Northbound out of New Paltz on Route 32, if you can tear your gaze away from the shining Shawangunk cliffs, you might notice, just before reaching the Esopus town line, a little lane on the left named Old Tschirky Road. There’s also a sign at the intersection pointing the way to the Culinarians’ Home. Yes, this actually was for many years a retirement home for chefs, acquired in 1942 by a hospitality trade association called the Société Culinaire Philanthropique. It’s still an assisted living facility, but you no longer need to have made a career in the restaurant industry in order to move in there.
The home and hundreds of surrounding acres previously belonged to a colorful character better-known for his connection to Gilded Age Manhattan than to rural Ulster County. Oscar Tschirky (1866-1950) was a Swiss immigrant who moved to New York with his mother in 1883, at the age of 16. His older brother had arrived earlier and established himself as a hotel cook. Young Oscar quickly found work as a busboy at the Hoffman House, and the restaurant’s owner, oil baron Ned Stokes, soon set him to work cleaning up after gambling parties on his yacht, for extravagant tips. The young man’s attentive and helpful attitude, along with his fluency in French and German, propelled him a few years later to a position running the private dining rooms at Delmonico’s, at that time the best restaurant in New York City. He got to know all the wealthiest people in town and their aristocratic foreign guests.
Within a decade of Tschirky’s arrival, the tycoon William Waldorf Astor had razed his Fifth Avenue home and built a 450-room hotel on the spot, set to become the epicenter of the turn-of-the-century upper-class social scene: the legendary Waldorf-Astoria. Oscar Tschirky played his connections well, and was hired by hotelier George C. Boldt to help set up and run its restaurant. The famous hotel opened its doors on March 13, 1893, achieving nearly instant success, and the young maître d’ was soon nearly as much of a celebrity as his clients, known simply as Oscar of the Waldorf.
Tschirky worked at the hotel for half a century, migrating with it circa 1930 when the Waldorf-Astoria was relocated further uptown to make room for the Empire State Building on its original site. Millionaires such as J. Pierpont Morgan would insist that Oscar attend to their needs personally whenever they visited. Oscar waited on every US president from Grover Cleveland to FDR and was awarded medals by three foreign governments. He organized posh charity balls for thousands of attendees, planned nine-course dinner menus, ensured that every VIP guest immediately had whatever hard-to-find amenities they fancied, subtly filed the rough edges off nouveau riche Americans who hadn’t yet mastered elegant European manners and cuisine. He was also the restaurant’s social gatekeeper, and is credited with inventing the system of velvet ropes still used today for crowd control at elegant venues.
At no time was Oscar Tschirky employed as a chef, but his most lasting claim to fame is a simple recipe that he co-created with the hotel’s first executive chef, Edouard Beauchamp. They devised the dish for the hotel’s debut event on March 14, 1893, a charity ball in honor of St. Mary’s Hospital for Children. And it went on to become the establishment’s signature menu item: the Waldorf salad.
This perennial picnic staple, as described in Tschirky’s 1896 publication The Cook Book, by ‘Oscar’ of the Waldorf, originally consisted only of julienned apples, chopped celery, mayonnaise, salt and pepper, served over a bed of lettuce. Soon chopped walnuts became a popular addition, and contemporary spins on the Waldorf salad often incorporate such frills as halved grapes, raisins, bleu cheese, mandarin orange sections or even tiny marshmallows. Although an emulsified mixture of Dijon mustard, olive oil, champagne vinegar, egg yolk and white truffle oil has supplanted the pedestrian mayonnaise, Waldorf salad is still served at the Waldorf Astoria today (or will be again, once ongoing renovations are completed in 2020), along with three other dishes traditionally associated with Oscar: Thousand Island dressing, veal Oscar and eggs Benedict.
Oscar Tschirky, who had grown up on a farm in the La Chaux-de-Fonds district of Switzerland, in the Jura Mountains, had already done well enough working for the Hoffman House and Delmonico’s to purchase, in 1889, a large tract of rolling farmland bordering the Wallkill River, with a fine view of the Gunks. He was a rich man by 1910, with a house on Lexington Avenue in addition to his thousand-acre spread in New Paltz. He farmed the land actively, commuting to Manhattan by rail or Hudson River steamer, and enjoyed throwing fancy picnics for friends that featured produce grown on his own property. Yes, Oscar of the Waldorf was doing farm-to-table cuisine long before it got trendy.
After 50 years as maître d’hôtel to the rich and famous, Tschirky retired in 1943, having arranged for his upstate estate to be transferred to the Culinarians’ Home Foundation the previous year. He died in 1950, leaving a collection of more than 10,000 restaurant menus that he had amassed over his lifetime to be archived at Cornell University. So next time you find yourself making a salad incorporating some tasty Hudson Valley apples, make sure to toast the memory of a life well-lived.
Culinarians’ Home, 71 Old Tschirky Road, New Paltz; (845) 255-7010.