I met President Ford too. This was at the St. Regis Hotel some years after the Agnew banquet in Cleveland and it was quite by accident, but I’m here to report that if you remember him, he looked in person exactly like he did on TV.
The first Sheraton I worked in was in Cleveland, Sheraton On The Square. I was a broiler cook in the Falstaff room there, one of its restaurant outlets. In all, that was an easy gig. We were rarely busy, we ate well and the waitresses wore French maids outfits which left little to the imagination. On top of all that, I had a parking space on the loading dock close enough to the employee entrance that I didn’t need a winter coat no matter how cold the temperature outside. The waitresses, just as an aside, were positively gorgeous and nice to boot, and if they wanted a steak or some lobster tails, well… they knew to bend over just a little extra when they asked.
The Sheraton On The Square was equipped with a grand ballroom banquet hall and while I worked there we did a fund-raising dinner for Spiro Agnew. That’s when I learned about the Secret Service: they really do come in and check all employee records and they really make anyone who is in any way questionable take the day off when the function occurs. They do set up machine-gun tripods on low-roof entrances and they do post snipers on the high roofs. They also post agents throughout the hotel, especially at all entrances, and they keep agents in and around the kitchen. The agents in the kitchen watch everything, from making sure the cooks are wearing plastic gloves to making sure those cooks aren’t doing anything with the food they should be doing.
In some of my writing I talk about doing a banquet for 5000 people. You need a Rotary Oven, which is basically a whole room unto itself with multiple shelves that go round and round like a Ferris wheel. Each shelf holds four or more huge roasting pans, each pan holding at least three whole prime ribs. You need electric server carts capable of keeping many stacks of food warm for long periods of time and of course you need a kitchen big enough to set up multiple full-service stations, not only for cooking and whatever that might entail based upon the demands of the menu, but also for plating, which is dishing up food and stacking it in the electric warmer carts. A 5000 plate dinner, such as we did for Agnew, meant starting to dish up the plates of food from four separate service stations 45 minutes before the meal was actually served to the guests .
At the St. Regis Sheraton in New York, after my training year, I became a saucier, and by the end of my second year, through attrition, I became first cook. As first cook, I was responsible for calling orders and making sure all food that went out was correct and timely if no chef, sous chef, or floor chef were in the kitchen. And of course at the same time I was responsible for all the orders that came from my station. If this sounds easy, think again and add on that the St. Regis kitchen, when I worked there, simultaneously put out food for five different restaurant outlets and room service, each restaurant outlet serving different food items. Any items that overlapped were served with different garnishes for the different dining rooms. On top of all that, add on all banquets with less than 75 covers came from the kitchen too; only if you had more than 75 covers did the banquet crew do your meal. At times we were serving the five dining rooms, room service and multiple banquets all at the same time.
The St. Regis was Sheraton’s premier hotel. The chef I worked for there went on to open Windows On the World. Menus were in French, orders were called in Spanish and virtually no English was spoken. Two very famous dining rooms were there, The Maisonette and The King Cole Room. It was here, in this hotel, that President Ford, during his short time as our President, held an intimate fund raising dinner on the second floor of the hotel.
I was a floor chef by then. Basically the floor chef was like a factory foreman. He called the orders and made sure that everything that left the kitchen to be served was perfect. Since the President’s dinner was very private and very exclusive, everything was prepared in the second floor banquet kitchen under Secret Service scrutiny much tighter and much more scrutinizing than that for grand ballroom banquet I did in Cleveland.
During the course of the dinner service downstairs in the main kitchen, I got a call from the second floor regarding something that the banquet chef needed, so I had it sent up with one of the banquet runners. Then, when we had a lull in our orders, I went upstairs to make sure everything was set and ready. I used the service elevator which led me to the banquet kitchen without having to step out into the front side, the guest side, of the hotel. But I wanted to check the dining room too and to speak with the banquet captain who was handling the waiter service, and to do this I had to cross the hotel on the guest floor. I was on my way to the dining room when President Ford emerged from a hotel room and turned so he was moving toward me in the hall. The Secret Service agents stationed on either end of the hall and the two that emerged with the President moved immediately to prevent me from being able to have any physical contact, but the President waved them off seeing that I had extended my right arm to shake his hand. He did the same and we shook hands.
“Good evening Mr. President,” I said.
“Good evening chef,” he said.
I was so nervous and so shaky that I didn’t know what to do, but as we withdrew our hands I said “I hope you enjoy our food.” The President nodded and walked on his way. Me, I floated on my way, my head and my thoughts totally off this planet.
I’ve met two other politicians both while I was a teacher in the Bronx, New York, and I’ve met a few other famous people in my life. But only shaking hands with the President of the United States robbed me of my wits and at least momentarily made me feel as if I were floating outside of gravity.