From his 64th-floor office, Waldy Malouf is looking down on midtown New York when the unmistakable odor of fresh raw fish wafts through his open door. As the new head chef of the rainbow room, the city's most venerable restaurant high atop Rockefeller center, this is just what he expects to smell at this moment. "Shrimp, actually. To be served tonight with a tomato-horseradish sorbet."
A leading light among the young chefs who have put their mark on American cuisine by using fresh, in-season "native" American ingredients, Malouf has accepted the challenge laid down by the Rainbow Room's owners: to bring the restaurant's food up to the level of its world-class view, decor, and music. "They wanted their restaurant run by a culinarian first, someone unafraid to polish the old classics and to invent the new. I can do both."
Malouf's menu redesign best tells the story of how he plans to mesh the traditional with the seasonal. The first page presents his kitchen's permanent offerings, each listed with the date it first appeared on the menu. Diners can turn the calendar back to 1934, the year the restaurant opened, with "Lobster Thermidor Rainbow," or turn forward to 1996 for Malouf's own "Mint-Cured & Apple-Smoked Salmon Napoleon."
The menu's second page is dedicated to foods of the season at hand: Rabbit, venison, squash, and apples for the fall; trout, lamb, and asparagus for the spring. Summer will bring vegetables whose seeds Malouf has hand-selected and contracted out for growing. "Farmers upstate are used to seeing me rooting around in their gardens," he says. "Most don't mind a bit."
Malouf previously helped found the brash Hudson River Club restaurant, making his name as an advocate of the freshest regional ingredients and as author of the acclaimed Hudson River Valley Cookbook (Addison-Wesley, 1995). "The zeal for freshness must have come from my Lebanese heritage," he says. On a 1975 food tour of the Middle East, won as a prize in a cooking contest at the 21 Club, Malouf remembers "the cheese made overnight, milk milked that morning, greens picked from the kitchen garden, and lamb butchered before my eyes."
Malouf's grandfather Shibly came to the United States in 1910 and became a professor of theology at Harvard University. Raised by a lawyer father and a librarian mother, Waldy—"as the eldest son of an Arab family," he shrugs sheepishly—was expected to enter a traditional profession. "But I was a child of the '60's, and everything then seemed so political. Cooking for me was enjoyable, creative and, at the same time, disciplined."
It was also something that connected him to his memories of eating at his grandmother's table. "I still recall the food, the expectations of different tastes that were supposed to be there: The pungency of spices, the crispness of vegetables—only the things that it made sense to be eating at the time." Just as tabbuli combines greens, grains, and oil into the same dish, so too Malouf has learned to mix different food groups into one neat recipe to produce a virtually complete meal.
With 30 years of kitchen experience under his belt, Malouf has for some time been receiving the individual attention that his profession as a whole has only grudgingly earned in the postwar years. The great chef Paul Bocuse was already an old man when he made the cover of Time, but Malouf was barely in his 30's when he was featured by a major weekly. And that was even before he made it to the culinary aerie that is the Rainbow Room.
Writer and filmmaker Louis Werner lives in New York. His most recent film, A Sheep-herder's Homecoming, will have its New York premier at the 1997 Margaret Mead Film Festival.
New York-based free-lancer Peter Essick frequently photographs for National Geographic.