Updated: Sep 27, 2022
As Chef Astor’s Autumn 1971 Dinner Menu was nearing completion, he wondered– was it possible to sell Rack of Lamb in a venue that still resembled the ramshackle roadhouse it once was? After all, it would have to be almost prohibitively expensive. New Zealand lamb was cheap enough, but its unmistakable gamey flavor– so easily camouflaged in a stew or braise– would readily betray its inferior provenance in a roast. Maybe leg of AMERICAN lamb as a special would be better… he could keep it profitable by using the leftovers in a stew as a lunch special. But… wouldn’t leg of lamb cut into the prime rib sales? Curse that dish! When Astor took over eleven years before, the weekend prime rib was about the only thing that drew diners from afar. Astor had reluctantly kept it, albeit as an “English Cut,” a term of nebulous definition that he appropriated for a boneless slice of civilized proportions… as opposed to a crude hunk of meat with its bone hanging off the plate.
Astor scratched out a line on his legal pad and added another. He would slowly introduce the lamb at special dinners, he decided, but play it safe by sticking with the prime rib on weekends. Just a couple more entrees, then on to the dessert card. Astor packed up his voluminous notes for now, as it was the Friday afternoon of Labor Day weekend. The summer slump was over, and the next four nights would snap the kitchen and dining room staffs back to full speed.
And then, five days later and twenty miles to the north–
Wednesday, September 8, 1971, 7:56AM:
A third-floor boardroom overlooking Cayuga Lake
Ten men– nine of them in serious-looking suits and one in pristine chef’s whites– sat around the ridiculously long and shiny table. Labor Day had come and gone, and yet every one of these men– lawyers, accountants, an architect, a dining room manager, and the chef– had been grinding away on their joint assignment nearly around the clock since Sunday morning. At the outset of this hectic stretch they had dreaded this upcoming meeting scheduled by the human volcano who thought that he owned every hour of their lives. But now, despite their exhaustion, the mood in the room was almost cheerful.… for their efforts had paid off surprisingly well, and they were looking forward to presenting their results to the old man.
The most recent Manhattan Sunday magazine had carried the scathing “A Tale of Two Eateries” piece, and Stanislaus Strombowski, recently self-rechristened as “Baron Stromberg,” had been apoplectic with the level of rage peculiar to powerful titans who’ve been publicly humiliated. He immediately summoned these same men to this same room, and what frightened them more than the prospect of old man’s frothing, thundering anger was its downright creepy absence, replaced by his icy, ungodly cold resolve and his stern demand to find the solution to his current and therefore all-consuming problem–
The… CAYUGA… LOUNGE… it must be completely, utterly, and ignominiously destroyed.
Stromberg hadn’t become a wealthy and powerful shopping mall developer by being rash and foolish… nor by presenting a public persona that seemed overtly petty or vindictive. And he had learned long ago to avoid directly tangling with press people, especially when they were gleefully milking a David versus Goliath narrative… and he was the Goliath. No, anyone powerful enough could destroy his enemies as he pleased… but he would have to do it in such a sly way that he emerged as the gracious hero.
The lawyers and accountants kept their presentation short and punchy, mindful of Stromberg’s impatience and short attention span. Yes, Stromberg had purchased the Cayuga Lounge over a decade ago for his then-stepson Hayden Ausbach; however, Stromberg had purchased the business, but not the building. “Right. And remind me who owns that,” snorted Stromberg.
“As of right now, no one, really,” The lawyer continued. The elderly building owner had died alone and without a will eight years ago. He had run the place as a roadhouse right after the war, but his kids wanted nothing to do with it and scattered around the country. “No one has bothered asking your, ah, Mr. Ausbach for rent, so he hasn’t paid any,” explained the lawyer. “To make a long story short, this building has been languishing on the delinquent tax rolls, and–”
Another lawyer stood and jumped in. “And at 4:00PM today, YOU will own it for the princely sum of one dollar plus back taxes.” He walked over with papers for Stromberg to review and sign. “And THEN–”
Next it was the architect’s turn. “Then, as a matter of course, my friends at the board of health and the office of code enforcement will meet there to inspect the premises… and almost certainly close it down for one violation or another until further notice… for everyone’s safety.” He then walked to an easel hung with large renderings. “Here’s where you, sir, canter in on your white steed and magnanimously honor the excellence of that oh-so-precious little eatery by preserving its look and atmosphere– right here at Château Stromberg.” He started flipping pages on the easel. “This is the new Cayuga Lounge– right in the north banquet room that we hardly ever use. We just re-decorate and set up a cozy piano bar… a little candlelight, a little music, and– presto! Instant atmosphere!”
