society. Once securely established there, the senior Astor made what he would later describe as the single biggest mistake of his life– forgetting that a grown man can no longer understand what the world looks like through the eyes of a young child.
What better way to inspire his seven year-old son Graeme to great accomplishment, the father had surmised, than to bring him to Boodle’s and let him observe firsthand the super-successful in their natural environs? What the father ostensibly showed his son was the majesty of self-made industrial barons, distant royals, powerful bankers and barristers, and especially the Oxford and Cambridge professors, all bedecked in Saville Row and engaged in lively card games and even livelier debate, glassfuls of pricey cognac or vintage port at their elbows and clouds of fragrant cigar and pipe smoke emanating upward.
These were all great and noble professional men, declared the elder Astor… but in particular he emphasized the professors. There is no reliable path to becoming an industrial tycoon, and of course one is either born royal or not. But one could realistically set a course to becoming a professor… all that was required, really, was a good brain like Graeme obviously had, for he was already playing bridge and backgammon with adults; a good sound schooling, of course, and persistence. Becoming a professor, declared the father, enabled one to leapfrog his way upward through Britain’s rigid class hierarchy. He would always be welcome in the toniest salons among the much wealthier for his unquestionable expertise in economics or the sciences or native peoples or whatever. “All these rich people, for all their wealth, can’t buy what the professors have,” Explained the senior Astor. “And so, failing that, they seek their company and tacit approval.” No proper dinner party, he declared, would be complete without a professor authoritatively holding court on this topic or that.
However, that is not at all what young Graeme absorbed from this evening.
What was permanently etched into the seven year-old Graeme's memory, on a trip to the servant’s lavatory, was a professional kitchen in full military roar at the peak of dinner service— the smoke, the smells, the sizzle, the baseline din of pots and plates, the shorthand kitchen code that transcended national language barriers, all punctuated by the rhythmic progression of clipped verbal orders from the man at the center of it all, the culinary equivalent of a full field marshal— Boodle’s Alsatian Chef Hans Osterfeld, who cooly and sure-handedly oversaw plate after perfectly beautiful plate as it left the hot line. Chef Osterfeld radiated power and gravity as he gave each plate his brief but full attention, tweaking it, perhaps, with a tiny adjustment of its garnish. Upon his barely perceptible nod, an assistant immediately covered it with a shiny silver dome and off it went, whisked away with the others to the dining room on huge oval trays by elegant men with the grace and posture of ballroom dancers. It was at that moment, in that rank and steamy kitchen, that young Graeme Astor knew with absolute certainty…
He wanted to become a Chef.
“I serve others so that one day others will serve you,” thundered the exasperated father on innumerable occasions. But much to his father’s disappointment and occasional fits of fury, young Graeme stubbornly dodged every pathway to the upper tiers of London society. He chose rugby over sculling, and he read cooking treatises by Escoffier and Saulnier rather than the works of Shakespeare and Dickens. But despite the culinary experience and professional training he had managed for himself as he crossed the threshold to young manhood, Graeme Astor found himself mysteriously shut out of all restaurant employment within traveling distance of London. Of course it had to be the sinister work of his well-connected and resentful father. So he defiantly set sail for New York City, where the post-WWII fascination with French cuisine was fueling a burgeoning restaurant scene.
With his European (if British) cooking school credentials, Astor easily secured employment in a series of Manhattan French eateries. Though the flames of his ambition roared ever more hotly as he accumulated experience and wisdom, he instinctively reined himself in, for he knew that if he vaulted prematurely into a full Chef position, he risked being eaten alive by his co-workers upon the slightest indication of weakness or incomplete mastery of his trade. This was a rough and tough business, he had quickly come to realize.
While rising through the ranks in Manhattan kitchens, Astor learned not only the entire French repertoire of sauces and techniques, but also something far more important– what he came to think of as “The Pirate Paradox.” As Astor understood it, pirates were, by definition, incorrigible outlaws– men who held themselves above and beyond the jurisdiction of any civil authority… men with prices on their heads for regularly murdering and stealing with impunity, and therefore could never tread solid ground without fear of arrest and hanging. And yet, in order to effectively operate a ship at sea, a pirate captain must be able to exercise absolute control over a crew of just such men. To accomplish this, he must be perceived as all-knowing and all-powerful. The cost of even questioning his authority or decisions must be prohibitively high. The loyalty of his closest lieutenants– those most capable of actual mutiny– must be obvious and absolute. And so a pirate captain must be charismatic enough to hold personal sway over his crew; sufficiently sea-wise to command their respect as sailors; and cunning enough to sniff out even the slightest whiff of treachery.
