Before Rozanne Gold wrote 12 cookbooks, won four James Beard Awards, created the menus for three of New York’s three-star restaurants, inspired the New York Times’ “Minimalist” column and invented the concept of Hudson Valley Cuisine, she was the private chef to Mayor Ed Koch.
Gold, who was only 23 when she moved into Gracie Mansion in 1978, spent a year squeezing fresh grapefruit juice for the mayor’s breakfast and creating the sort of simple yet sophisticated dishes that would become a hallmark of her work. It was also here that Gold prepared her first Seder, even using the mayor’s personal tips for matzo balls.
The Gracie Mansion Conservancy recently announced that the residence’s kitchen would undergo a $1.4 million renovation, its first since 1985. Gold spoke with us about her time there, reminiscing about everything from the fern wallpaper to former New York City Mayor Abe Beame’s abandoned flanken.
Rebecca Flint Marx: What was the kitchen like at the time?
Rozanne Gold: Back then it was a home kitchen, with white and green fern wallpaper, a little island in the center, and a breakfast nook. It was just like a kitchen you would see in some big house; I think there was a dishwasher, I think there was an air conditioner. It was as low-key and low-tech and bright and airy as one could imagine. Next to it was a secondary kitchen that was used more for parties. When Menachem Begin came to visit [in 1978], that kitchen had to be koshered: we had a whole squad come in and do that. I remember two guys and a blowtorch cleaning out the ovens.
When I first got there I opened up the basement freezer and there is a package in white butcher paper that says “flanken.” It was left over from the Beame administration, can you believe it?
What did you love or not love about the kitchen?
I loved the hominess, I loved that wallpaper. And there was a lot of sun and light. At that point I hadn’t worked in that many professional kitchens so it felt pretty amazing for me — I grew up in an apartment with my parents in Queens, so for me it was a very nice-sized kitchen. After parties, most people would end up in there — mayors, dignities, presidents.
Did you get any input on the food you served?
I totally created all the menus I did. [Koch] was constantly dieting, and he loved Chinese food. Everyone knew that, and that was the one cuisine I really did not cook. I traveled a lot in France and Italy, and would make fresh pasta. I’d put a broomstick on the back of two chairs and hang the pasta to dry. Ed loved that.
One of my signature dishes was a very intense chicken soup with homemade agnolotti filled with ricotta and basil and maybe a little mint — unusual things that people weren’t cooking back then. It was also a time when tilefish was popular — it’s hardly seen anymore but it’s very beautiful. I used to buy a whole fish and fill it with very thin slices of onions, tomato, and basil, and layer it in extra virgin olive oil in sea salt. In the late ‘70s, it was very unusual food — very simple and sophisticated. Ed was also crazy about tapenade.
It sounds like he had sophisticated tastes.
He was very open. He loved food and anything with garlic. Very early on he told me he was coming home with six people for dinner but walked in with 14. The kitchen was run like a home kitchen, not a professional kitchen, and I panicked. I can’t remember how I pulled this off, but at the [end of the meal] he called me into the dining room. That hadn’t happened yet. And everyone applauded and he said, “what kind of veal was that?” And I said, “chicken!” The mayor looked like a genius.
What was the job interview process like?
It was fascinating. I had to pass the interview with Marcy Blum, who’s the most important wedding planner in the world now. It was really intense because she was my age and had graduated from CIA. She was one of the first to do that — there were hardly any women back then. So I was in Marcy’s graces, and we’re still friends to this day. But they were really desperate — they’d [first] hired some fancy French chef who had bought something like $400 worth of silver and forgot to reduce the wine in the boeuf bourginon or something, and it was terrible.
Did you have any favorite guests?
Mrs. Begin. Hanging out with the prime minister was a little intimidating [but] they really influenced my life that one weekend profoundly. I had to entertain 900 people that weekend, and it was exhausting. Mrs. Begin told me to sleep in the next morning and she would make breakfast. She insisted, and made breakfast for us in that little nook.
What did she make?
An Israeli breakfast with scrambled eggs, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, and feta.