“When I tell people I live at the Culinarians’ Home, they always ask me if I’m a chef,” says Alice Richard. The question, as it turns out, is not completely unrelated to the truth. The place that Alice lives in — the Culinarians’ Home on Old Tschirky Road in New Paltz — was once a retirement home for chefs before it became what it is today: an assisted living facility for seniors. But the common misperception in the question posed does reveal a certain under-the-radar status for the place; despite the fact the Culinarians’ Home has been in business for more than seven decades, hardly anyone in town seems to have heard of it.
Nor have they heard the story of the original owner of the Victorian home that houses the residents there, a story that blends a bit of local history with New York City history. Oscar Tschirky, famed maître d’hôtel of Delmonico’s restaurant and later the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, bought hundreds of acres of farmland in New Paltz in 1889 and built the home there along the Wallkill River. And it’s not an exaggeration to refer to him as “famed.” In Tschirky’s years at the Waldorf (1893 to 1943), he was like a ringleader for the New York social scene, considered an arbiter of culinary taste and fine dining matters. The Herald referred to him as “friend of gourmets and epicures, a confidant of swelldom.” His regulars referred to him as just “Oscar,” or “Oscar of the Waldorf,” which started when nobody could pronounce his last name. Tschirky’s fame spread when the newspapers published his philosophic pronouncements on cuisine and standards of service. He became even more widely known when he published a cookbook, which is still available today. Tschirky was not a chef, but he is credited with inventing several recipes that have stood the test of time: 1000 Island salad dressing, Veal Oscar and Waldorf Salad. There is also some argument that Tschirky was the creator of Eggs Benedict.
And he apparently did it all from a home base of New Paltz. But was the home here a second residence for Tschirky, a retreat from city life, or did he live here full-time and commute to the city? Opinions differ depending on whom one asks. Most of the information in print about him has to do with his association with the Waldorf, and details about his life in the country are sketchy. But if Tschirky commuted to New York City from New Paltz, it would have likely been by train, or by trolley to the Hudson, where he could catch a steamer heading south.
Shortly before his retirement from the Waldorf, Tschirky sold his land and the house to chef Otto Gentsch, a native of Switzerland, like himself. At that time, Gentsch was the president of a group called The Société Culinaire Philanthropique. The group of French-speaking chefs formed the organization in 1865 to promote French cuisine and for purposes of philanthropy, to award scholarships to those pursuing careers in the culinary profession and to offer pensions to their retired members. After buying Tschirky’s land, Gentsch and the Société founded The Culinarians’ Home in Tschirky’s former residence in 1942, establishing a retirement home for chefs.
Oscar Tschirky died in New Paltz on November 6, 1950.
Beginning in the late 1980s, the Société Culinaire Philanthropique (SCP) opened the doors of the Culinarians’ Home to the general public — that is, senior citizens not in the culinary or hospitality professions — and today Tschirky’s home (with two additions added onto it) houses a maximum of 13 residents who make their home there on 40 bucolic acres of Tschirky’s original farm.
The Culinarians’ Home, 21st century
Terry Newman has been administrator of The Culinarians’ Home for 23 years. Assistant administrator Kathleen Simpson has been on the job for 26 years, so they’re well versed in the past and recent history of The Culinarians’ Home. It can accommodate as many as 15 residents, they explain, but 13 is their “working number,” as it allows each resident to have a private bathroom. All of the current residents live on the main floor of the Victorian-with-additions at this time, with room for four more available on the second floor of the main house. Those rooms, although sunny and inviting, are empty at this time awaiting residents able to climb stairs to get to them.
The Culinarians’ Home, licensed by the state Department of Health, is not a nursing home, says Newman. There are 14 staff members employed, including part-time workers, and assistance getting to doctor visits and such can be arranged. There are also regularly scheduled shopping excursions. But while 24/7 supervision is provided at the home, residents need to be ambulatory, able to take care of their own hygiene, physically and mentally well and able to get along with each other. A potential resident begins with a written application and physician’s confirmation of their health, followed by a personal interview with administrator Newman to determine whether the Culinarians’ Home and the resident are a good fit for each other.
Rooms range from $1,800 to $2,200 per month, which includes three meals a day cooked on the premises and additional snacks and tea. The food lives up to the home’s culinary heritage, according to Alice Richard, who moved into the Culinarians’ last fall. “The meals taste home-cooked,” she says, “not institutional.” Richard also credits the staff with treating the residents so well they feel like family. “They’ll do anything for you,” she adds. “A wonderful group of people. I love every one of them.”
Richard’s own family lives nearby in New Paltz. The Nyack native raised four children there and then moved to the Adirondacks with her husband, where she enjoyed selling real estate for 25 years. After a hip surgery in Florida retirement slowed her down — just a bit; Alice still drives her PT Cruiser — she came to New Paltz to live near one of her daughters.
Alice is one of eight women who, along with the sole male resident, Ike, make their home at the Culinarians’. The oldest resident is Nettie, who will be 100 in August. Alice will turn 90 in May, but you’d never know it.
A tour of the interior of The Culinarians’ Home feels more like visiting a venerable resort than an assisted living facility. While the ground floor resident rooms are in parts of the structure that were additions, the common spaces are all in the original (renovated) Victorian home. There is an elegant walnut-paneled dining room with leaded stained glass windows and a spacious sunlit sitting room. Another cozy sitting area decorated with coats of arms has a vaguely “Scottish castle” feel.
The house is situated back from the road, tucked away amidst a lovely landscape with the mountains in the backdrop. There are paved walking paths around the house and paths around the Wallkill River that winds through the property. The grounds are covered in snow at this time of year, of course, and the river is frozen, but a gazebo and a covered picnic area on the grounds bear evidence that there is outdoor space to sit once spring is here. Large mature evergreens and hardwood trees fill the property.
The Culinarians’ Home is still sponsored by the Société Culinaire Philanthropique (SCP) — in its 150th year, with more than 400 members — under the auspices of the Culinarians’ Home Foundation, Inc. The foundation also owns the several hundred additional acres of land once owned by Tschirky surrounding the home along with additional properties located on the land.
The members of the foundation’s board of directors are all chefs, members of the SCP and active in maintaining the property, visiting what they call the “Maison Familiale” on a regular basis to monitor its operations and standards. They also hold their annual fundraising banquet on the site every September. The rooms on the third floor of the Victorian house are reserved for their stays while they’re here, and administrator Newman notes that the group is very hands-on at the property, even doing landscaping projects themselves when they’re in town.
The Culinarians’ Home is located at 71 Old Tschirky Road in New Paltz. More information is available at (845) 255-7010.