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CHEF ASTOR’S AUTUMN MENU- Part Two

Updated: Sep 27, 2022

In early September of 1971, Chef Astor continued working on his new Autumn Menu… adding new dishes and removing or updating old ones.

* * * * * * *


How many different salads were necessary for this Autumn 1971 menu? Several years before, Chef Astor had successfully convinced a handful of local farmers to grow a variety of lettuces and then pick them when they were still small and tender. These, combined with chopped iceberg, had become the Cayuga Lounge’s “house salad,” which automatically came with every entree. Though the salad bar was long gone, Astor couldn’t completely wean his clientele from the thick and creamy goop like Bleu Cheese or Russian dressing, but he insisted on also offering real vinaigrette that he crafted from Italian olive oil ordered from a Manhattan salumeria and his own barrel-aged red wine vinegar made from local grapes. The individual caesar sold well… gotta keep that, but without anchovies in the dressing… better to offer them as an optional garnish. What else? Ah, yes– an “autumn salad” with apples and oven-dried grapes, served over watercress and topped with toasted pumpkin seeds. Perfect. Next, the entree section.


How many fish dishes? One or two chicken selections? Or was there another bird he should add? Duck would probably sell, but he didn’t want to get stuck with unsold ingredients that he couldn’t re-purpose if it didn’t. Perhaps breast of capon, if he could source it? Or pheasant, if he could find a farm with a steady supply?


So many decisions to make for this menu... and yet when Astor paused for occasional reflection, he felt immense satisfaction and joy to be in position to make them. Eleven years after stumbling upon this ramshackle roadhouse, he had successfully built a unique and wildly popular destination for fine dining and nightlife... an outcome utterly unimaginable in May of 1960, when he ventured north from Manhattan in search of his destiny with only his talents and a postcard map.


* * * * * * *


As he readied himself to leave Manhattan in the spring of 1960, Graeme Astor was happy to be reunited with his 1953 Rover, veteran of multiple Morocco rallies and Serengeti safaris under its previous owner, and with the undercarriage dents and battle scars to prove it. He also felt a mix of trepidation and adventure while driving it through New York’s Catskills laden with all of his belongings, what with the Rover's puny four-cylinder mill barely sputtering up the steep inclines. But Astor didn’t mind these slow stretches, for the lush mountain scenery was such a refreshing and welcome respite from the colorless concrete of the big city. Might one of these Catskill summer resorts be a good spot for him to work? Probably not… too seasonal; too many children to be serious about food. Besides, he already had a good skull-ful of culinary knowledge, and he didn’t care to reorient it toward the additional requirements of kosher law. On to New York State's midsection he drove.

On Astor’s little postcard map, the Finger Lakes resembled stockings of varying lengths dangling from a clothesline stretched from Syracuse to Rochester. Such a region, surmised Astor, would likely attract the sort of sophisticated travelers who might actually support a fine dining establishment. Proximity to one or more of the region’s colleges would certainly be a plus, providing a steady flow of well-to-do parents and worldly scholars from afar who were accustomed to dining well.


A casual day’s drive later, Astor was holed up in Ithaca, a perfect central base from which to tour the region. But where to start? Maybe just poke around town here and then go clockwise, he figured.


Might there be a critical mass of quality Ithaca eateries within a few blocks of each other that competed for both customers and employees? If the balance were right, Astor knew, they would make each other better while collectively making their district as a whole a popular dining destination, thereby benefiting all of them. However, for all of Ithaca's university-related activity and its relative proximity to New York City, in the spring of 1960 it seemed not only untouched by the French food revolution that had consumed Manhattan for the previous decade, but also devoid of any restaurant scene altogether. He was similarly underwhelmed by Watkins Glen– he had long heard its name mentioned in association with international sports car racing, but the sleepy downtown itself was dominated by a marina and, for God's sake, a salt mine.


