Le Pique-Nique Magnifique!
Once the retreat of famed restaurateur Oscar Tschirky — creator of eggs Benedict — and now a haven for the elderly, New Paltz’s Culinarians’ Home hosts an elegant French feast each September
By Leon Freilich
Here’s a reason to look forward to the end of summer: the “pique-nique” at the former Ulster County estate of Oscar of the Waldorf. A bevy of the country’s finest French chefs will arrive in New Paltz on a Saturday morning, roll up their sleeves, don their toques, and work together all day and through to the next morning to prepare a sumptuous spread.
The menu for the Sunday picnic, an annual event, was not firmed up at press time, but it is likely to include several pÃ¢tÃ©s, rillettes, and London broil with mushroom sauce along with some high-calorie French desserts. Last year, 870 people feasted on the lawn in front of the three-story mansion. And come September 11, even more are expected at the fund-raiser for what is now a retirement home.
Oscar Tschirky, the maÃ®tre d’ of the Waldorf-Astoria and a major celebrity of the early 20th century, weekended and vacationed here, along the Wallkill River, with his wife and two children. In 1941, he turned over the building and 40 acres of rolling hills to the SociÃ©tÃ© Culinaire Philanthropique, a group of New York City chefs founded in 1865 and still thriving with some 400 members. The society set up the facility, calling it both the Maison Familiale and the Culinarians’ Home, exclusively for members who’d grown old.
Roger Le Bosser, the president of the Culinarians’ Home Foundation, says the facility was needed because older chefs in the 1940s and ’50s were often needy. “The
Culinarians’ Home gave them a room with a view of the river, good food, and each other’s company,” he says. “They swapped stories about the kitchens they’d worked in. I knew two in the ’80s, and they were very comfortable and very happy to leave the cooking to someone else.
“Nowadays, all chefs do very well, believe me,” Le Bosser continues. “The situation has completely changed. When they retire, it’s to Florida or their own retirement home somewhere. So while members still have priority, the Culinarians’ is now open to the public.”
While not a single chef is living at the home today, the SociÃ©tÃ© continues to subsidize it and pay for alterations. Le Bosser, who was the executive chef at Manhattan’s Westbury Hotel before retiring, explains why: “Our middle name is Philanthropique.”
“We’re licensed and certified by the state Department of Health, and anyone wanting to get in just calls for a tour, fills out an application, and has a medical exam. I do the admitting myself,” says Terry Newman, the home’s administrator and case manager. “We want to be sure we can be an asset in their lives and they can be the same in ours.”
Residents can choose a private or semiprivate room, depending on what they’re prepared to pay.
A dashing-looking man with silver hair and a trimmed beard, Newman heads an enthusiastic staff of 14, half of them full-time. “Years ago, when I was working at a center for handicapped children, my wife was the activities director here,” he says. “I loved the personal aspect of it and sort of fell in love with the place.” His wife now stays home raising their two children.
A staffer leads sit-down exercises in a cheery room every morning. Some residents walk around either of two ponds, feeding the ducks and sunfish. Others tend the flower gardens and planters. Tuesdays, a van takes residents shopping at the Hudson Valley Mall in Kingston — a favorite activity. Trivia games help keep the retirees mentally alert. Bingo, not unexpectedly, is popular, as are birthday parties, Chinese checkers, and classical concerts.
“We’ve had musicians coming in for three years,” says Newman. “A local husband-and-wife team, Leonid Polishchuk and Sofya Maryanova, who teach piano and violin, bring in students every month. Everyone’s enchanted by the music. It’s a win-win situation. Our residents get fine entertainment and it gives the students motivation to practice their new pieces.”
First-time visitors who see the Culinarians’ Home, located among beautifully landscaped grounds on Old Tschirky Road, are invariably struck by the dining room’s stained-glass windows and dark mahogany wainscotting. And they’re sure to boggle at the row of glass cases opposite the admitting office; these are filled with trophies, awards, certificates, and photos — a glittering memorial to Oscar, the social arbiter who created Thousand Island dressing, eggs Benedict, and the Waldorf salad (though the latter is disputed).
Born in Switzerland in 1866, Tschirky left at age 18 to make his fortune in New York. He started beneath the lowest rung of the culinary ladder — as a busboy. He graduated to trendy Delmonico’s, conquering its catering department. His heart leapt when he spotted Lillian Russell, the Madonna of her day, dining at a Delmonico’s table; he’d long had a painful, if distant, crush on the wasp-waisted singer. When he saw how she ate — shovel-style — he was instantly cured.
Next stop, the Waldorf, where Oscar rocketed to the top and stayed for 53 years, until his death in 1950. Newspapers rhapsodized over him, with one (possibly inspired by a publicist) describing him as “an artist who composed sonatas in soups, symphonies in salads, minuets in sauces, and lyrics in entrÃ©es.” Luminaries like Theodore Roosevelt, J. Pierpont Morgan, and Andrew Carnegie sought his culinary counsel. World-famous, he had realized his dream of becoming the toast of New York.
But it was a noisy, crowded dream. So in 1890 Tschirky bought a New Paltz farm to recover the serenity of his early Swiss days. Over the years, he laid out roads, planted trees, channeled water from the Wallkill River to form the ponds, and built the rambling mansion.
“It was a working farm,” says Le Bosser. “Oscar had half a dozen horses and raised chickens and pigeons.” Adds Newman, “Those were baby pigeons. He served them as a delicacy at the Waldorf.”
At the September 11 event, the home’s residents will sit at a table of honor beneath a giant white tent. Rain or shine, the Gallic bash is sure to be a feast to make Oscar proud.
Tickets for the picnic are $37 and can be purchased by calling