And then the dining room manager joined in– “Here’s the kicker– we put this Hayden character behind the bar, and his devoted clientele will almost surely follow him here… because they love him, and they won’t have anywhere else to go!”
“What about their staff?” asked Stromberg. “We don’t wanna look like we’re putting people out on the street.”
“Right. So we offer them all positions here. A few of them might actually work out. But it’ll be way too far a drive for most of ’em.”
“Same with the kitchen,” said the chef. “Hell, even Chef Astor– we still have his old application on file!” That aroused a chuckle around the table. “Anyway, I’ve rounded up their dinner menus going back a few years,” he continued. “And we can bang out our versions of these dishes right from our adjacent service kitchen… with or without help from their crew.”
After everyone had chimed in, the old man didn’t say anything right away… which usually meant that he hadn’t found anything to disagree with. But right then an aide suddenly burst into the room with eleven copies of that morning’s ITHACA TIMES. “Wait! Stop EVERYTHING!” he demanded as he passed out papers opened to the Living section. “You all need to see this…”
* * * * * * *
Chef Graeme Astor, CMC, CCE, etcetera, etcetera was, of course, no fool. With the same mental clarity with which he had correctly foreseen the evolutionary path of the Cayuga Lounge from dilapidated dump to chic dining destination, he now saw its imminent demise at the hands of an adversary exponentially more powerful than he.
Immediately upon reading the David and Goliath piece, Astor had gnashed his teeth and sworn at the ceiling for a few minutes as its inevitable consequences sunk in– he would have to pre-emptively shut down operations before Stromberg came after him, bent on destroying him and everything he had built. Astor, never in his life a prayerful sort, nonetheless gazed skyward– was there any way to avoid the suffering that he and those close to him were about to endure? The heavenly silence, though hardly unexpected, provided his disheartening answer… and yet he was still in position to defiantly orchestrate his own departure, he knew, still able to end this chapter of his life and begin another on his own terms.
Upon realizing and accepting all of this, Chef Astor threw all of his 1971 Autumn Menu notes into the fireplace, lit it, and then got to work.
After thirty-six hours punctuated by dozens of phone calls, two packs of Dunhills, and a 750ml bottle of Courvoisier, Chef Astor had his new Autumn Menu and the text that would accompany it in a full-page newspaper ad. Sibley Stromberg, Astor’s best friend, part-time lover, and trusted advisor, helped him with the graphics and layout, basing it on a poster for a concert held not very far away and just two years prior–
The full-page spread in the Living Section of that Wednesday’s ITHACA TIMES indicated that the Cayuga Lounge would be ceasing operations for unspecified reasons, and that a very special final dinner would be served on Friday, September 24th, the first full day of autumn. This dinner, dubbed “Feast of the Autumn,” would feature locally-sourced ingredients and a number of excellent wines mostly from upstart Finger Lakes producers. The price for the dinner, including wines and tip, would be a whopping forty dollars per person, with 100% of the proceeds going to support the local 4-H organization, whose members had provided the Cayuga Lounge kitchen with fresh and locally-raised ingredients of superb quality during the previous decade.
* * * * * * *
The initial response around Stromberg’s boardroom table was laughter and withering ridicule. “Who the hell does that arrogant Limey think he is?” “FORTY dollars a person? He’ll be lucky to sell ten seats!” and so on. But then the larger implications sunk in and the subtle shrewdness of Astor’s gambit became apparent. Astor had beaten them to the punch with this full-page ad, so any of the planned actions on their part might well appear thuggish… especially since 4-H is a youth organization. They would just have to sit back and let this play out, they eventually agreed. And then the chef spoke up–
“Oh my God… take a close look at this menu!”