Discouraged, Astor continued west to Hammondsport… a cute little village, but there really wasn’t much there other than a massive, industrial-looking winery just south of the town square. He did find a bakery-café for a quick bite in lieu of a real lunch, and there he overheard a quartet of young twenty-somethings chattering excitedly about grapes and soil. Curious, Astor introduced himself and asked if they worked at the winery he had passed. “HELL no! We’re the wine rebels!” gushed one of the two women. They were interns from Cornell’s agriculture program, they explained, working for an immigrant viticulturist who claimed to know the secret to growing real European wine grapes in a region where such efforts had utterly failed for the previous three centuries. “The native grapes and their hybrids are winter hardy,” explained another intern, “but they’re actually no good for decent wine,” Another added, “They’re easy to grow here, and the big, industrial wineries are able to process them into cheap champagne or jug wine for mass marketing. But make no mistake... WE are the future of fine wine in this region!”


Spoken like true believers, thought Astor. Poor fools.


An hour later– charmed, no doubt, by their youthful if näive enthusiasm– Astor was toiling in a small vineyard overlooking one of the smaller lakes, helping them plant young Chardonnay and Riesling vines. His Series 1 Rover was designed as a dual-purpose vehicle and functioned perfectly well as a farm tractor, thereby saving the interns countless hours of physical toil. As he hauled wagon-loads of planting stock from the nursery to the vineyard, he also casually picked their brains for valuable local intelligence. He left with a mixed case of their experimental wines as payment for his help, along with a much better working knowledge on the region as a whole. He also got their recommendation to eat and stay overnight at the nearby Naples Inn, and– perhaps most importantly of all– their consensus that there was one and only one venue in the region where a chef of his experience and background would likely find meaningful, full-time employment.


* * * * * * *


Other than aerial photography, no single picture ever existed of Château Stromberg in its entirety, for its gigantic banquet rooms and humongous, faux-castle main building– all majestically perched on a bluff overlooking the northern half of Cayuga Lake– sprawled over too many acres to capture in a single ground-level frame. Astor eventually found his way to the hiring department (a whole department? That in itself was impressive!) Upon giving his résumé a quick perusal, the receptionist hastily dialed an extension. “I’ve got a code C,” she forcefully whispered. “Yes, he’s still here. Wait– I’ll ask him.” She turned to Astor– “Would you mind waiting a few minutes? The executive assistant sous chef would like to meet you.”


After his unexpected interview, Astor strolled the grounds, absorbing the sheer enormity of the operation and pondering his initial impressions. The “executive assistant sous chef” had appeared in chef’s whites, and yet they were spotless and crisply pressed. His dainty hands clearly hadn’t chopped an onion or even held a knife in months, and his important-sounding title suggested a chandelier-like hierarchy of authority in the kitchen. Astor had gratefully accepted his invitation to stay for dinner, with the request in turn that the chef de cuisine personally surprise him with each course. He spent the hours before dinner exploring the meticulously manicured grounds, which reminded him of his early childhood in the Surrey castle, just as the massive, forty-foot Corinthian columns in the Colonnade Dining Room echoed the stately main room at Boodle’s… except for one thing– everything at this Château Stromberg was completely fake, from the flimsy and hollow Greek columns to the island in the trout pond to the pretentious menu descriptions.


Astor gave his Colonnade Room dinner entree– Stuffed Sole Mousseline– an “A” for presentation but a “D” for flavor. There was nothing wrong with it, per se, but… if you’re going to pay top dollar for quality fresh ingredients like fresh sole and crabmeat, shouldn’t it TASTE like what it is? Likewise the alleged “pâté de la maison,” which was most certainly mass-produced in a commercial food factory far away from this “maison.” Yes, they had gone to the effort of sourcing cornichons and Dijon mustard, but the item itself was just plain unworthy of such embellishments. His dessert– an individual Baked Alaska, dramatically flambéed tableside– was presented like all the previous courses as “a professional courtesy with the Chef’s compliments,” leaving Astor no choice but to smile and feign rapture as he overstuffed himself with all this culinary mediocrity. An after-dinner sunset stroll was definitely in order to settle his internals.