Astor knew that the same could be said about chefs in their kitchens, which were more often than not staffed by outcasts– drug addicts, ex-cons, and others who thrive in the alleys and shadows rather than the healthy sunshine of a nine-to-five, Monday-through-Friday work life and its associated spells of night and weekend leisure. He knew his time would eventually come… the right gig in the right place at the right time when he was fully prepared to marshal a half dozen of society’s least wanted into a smooth and capable kitchen crew.
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The mid-August sun was now setting over Taughannock Falls across the lake. Chef Astor put down his pen and raised his hands to his face, folded as if praying, as he did when particularly deep in thought. What is the ideal array of autumn soups? “Autumn Bisque” was perfect, of course, for the name alone would sell it on crispy cool nights. But wouldn’t “Butternut Squash & Apple Soup” be a more honest name? More descriptive, and less pretentious? After all, classic bisque, if one is truly accurate, would contain shellfish and be thickened with rice or eggs rather than flour. French Onion Soup was a natural inclusion. How about “Nantucket Chowder?” Such a lovely name would appeal to the college town literary cognoscenti who could practically recite MOBY DICK’s Chapter 14 from memory. Astor’s version would remain true (or at least referential) to Melville’s great novel by including both clam and cod, which were offered separately at the Try Pots Inn. This way Astor could save a few bucks AND get a catchy menu name in the process. Perfect… three soups was plenty. One meat, one fish, one vegetable. Two creamy, one broth.
Now the sun was dipping below the mountains and the temperature was about to drop. One more Dunhill and a splash of Courvoisier to keep the creativity flowing and the focus sharp.
On to the appetizer section… might there be a heading name that better-sounding than “appetizers?” “Hors d’Oeuvres” not only sounded too precious, but also suggested passed trays of finger food at a stand-up reception. “First Courses” would be accurate but dull, and “Starters” sounds like pub grub… guess it’ll have to be “Appetizers.” Let’s see– gotta have pâté and escargots or else they’ll seem like they’re missing. But we need a few non-French choices. Gia’s delicious clam app has been popular for years now, and we had to have it for the “Council.” Shrimp cocktail would sell itself and it connoted no particular nationality. Yeah, that’ll work.
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Graeme Astor’s big break in New York City– or so he thought– seemed imminent when he caught wind of Manhattan’s most ambitious restaurant undertaking to date– the opening of THE FOUR SEASONS restaurant, scheduled for 1959. An ocean of money was being lavished on the nation’s greatest culinary consultants as well as world-class architects and even top fashion designers for the front-of-the-house uniforms. THE FOUR SEASONS was to celebrate the full flowering of American cuisine, which of course could not be completely separated from the European roots in which Astor was so thoroughly steeped. They would surely need an entire army of talented kitchen personnel, he figured, so he submitted his résumé. He didn’t need to wait long, because they hired just about everyone who seemed remotely legitimate. But then, to his bitter dismay, he learned that he was never going to get anywhere near the actual kitchen, for it was run by a Swiss head chef who of course surrounded himself with a veritable Swiss Guard… and for all their purported neutrality, they regarded English cookery with cruel disdain and its practitioners as incapable of anything requiring more skill than peeling potatoes and chopping onions.
Astor understood right then that he had hit the ceiling in Manhattan, that there were simply too many well-trained chefs for him to make his mark without a lot of luck and also working himself half to death with no guarantee even then of any reward. Furthermore, there was a swelling cadre of up-and-coming young French chefs, not yet thirty and still making names for themselves with a supposed reinvention of the Classical French Canon, pairing fruit sauces with meats and other such silliness.
Astor knew that it was time for him to take his talents out to the hinterlands… and that in this part of the world, this meant that he would be pulling his battered Rover out of long-term storage and heading to central New York State without a job, a concrete plan, or anything else except everything he had learned since that evening in Boodle’s a quarter century before.
TO BE CONTINUED…