We Chat With: Rozanne Gold, Grande Dame of the New York Food Scene
"Everyone says that nothing's new—everything is new. Every day is new. It's in the eyes of the beholder. And it makes me laugh, now, feeling more like the grande dame than the ingénue."
Rozanne Gold has penned fourteen cookbooks (most recently Radically Simple, just named by Cooking Light as one of the most important cookbooks in the last 25 years) and won four James Beard Awards. She was the first private chef to a mayor of New York, living in Gracie Mansion and cooking for Mayor Ed Koch. She was part of the Joe Baum / Michael Whiteman team that, amongst other things, revamped the Rainbow Room and Windows on the World in the late eighties. She's been a culinary trend-setter for decades, developing three-star restaurants and advancing the breadth and inventiveness of American cuisine. She's rubbed elbows with the food elite and those working in NYC's toughest kitchens. And now she spends her days continuing to turn out recipes in her Park Slope home, where she also pens a column in Cooking Light—not her first column in a national magazine, and certainly not her last.
Gold truly has a story to tell, and as we speak old New York sits between us. From her perspective, it's still a tasty city.
It's hard to know where to start since you've been in this business for so long... I started in the business when there was no "business." It was really during the first food revolution in the seventies. And now we're sort of in this second revolution, with not much in between.
So let's start with the first. You got a degree in psychology but ended up as the private chef to Mayor Ed Koch. How did that happen? I had been cooking since I was a little girl, but didn't realize you could go to culinary school, and there wasn't a road or someone to follow—even Julia [Child] didn't work in a restaurant. I went to Gourmet magazine to get a job as a secretary, and they didn't take me. So I got a job working at Gray Advertising as a secretary in the same building, and started my own catering business at the same time: "Catering Artistique."
What kind of food did you cook? It was very much my own. Always simple and elegant. I was really always a wheeler-dealer, so I did lots of things at one time. I was working at the ad agency, catering, working in restaurants for free, working for other caterers...it was all part of the "New York experience."
How did you become a caterer with your own style, without any schooling and minimal restaurant experience? Food was much simpler then—everything was new and exciting. One of my signature dishes was basmati rice with fresh ginger. No one was doing that in the mid-seventies!
You're known for being ahead of trends; how did you find those ingredients? It was a small group working with them, and Balducci's was sort of the center of that hub, so when something new came to town, you knew about it.
And then with a recommendation from Mayor Wagner you got a job as the private chef to Mayor Ed Koch. How did that work in the beginning? I didn't realize I had to live there, but there I was with two other women in the basement. I got paid $200 a week to be on call 24/7. It was the craziest, scariest, loneliest time in some ways.
Was there a moment of complete panic when you were worried you couldn't cut it? Almost daily. But here's an outstanding one: an assistant would tell me how many were coming to dinner, and one night they said he was coming home with eight. And at the last minute he walked in with fifteen. And I really, really panicked and wasn't sure what to do. We basically just had a home kitchen! At the end of the meal Ed called me out and said, "So, Rozanne, tell me, what kind of veal was that?" And I said, "Chicken!" I pounded those chicken paillards so thin they thought they were veal, and it made him look like a genius—the chef saving the city money! But I do remember that total panic.
Why'd you leave there after only a year? I got fired. It was on the front page of a couple of newspapers. I was getting too much publicity!
How so? I was there for a couple of months and everything was tightly controlled by the press office, so there was a lack of privacy. There was a woman from the New York Times at one of the events, and we ended up getting along, so she invited me to brunch. We were in the Village at some restaurant that's probably not there anymore and I said, "Dena, what are you doing?" and she said, "I'm taking notes." I said, "Well, why?" She said, "Someday maybe I'll write a story on it." Tell me about being naïve and innocent! I walk into my room in the basement and my phone's ringing: "What were you doing with a New York Times journalist!?" And they didn't believe me and I panicked and called Dena and said, "Please, don't do anything. I thought we were just having brunch, but they said to me if it ever happens again I'm going to get fired."
Wow. I tell you, it was trial by fire. But the story that came out was a beautiful, beautiful human-interest piece. There had never been a private chef for the mayor of New York before. There was nothing controversial in that piece whatsoever, but since then I was a little bit under their thumb, and at a certain point I was asked to leave. The food metaphors in the headlines were a riot: "Chef Gets Canned for Spilling the Beans", "Cookie Jar Secrets Revealed." It was quite a year. And Ed was lovely.
Another significantpart of your career was planning the menu at the re-vamped Rainbow Room and Windows on the World. I always wanted to work for Joe Baum—he was such a visionary with the "theme restaurant." Joe wanted the Rainbow Room back to its formal glory, with the revolving dance floor and Fred Astair dancing there with a 20-piece orchestra. So what did that food need to look, sound, and taste like? In that room, the food really needed to have an amazing grandeur. So we brought back the Baked Alaska. And Halibut baked in a gold balloon. There was a frozen hazelnut soufflé with a heart of chocolate that would be poured on top at the table...
And then what was the concept for Windows on the World? The restaurant itself was a little bit quirky but very global in its perspective—it was a little bit evocative, literary, and playful. Rather than use the word "fused," I used the word "borderless." It was like all the borders of the world opened. And everything just kind of started to coalesce.
Between that restaurant and the other menus you created in space there, you were tied for a long time to the World Trade Center. Aside from what we all universally felt on September 11th, what did that loss feel like? Michael and I still talk about this—we still feel like we're in shock about all of it. I remember being happy Joe had died before it happened. I felt like he wouldn't have been able to handle it at all. There's so much history that can never be repeated. But personally the story that I can't get out of my mind was how a young boy in the kitchen asked someone to switch with him that day because he needed to be with his family. And so someone switched with him. And that was the day. I can't imagine.
You've observed the New York City food scene for decades. What do you think about the state of food in New York City now? It's all so fascinating to see what people are doing. Everyone says that nothing's new—but everything is new. Every day is new! It's in the eyes of the beholder. And it makes me laugh, now, feeling more like the grande dame than the ingénue.
Why so? Because I think that it's almost like we're returning to the seventies, and the passion that we felt about food and nourishing ourselves. What's very exciting now is that it's very hard—since so much has already been done, said, spoken, tasted, eaten, experienced—to still keep things new and fresh is fantastic. The knowledge and the passion and bar are so high for excellence and information. And still there's an openness that's incredibly exciting.
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo is a writer and frantic private cook who think Rozanne Gold's biography would make a fascinating read. Alternatively baking at www.thedustybaker.com and tweeting away at @dustybakergal.