To reach the garden pathway, Astor had to pass through the Oak Room Bar, which had become packed with patrons as he dined– loud people in loud clothing, drowning out the expensive grand piano with their roars of laughter and braggadocio. It felt like a rugby scrum as he elbowed and wedged his way to the massive French doors, and he relished his first deep breath of outdoor air.


After a few hundred yards, the pea stone trail had given way to wood chips, replacing audible footfalls with cedar perfume. Astor paused to behold the last remnants of the springtime sunset over the lake and further contemplate his impressions. How to even describe such a gargantuan enterprise? Wealth without class? Power without grace? Astor pulled out his packet of Dunhills, and a female hand holding a lighter magically appeared in the settling darkness, accompanied by a sultry alto voice–


“How about… hubris without irony? Or maybe… self-appointed aristocracy without noblesse oblige?” Both the blueblood accent and the bare arm before him were decidedly feminine, but the lighter was a man’s Ronson, and a clunky Rolex Submariner dangled where one might rightly expect, say, Cartier.


“A mind reader as well as a cat burglar,” chuckled Astor. “Dangerous combination.”


“Sibley Stromberg,” she replied, stepping into the light and giving a firm handshake. She was tall and medium-boned… perfectly fit, maybe just a decade past her field hockey prime. Her chosen shade of blonde accentuated her early season tan. “The unmarriageable tomboy daughter of the megalomaniac responsible for this architectural atrocity. And you must be the bigshot chef from London.” She accepted Astor’s proffered cigarette.


“By way of Manhattan, but yes. Graeme Astor.”


This place isn’t for you,” she authoritatively declared, her judgment carried forth with a huge cloud of exhaled smoke. “Not if you have a soul. Let’s go for a quick ride, and I’ll show you where you really belong.” Astor, of course, knew she was right… at least about this place.


He followed Sibley’s GMC pickup south along the lakeside highway, barely able to keep up. Twenty miles later they approached a sign that read, "CAYUGA LOUNGE." From the bottom of the sign hung a hand-lettered plea-- “Help Wanted.” This can’t be it, thought Astor… this can’t possibly be the place she had in mind. There were only six cars and a pair of motorcycles in the lot… then again, it was a weeknight. Four scruffy boys played pool in the bar. Two parties were finishing their dinner, while a towheaded young lad wearing Brooks Brothers beneath his apron tended bar for a trio of adoring college girls. He looked up as Astor and Sibley walked in.


“Hayden!” she affectionately called out.


“Hey Sis!” he answered with a genuine smile.


That caught Astor off-guard. “Your brother?”


“Kind of… my father was married to his mother one summer, and he bought him this place to keep him busy while they were in Greece… and give him a chance to maybe learn some job skills.”


Astor paused for a moment to look around and assess the place, and it didn’t take long. “That sign out front should say ‘S.O.S.’ You’ve more or less tricked me into coming to this… this... Why? Do you honestly think I would work here? Or that this place could even afford me? You don’t need a chef– what this place needs is a fire!”


Eleven hours later, Astor groggily awoke to streams of harsh morning sunlight brightening a completely unfamiliar room as Sibley’s blond hair brushed his bare shoulder. Once his thick mental fog started to clear, he retraced his steps of the night before. Sidney had made an impassioned presentation– that what he, an experienced and capable chef, needed most of all was the right venue in which he could give complete and free reign to his talents. This place was a blank canvas, she insisted, just waiting to be painted by a master. He and he alone could dictate its direction and determine the result. He would answer to no one, and Hayden and Sibley would provide whatever financial backstop was necessary. Two rich but desperate trust fund babies... where else could he possibly find such an opportunity?


That was enough to keep Astor from immediately leaving. As the night progressed, the girls at the bar chimed in with their enthusiasm and charming but mostly unrealistic suggestions. A carload of college faculty stopped by… and, upon learning that Hayden’s bar was out of everything except triple sec and sweet vermouth until Friday, they were about to leave. But then Astor recalled the case of wine in his Rover, and soon it was iced and flowing freely. The Riesling was nothing short of nectar, declared the professors… indistinguishable from a great German Mosel. Was it really local? Hayden’s gaggle of groupies liked it because it was a little sweet. And Astor found the Chardonnay on par with a decent white burgundy from France... not quite premier cru Meursault, but definitely Pouilly-Fuisse. By the time the whole case was empty, Astor had come to see his future in perfect alignment with perfect clarity– how he would grow and nurture this place from a mere seed to a tender shoot and then to a thriving, fruiting tree. It would be difficult, it would take years, and there would definitely be growing pains… but it was doable, and would surely bring him great joy.