Smoked Cayuga Lake Trout Spread w/ Local Horseradish
Pheasant Pâté w/ Onion-Pomegranate Jam
Seneca Lake Dry Gewürztraminer
–Butternut Squash Soup–
With Crème Fraîche & Chives
Poached Long Island Oysters w/ Champagne Beurre Blanc
Gold Seal “Charles Fournier Signature” champagne
–New York Autumn Salad–
Caramelized Local Apples & Pears, Oven-Dried Grapes, & Shredded NY Cheddar
Over Watercress with Red Wine Mustard Vinaigrette
–Chateaubriand à la Rossini–
Roasted Pennsylvania Angus Tenderloin with
Hudson Valley Foie Gras, Wild Mushrooms, and Madeira Sauce
Paired with a very special 1968 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
–Trio of Desserts–
Peach Bavarian Cream “Melba”
NY Maple & Toasted Chestnut Dacquoise
Belgian Dark Chocolate Truffle Torte
Dr. Konstantin Frank 1964 Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese
Go ahead and give us your expert take, Chef,” sneered Stromberg.
“Well, first off, I gotta say– this reads like it’s actually worth the forty bucks. Hell, this is honest-to-God FOUR SEASONS caliber. But, my God– this would take a purchasing genius, an army of professional line cooks, and a big-city serving staff. I just don’t see how he could ever pull it off.”
And, truth be told, neither did Chef Astor… and he had just sixteen days to figure that out. Stromberg, meanwhile, pondered all this for a moment and then briefly cracked a contemptuous smile before re-focusing. “No one is to utter a single word about anything we’ve discussed here today. No one is to make any public comment about the Cayuga Lounge or make any of the moves we’ve discussed. And, of course, no one in my employ is to attend this event.”
* * * * * * *
A week later– nine days before the big dinner– everything was on track… almost. As Astor shared a late-night cognac with Sibley, he shared as well a vexing problem– “I need pheasants for this menu… but the farmed versions I’ve tried run from bland to horrible, which leaves wild ones– you know, boom-boom and then there-goes-the-bird-dog wild.”
“No problem– there’s a huge cornfield out behind my place that’s full of ‘em.”
“But… I’ve never fired a shotgun. Shooting is strictly a gentleman’s diversion back home.”
“Well, I’m no gentleman, but I am the reigning Oneida Skeet Cup champion. You just mind my spaniels and watch… I’ll fill your order.”
Twelve hours and four deafening 12-gauge blasts later, Astor had a quartet of colorful birds hanging from a rafter, there to develop the exquisite flavors and texture achievable only with time. “Full-choke headshots,” said Sibley, “so you won’t have customers picking birdshot from their teeth. Told ya I was good.”
“Actually, I think you’re perfect,” said Astor.
“Shut the hell up!”
Astor had his “Sous Chef in Residence” Gia Cassini connect with her fisherman friends to procure a pair of good-sized lake trout to smoke. She of course invited the fishermen and their wives to attend the dinner free of charge, but Astor didn’t mind; they’d been very good to him over the years. Indeed, a significant proportion of the attendees will be loyal suppliers to whom he had given free or discounted tickets. Gia was also in charge of inviting and accommodating the “Iroquois Council,” who would most likely want an Italian menu and bring their own homemade wine.
The last available tickets sold five days before the big night… but that didn’t stop the phone from ringing. After making sure all of the staff would be available and that he had enough pheasant pâté, he committed to serving this dinner on Saturday night as well, and it quickly sold out.
Very early on Wednesday morning, Astor dispatched two of the Glen-Guardians to the Fulton Fish Market in his Rover to purchase oysters, having thoroughly coached them on the process. “Ask for a sample. Insist on having them open one for you. The most important thing is that they get here alive, so you’ll be driving out with a chestful of ice.” And since they were in the area, kind of, he had them also pick up the Hudson Valley foie gras.
On and on the preparations went– detailed menu descriptions for the servers… diagrams of plates for the line cooks… actual rehearsals of some of the dishes… plates all counted out for each course… extra wine glasses rented… By late Thursday everything was looking doable– everything that could be prepared beforehand was ready to go, and everything needed for the remaining cookery was on hand.
