It's a world-class institution that hosts royalty, high-finance movers and shakers and entertainment's elite. And John Doherty's challenge is to ensure each Waldorf-Astoria guest enjoys an unsurpassed dining experience.
Doherty is executive chef of the renowned New York City icon on Park Ave. He oversees 160 employees in the hotel's food-service branch, including those at the famed Bull and Bear steakhouse.
He's far from a Texas ranch or Nebraska feedyard, but he's precise in what he wants in the product they produce — Prime!
“There's an increasing demand for high-quality beef products,” Doherty says. “Ranchers and others in the industry need to understand that, and hopefully produce more of these types of products.”
A native of Long Island, NY, Doherty got his start as a dishwasher at a local restaurant, quickly working his way up to helping with food preparation. He attended cooking school — the Culinary Institute of America, learned from the best and set his sights on working at the Waldorf.
“After all, it was the epitome of luxury and excellence,” Doherty says.
He served in various chef positions before being named executive chef in 1985 at only 27. He and his staff serve 3,000 to 5,000 meals/day.
And whether a guest is staying in the Duke of Windsor suite, or having lunch at Peacock Alley (which Frank Sinatra often frequented) or dinner at the Bull and Bear, quality is expected — and served.
“Our clientele has been built on an exceptional dining experience,” Doherty says. “In order for the chef to prepare great food, he or she has to have a great product.”
Early on, that product was Certified Angus Beef® (CAB®) Choice, introduced to Doherty by the Waldorf's beef vender, Debragga & Spitler, a major New York distributor.
“That was 25 years ago,” he remembers. “I was under pressure to serve Prime cuts, like other high-end steakhouses in New York. But I liked the flavor of the beef and so did our customers. It was chosen over USDA Prime in blind taste tests just about every time.”
It was the featured brand at the Bull and Bear for 20 years while every other high-end steakhouse served USDA Prime. Business boomed. He switched to Prime only after CAB established a Prime brand extension in 2002. Other high-grade beef is on the Waldorf menu, including Waygu. There's even an Angus burger, Prime, of course. In Big Apple standards, the $25 price tag is a bargain.
Asked if customers order more chicken, pork or beef, Doherty quickly smiles, shakes his head and says, “Oh, beef.”
Dry vs. wet aging
Dry aging helps keep customers coming back for the Waldorf New York Strip and other cuts. “Whether beef is wet or dry aged can influence the tenderness and flavor of a well-marbled carcass,” Doherty says.
“In wet aging (or aging in a bag), water remains in the beef. But with well-marbled beef, dry aging evaporates the water, creating a concentration of flavor. The marbling retains moisture and enhances the flavor.”
He prefers beef dry-aged 21 to 28 days. “The vendor ages the beef, tags it with a date and where the beef is from,” he says. “Our butchers break down the beef into various steaks and other cuts.”
Meanwhile, wet aging beef in vacuum-sealed plastic bags allows enzymes to break down the proteins from the inside out, and tender, juicy meat results. But Doherty prefers the dry-aging process because it provides a product his customers crave during their Waldorf visits.
“Every night in the dining room, people are amazed at the beef we serve,” he says. “They ask what kind it is and why it tastes so good. They ask me what we put on the beef to make it so good. I say ‘salt and pepper.’”
Prime is rare
But Doherty sees a looming problem — Prime beef is hard to come by. In fact, Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State University livestock marketing specialist, points out that in 2007, 82% of all beef production was graded and only 2.6% was Prime. “That's down a bit from a few years ago when 3-4% was Prime,” he says. (CAB brand Prime is even more rare with less than 1% of carcasses qualifying.)
While numbers are few, the value of the Prime is huge for producers and feeders, especially in today's tight markets. For example, in mid-August, USDA's beef carcass price equivalent index value showed a typical Prime carcass valued at $10/cwt. over high Choice. A 600- to 900-lb. Prime carcass priced at $164.01/cwt., compared with $154.45 for high Choice — a $60-$90/carcass premium for Prime.
Peel says that, in the past, very few programs actually targeted Prime. But the beef industry is increasingly targeting specific products like Prime earlier in the production process.
“That's where a value-added approach in general is trying to correctly identify how much Prime beef there is a market for, and can we target segments of the industry to reach that,” he says.
Peel says steakhouses in general try to offer not just a Prime product but other beef products, as well. “There's no doubt some will say they're not getting what they need (in Prime beef supplies), but it's not just that. There are issues on product size and trade offs between bigger animals and cuts of meat for what the market really wants,” he says.
While some restaurants may want some Prime cuts, they may not require other cuts that also have premium quality. “You get a full set of products from the Prime carcass, and there's not necessarily a market value for a Prime chuck,” Peel says. “That can limit or take back some of the value of a Prime ribeye. The marketplace has to balance all of those things out.”
Doherty says that once patrons of high-end restaurants realize the flavor of the highest quality of beef, they will expect it over and over. “So again, the demand for high-quality beef will continue to grow,” he says.
“There are growing numbers of steakhouses throughout the country. People want a good steak and they're willing to pay for it.”
Larry Stalcup is a freelance writer based in Amarillo, TX.