How Did Haute Cuisine Come to America?
Pièces montées for a banquet being prepared in the Delmonico's kitchen in 1902. Source: (en.wikipedia.org)
To Europeans in the early 19th century, American cuisine was crude. Americans ate too fast. They slurped and scarfed down the main meal of the day in twenty minutes. There was neither the conversation nor the refinement that well-heeled travelers expected. Instead, there were crude oyster cellars and coffee houses. There were no proper restaurants. America was a gastronomic desert.
This changed when Delmonico’s was founded in New York City in 1827.
Delmonico’s was originally a pastry shop and café started by Pietro and Giovanni Del-Monico (later just Delmonico) hailed from the canton of Ticino in the Italian Alps. Giovanni had come to America and had set up a small enterprise importing and rebottling wine before convincing Pietro to join him. The brothers Americanized their names to Peter and John and set up their venture, Restaurant Français des Frères Delmonico, at 23 William Street near Wall Street. The name became shortened to Delmonico’s.
Both brothers were adept despite only Peter having some experience as a pastry cook.
Delmonico’s stood out for its high-quality food that embraced traditional haute cuisine. More remarkable was the level of service, which was beyond anything available then in the United States. By 1831 the brothers expanded into 25 William Street and were only set back in 1835 when a massive fire which burned much of lower Manhattan destroyed their original location. But the brothers recovered and moved to 2 William Street at the intersection of Beaver Street.
The business throve. Well over a century before using local ingredients became trendy, the brothers bought a farm in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to supply fresh ingredients. The William Street location became the “Citadel” of the nascent epicurean empire.
To bolster their business, the brothers brought in relatives from Ticino. Of these, the most well-known was their nephew Lorenzo who would turn out to be the mastermind of the empire. By the time John died in 1842 and Peter retired shortly thereafter, Lorenzo had essentially taken over the business. Unlike his uncles, Lorenzo did not Americanize his name, and although he had three younger brothers helping him, he was clearly in charge.
Lorenzo successfully branded Delmonico’s as a place for the affluent to gather. To do this, he used a strong but firm manner which enforced unwritten rules such as paying your bill on time – the regular patrons never were given a check but rather given credit – and to not get too drunk or rowdy. When customers broke these rules, the next time they came back, they would be seated, their order taken, but not served despite the staff’s apologies and promises to look into the matter. Eventually, it was clear that the miscreants wouldn’t be given anything until they made good.
Reportedly, the harshest penalty was inflicted upon a sea captain, Ben Wenberg. The story goes that Wenberg had shown Lorenzo how to make a tableside dish that was named Lobster à la Wenberg. Apparently, Wenberg had gotten into a brawl in the restaurant, so as punishment the dish’s name was changed to Lobster à la Newberg. As a footnote, Historian Paul Freedman in his research of Delmonico’s could not confirm the Wenberg story with lobster but did confirm a name change of Terrapin à la Wenberg to Terrapin à la Newberg.
By 1884 there were four Delmonico restaurants in the city, each catering to upscale patrons. Delmonico’s was by no means a chain since each restaurant was unique unto itself with different menus and staff. The clientele at each of these locations ranged from the superrich to the famous, but also catered to the middle class who for a lark would spend some of their savings for a luxuriant night out. The list of notable patrons is seemingly infinite. Charles Dickens, Abraham Lincoln, and Mark Twain all ate at Delmonico’s.
The restaurant became widely imitated although it managed to retain its preeminence as the nation’s greatest haute cuisine destination at least until the early 20th century. Delmonico’s was the benchmark for fine dining in America. It drew to it not only New York’s elite, but celebrities from around the world. Their standard was born most by their 14th Street flagship location. This site became a magnet for the rich and famous, especially when the restaurant hired Frenchman Charles Ranhofer, considered by many to be the greatest chef of his generation in America. He headed the Delmonico’s kitchen for over thirty years.
The secrets to Delmonico’s success was the willingness of the family to invest their profits back into their enterprise, the great care they took in the selection of ingredients, their commitment to a high quality of preparation and cooking, and their willingness to pay top dollar for the best chefs. Lorenzo Delmonico particularly was an innovator. When he opened a second Delmonico’s in 1846 as part of a hotel venture, his restaurant was the first to charge for meals separate from the rooms. He also introduced the bar – which turned out to be quite profitable.
The oldest verified surviving menu of Delmonico’s is from 1838 and shows a varied ensemble of Haute French cuisine that would entice gastronomes of today such as veau à l'impériale (Veal dressed imperial fashion). The restaurant became particularly well-known for its American specialties such as canvasback duck and diamond terrapin. The ducks, which tended to originate from the Chesapeake Bay region, were celery fed then broiled or roasted before being served with a simple celery sauce or hominy. Oysters, which in the 19th century New York was as ubiquitous as hot dogs, were a Delmonico’s specialty. The mollusks which were harvested from New York waters were served raw, baked, broiled, or cut up and pounded into patties. However, overharvesting and pollution eventually drove these delicacies off the menu (and generally off American palettes). The terrapin (also from the Chesapeake) was difficult to cook and entailed killing the animal with scalding water before opening the shell and dissecting the edible meats inside. In 1850 came the famous Delmonico’s steak which was widely imitated. The potatoes served with the steak were a favorite of Abraham Lincoln. It is also possible that eggs benedict, baked Alaska, and Manhattan clam chowder originated at the restaurant
Delmonico’s was also known for over the top, gluttonous service that reflected the excesses of the Gilded Age. For example, at the opening night of the 14th Street Delmonico’s patrons were served eight courses which included canvasback ducks and French classics such as Timbales à la Monglas. The extravagance continued with private banquets – one in November 1863 for a Russian delegation was treated to 31 dishes in the first four courses. In 1865 a British railroad magnate paid $50,000 (around $700,000 today) to serve 250 businessmen a nine-course meal. It was not unheard of for diners to plow through a 14-course meal in two and a half hours. This was speeded up from European dining times because of the American penchant to not waste time, apparently.
But Delmonico’s star, however savory, needed to set. First, there was competition with other restaurants who horned in on their clientele and offered shows and dance besides cuisine. Second, there was the national Prohibition on alcohol in 1919. Delmonico’s lapsed in unprofitability. In 1923, its last location on Fifth Avenue at 44th Street closed. By that time Delmonico’s had been at 10 different locations with up to four restaurants operating simultaneously.
Since 1923, there have been several attempts to revive Delmonico’s (albeit without any connection to the original Delmonico family). Today, at the site of the “Citadel” is a new Delmonico’s which has been in operation since 1998.
For more information about this fascinating restaurant and its influence on America, I recommend reading Paul Freedman’s Ten Restaurants That Changed America. Believe me, you’ll want to start your mise en place and get cooking by the time you’re done.