Late that Thursday night, Astor and Sibley were again enjoying a cognac by candlelight in their usual corner booth, and Astor clearly had something important to share, seemingly in search of the right words. “Out with it, Chef! Even I can’t read your mind right now.”
“Okay… I’ve been on the phone a lot for the last couple of weeks, and it hasn’t been just for sourcing food. To make a long story short, I’ve accepted a position on the Food Science faculty at UCal-Davis. What’s funny is that they liked my fancy British degrees more than my actual experience.”
“Umm.. okay… When do you start?”
“Not ‘til January… but I’ll need time to settle in and familiarize myself. I also need to get to London as soon as I can. I- I’ll be flying out Sunday from JFK.”
Sibley was trying not to look hurt and confused. “Wait– why London and why so soon?”
“It would greatly soothe an old man’s ailing heart to hear that his son is finally becoming a professor. And, I, ah… I want to tell him personally.”
Sibley smiled, her eyes twinkling a little.
“Also,” Astor continued, “I should like to introduce you to him.”
That was a stunner. “Wait– WHAT? WHY?”
“Because I… I suspect you might one day be his daughter-in-law.”
Sibley sat back and crossed her arms. “Is that how you Brits propose? No wonder your Empire is crumbling.”
“I… I’ve been waiting for the right moment… ever since you, umm… lit my cigarette.”
After staring and smiling for a spell while shaking her head, she finally said, “No gown and garter or any such crap. We elope in a vineyard once we get to California.” Then she and Astor clinked glasses, sealing the deal.
Friday, September 24, 1971, 5:30PM:
Thirty Minutes Before Service
The bar was covered with well-polished glasses and bottles of wine on ice. A dozen bottles of the Napa red were open, breathing since the day before. In front of the bar stood the waitresses, Hayden, the busboys, the Glen-Guardians, Gia, and all the rest of the staff. Sibley was on hand to oversee the wine service with Hayden and a pair of assistants. They always had pre-service meetings like this before the dinner shift, but this was obviously different… very different.
“We’ve never done anything like this, have we?” began Astor. There followed a low murmur of “no”s. “Well, let me tell you something about the restaurant business– it’s part craft and part showmanship. ‘Craft’ is using one’s skills to make something difficult look easy… that’s what great athletes and artists do. Good cooks do it, too. But ‘showmanship’ is often making something easy look hard. Tonight’s dinner– this Feast of the Autumn– is a mix of both. We’ve already done the hard part– we’ve hunted down all the best ingredients–” he quickly caught Sibley’s eye– “quite literally, in some cases. The easy part is getting everything served. Think about it– everyone is having the same thing, so you don’t need to take orders. And they’re all pre-paid, so no running around with cash and credit cards. All we have to do is stay on script and stay organized. Can we do that?” Everyone confidently assented.
“Good.” Astor went on to explain each course. The appetizer plates were already made, sitting on rolling racks in the walk-in. The soup was already hot, and their serving cups were being kept warm in the proofing oven. The oyster dish would be tricky, but Astor had pre-poached them, and he would personally oversee their assembly and presentation. The salads were three-quarters done, just in need of dressing. The Glen-Guardians had repeatedly rehearsed the complex construction of the beef course with substitute ingredients, almost like an auto racing pit crew, and they seemed to have it down pat. While the main course was going out, Astor would be in the cooler assembling the dessert plates with a tiny portion each of three exquisite sweets. “Dishwashers, when the app plates come back we need to wash’em right away and then get them in the cooler. We can’t put these desserts on warm plates because they’ll melt. And Gia– when you’re done with the Council, I want you on the desserts with me. I’m probably ducking out early tomorrow, so you’ll be in charge of that course.”
* * * * * * *
Astor had declined all requests for tickets by the Manhattan press. This dinner was for the locals and regulars, and the snarky reporters who had inadvertently torpedoed his beloved enterprise were free to interview diners in the bar afterwards if they so chose. Accordingly, the dining room– packed full with loyal and eager clientele– was crackling with excitement in anticipation of a night like none other in the restaurant’s history, and certainly nothing that any of them had ever experienced.