And then, apparently, he and Sibley strolled out the back door to what looked like a gardener’s shed but was actually her little cottage. Now she was starting to awaken, and Astor waited a few minutes before posing the questions he was dying to ask.


“Okay,” she finally said. “I’m awake.”


“Alright then. First of all, what was that rubbish about you being an ‘unmarriageable tomboy?’ I dare say we had ourselves a right proper romp.”


Sibley laughed aloud. “I’ve never heard it put quite like that! What I meant was that I could never be what my father thought I should be, or have the kind of wedding and marriage that he wanted for me. My mother was actually a distant royal– Her Ladyship the Arch-Duchess of East Beavercrap or some such nonsense. She couldn’t have cared any less, but my dad was all over it… even tried to get a title for himself. I don’t want any part of that world.”


“So… are you bringing me in to stick it to your dad?”


“A fair question, but no– he’s doing that all by himself. The thing is, I have no room in my world for all the phoniness and fakery. None! And I could tell right away that you and I thought alike.”


“Alright,” said Astor… “take the ‘help wanted’ sign down. I’ll make us breakfast, and then I’ve got a long day ahead of me.”


Astor’s first decision was to hire those pimple-faced teenaged boys who were playing pool in the bar– a local quartet of high school dropouts who called themselves the Glen-Guardians. By day they fancied themselves a biker gang, even though they only had two working motorcycles. By night they pretended to be a rock-and-roll band, playing high school parties and village green dances. Astor hired them as a crew because they already knew how to work together, and teaching them cooking skills would therefore be the easy part.


Astor decided to keep the old roadside sign and just give it a fresh paint job. No need to raise expectations right away with any suggestions of “new management.” They wouldn’t spend one shiny penny on advertising; rather, he would slowly, incrementally raise the quality of the food and the setting until it was common knowledge throughout the region– from the faculty lounges to the fishing docks– that the CAYUGA LOUNGE was a quality restaurant and a worthy destination for local and visitor alike.


Rather than rely solely upon the industrial restaurant suppliers, Astor reached out to all the small farms in the area for their finest dairy, meat, and produce. In exchange for regular meals and a place to call home, the Glen-Guardians eventually gelled into a perfectly good kitchen crew. Astor and his team started with just bar food to accompany the best wines they could find around the region; full dinners would come only when they were good and ready.


And as for Château Stromberg, Astor would simply ignore its existence, confident that the CAYUGA LOUNGE would never become significant enough to even appear on their radar.


* * * * * * *


That day that had so drastically changed the course of Chef Astor’s life was in May of 1960… eleven years ago. Funny-- sometimes it's like it was yesterday, while at other times it felt like half a lifetime ago.


Merely a year after Astor took over, there was a long waiting line for dinner most nights. As he had optimistically hoped, the CAYUGA LOUNGE became the worst-kept secret in the Finger Lakes– the smart place for all the professors to dine and, on weekends, a happening bar scene with live music and Hayden’s increasing flock of groupies in turn attracting throngs of young men. It was all progressing in perfect accord with Astor’s most optimistic plans… too perfectly, perhaps, for by 1968, New York City's most influential restaurant critics had begun to sniff around the area, and a few of those merciless sharks had taken to cruelly comparing and contrasting the CAYUGA LOUNGE with the far larger and much more ambitious culinary destination twenty miles to the north. The harshest piece, "A Tale of Two Eateries," appeared in the "Upstate" column of a Sunday magazine and included a cartoon of David and Goliath-- with David in chef's whites and Goliath in a clown outfit.


And "Baron Stromberg," as he had re-christened himself, was not amused.

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