The Man Who Chased Rainbows
America's greatest restaurateur. Also, a forgotten way with lobsters. And some extremely lovely lemons
Last week I tried describing the great American restaurateur Joe Baum to a friend who had never heard of him. Attempting to explain why the man was so important I suddenly remembered the thrill of interviewing him in the late eighties, when he was bringing The Rainbow Room back to life.
Joe Baum reinvented American restaurants. He was a showman, perhaps the first American to understand that when people go out to eat they’re after more than merely food. They want an experience, they want excitement, they want fun. And of course, they want delicious new dishes.
Joe Baum gave them all of that - and more. He spared no expense. His most famous endeavors were The Four Seasons - opened in 1959 when few people gave much thought to seasonality in menus - and Windows on the World. Personally, I was incredibly fond of Zum Zum, a sausage shop that proved inexpensive food could be delicious and eating at a counter could be chic. (Hot dogs seem to be having their moment just now; Zum Zum served a really great one. Loaded with sauerkraut and piled onto an awesome bun it cost 35 cents.)
What do I remember about this assignment? Meeting Joe, of course, which was a tempestuous experience, and speaking with Milton Glaser, the most celebrated graphic designer of the era. Not to mention the incredibly courtly architect Hugh Hardy whose enthusiasm for the project knew no bounds.
Should you now be intrigued by the idea of Lobster Thermidor, one of the dishes resurrected at the Rainbow Room, here’s the recipe Gourmet published in one of the magazine’s first issues. We retested it - to our great delight - for Gourmet’s 65th anniversary issue and found it absolutely delicious. Lobsters are coming down in price right now, so there will never be a better time to try it.
Louis P. DeGouy (have fun with that name!) was Gourmet’s first resident chef. He was also the chef at the Waldorf-Astoria and the author of an astonishing number of cookbooks. That man kept busy! His best-known cookbook is The Gold Cookbook, which happens to be one of the only cookbooks my mother owned (it was published by Jae Greenberg, a close friend).
I love lemons so much that I included an entire chapter of lemon recipes in my first cookbook. But Italian lemons are in a class of their own. I was thrilled when I discovered these candied lemon peels at Gustiamo. They’re great in lemon tarts and superb with ice cream. They make wonderful jam. But one of the things I like best is that they pack more lemon tang than sweetness, and next time I make that Lobster Thermidor I’m tossing a bit of this lemon peel into the custard. It will, I think, add just the right touch.