Despite Astor’s best planning, the dinner service was hardly flawless. There was a steady stream of minor glitches, like lake waves choppy enough to annoyingly toss equipment around the boat yet never violent enough to capsize it. As always when he was in the fiercest heat of the kitchen battle, Astor recalled the stern, sure-handed resolve of Boodle’s Chef Osterfeld, how he had commandingly stood fast against the tide of orders at its stiffest, and how he conveyed contagious confidence with just his self-assured mien. The oyster dish was harder than Astor had anticipated, but he made it work with quick little compromises that no one but he would notice. And after the first two trays of the main course, the Glen-Guardians found their perfect rhythm and all traces of tempest subsided.
As the patrons delighted in their “trio of desserts,” Astor stood and made a brief speech. In his capacity as a Certified Culinary Educator, he honored the Glen-Guardians with official certificates of professional training as well as chef’s jackets individually embroidered with their names and a logo that cleverly combined guitar and motorcycle parts. Gia also got a certificate, and her new jacket bore crossed Italian and American flags. He acknowledged all the 4-H families in attendance with plaques thanking them for their agricultural contributions. He even mentioned the couple that ran the nearby Five Corners General Store, as they had been unfailingly willing to help him out on a Sunday when the restaurant was down to its last stick of butter or quart of milk until Monday.
On the second night of service, the staff’s fatigue from the first was more than counterbalanced by the experience they had gained, and the Saturday night seating felt almost anti-climactic. At its conclusion, Astor and Hayden threw the bar open and invited everyone to drink the place dry. Word got out, and a steady stream of cars rolled in until well past midnight. Musicians jammed, and people laughed, danced, and cried until 4:00AM. Astor and Sibley ducked out well before then to prepare for their early flight.
And then, sometime around dawn, the building somehow caught fire. By 9:00AM the now former Cayuga Lounge was a smoldering heap of ash and charred beams. Inspectors found no initial signs of arson, and there was no insurance policy in place to suggest otherwise. But the building’s uncertain ownership and the fire’s uncanny timing gave cause for a lingering search for evidence that didn’t exist, and the ruins stood unchanged for weeks... and then months, and then years. As wild vines and all manner of weeds overtook the site, there arose persistent rumors that it was haunted. Meanwhile, word naturally spread across the region that the restaurant had closed because of the fire. That seemed more logical in the minds of most, and thus made it easier for the actual details about this once vibrant establishment to eventually fade from memory.
* * * * * * *
The Glen-Guardians all got jobs elsewhere but kept in close touch with each other. Two years after the fire, they took it upon themselves to publish an inexpensive, spiral-bound collection of everything they had cooked together under Chef Astor and titled it “THE CAYUGA LOUNGE COOKBOOK.” It sold a few copies in local bookstores, but it was greatly overshadowed by the surprising public mania for another publication from the very same area– 1974’s MOOSEWOOD COOKBOOK.
Hayden Ausbach tended bar at Château Stromberg for a few months. Just when he was growing bored and about to join Sibley and Astor in California, a wealthy bar customer suggested a joint venture– an informal steakhouse with Hayden as the frontman and his money behind it. Two years in and with only lackluster growth, Hayden sold his share to a Tampa consortium. And with liberal use of one’s imagination, it was a classic win-win– Hayden netted just enough to open a combination surf shop/tiki bar in Santa Monica, and the new ownership group– after changing the name from “Ausbach” to OUTBACK– made the Fortune 500 list.
A great many years later, recent retirees Professor and Mrs. Astor visited from California to tour some of the new Finger Lakes wineries they’d been reading about and also share a few wistful memories. What was once Château Stromberg had been re-configured into Stromberg Heights, a high-end retirement home with a delightful lake view from its sunny, west-facing porch. Further down the lake’s eastern shore, they stopped at a diner and asked the middle-aged hostess if perhaps she recalled a little restaurant near here that used to be a pretty darn popular spot way back when. “Can’t say I do,” she said, “but the folks at the Five Corner Store might know. That place has been around a lot longer than I have.”
“Wow! They’re still open?”
“They surely are! Stay south on this road and it’ll be on your left…
'bout half a mile past the Ca-Lo sign.”