Part of the ‘Wall of Wine’ at Asiate
Executive Chef Toni Robertson
'Chefs,' says Mandarin Oriental, New York’s executive chef Toni Robertson, smiling her characteristic smile and flicking away a fringe of her shiny black hair as it momentarily crosses her forehead without permission, ‘are adrenalin junkies.’ We are sitting and talking, mid-morning, in the 35th-floor Lobby Lounge at Mandarin Oriental, New York – calm and becalming at this time of day. Chef Toni is in her pristine chef’s uniform and looking slightly stranded, as chefs tend to do when they are away from their kitchens, like airline pilots outside the cockpit or nurses off the ward. Anyone looking less like an adrenalin junkie this morning, it would be hard to imagine. Chef Toni is small and self-contained, with a smile so sweet, so genuine, it could melt a heart of stone, and eyes that seem to dance with enthusiasm, no matter what she is talking about. She appears demure, certainly, but that’s not to say she isn’t spirited. She would be, you instinctively feel, a nice chef to work under.
Dessert of chocolate crémeux with lemon gelato
The 35th-floor views over Central Park
Born in Mandalay, Burma, with two physicians for parents, she joined the US Air Force as a medic to see the world. ‘Well, I’d seen the commercials to join up!’ she says, as I start to understand that, yes, Toni Robertson is probably an adrenalin junkie after all. But the Air Force was merely a stopgap. ‘You see, from my earliest childhood, I knew that all I wanted to do was to become a chef.’ Stationed in Germany for four years, she ate her way through Europe, before returning to America and training at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, graduating first in her class. Positions in some of the world’s top hotel kitchens followed, before she joined Mandarin Oriental.
In 2005, she accepted her current post as executive chef at Mandarin Oriental, New York, where she oversees in-room dining, banqueting, the Lobby Lounge and, of course, the hotel’s signature restaurant, Asiate. If the role of executive chef is sometimes a slightly rarefied one, that’s not how it plays out with Chef Toni. ‘I’m a totally hands-on chef,’ she says. ‘Tonight, for instance, I’m doing a small pre-Ramadan dinner for 20. Fun!’ And she flashes me that sweet, if rather disarming, smile again, closing her eyes for an instant as she does so.
The restaurant interior with its tree-branch ceiling sculpture
Branzino with heirloom tomato and daikon
The previous day I had lunch at Asiate (pronounced AH-zee-art), where I have been lucky enough to eat half a dozen or so times since the hotel (and restaurant) opened 10 years ago. As you approach the restaurant entrance, discreetly nestled in the north-east corner of the hotel lobby, the first thing you see is not the restaurant at all, but three oversized vases of hybrid birds of paradise – unspeakably exotic even for a hotel group that has never been a slouch in the ‘dramatic flower displays’ department. ‘Wow,’ I say to the flowers, although I don’t usually talk to plants. Extraordinarily, they answer back – ‘Good to see you again.’ Am I lightheaded from the altitude? No, I really did hear a voice, only it wasn’t the flowers, of course; it was the hostess behind them, welcoming me back and telling me I’d been away too long. It’s this kind of extraordinary welcome, this attention to detail, that keeps people coming back. Around 65 per cent of Asiate’s guests are repeat customers and the staff, invariably, know them all by name.
Inside the restaurant, on the left, is the very beautiful wall of wine, incorporated in designer Tony Chi’s concept at a time when walls of wine were still something of a novelty. But it’s no less stunning for that. On a practical level, it’s the ‘shop window’ of a remarkable cellar, overseen by wine director Annie Turso, who has been at Asiate from the beginning. Annie starts us off at lunch with some local bubbly, Sparkling Pointe Brut Seduction 2003, from Long Island’s North Fork – which, take it from me, is a very good way to start lunch, or anything else for that matter. Not that Annie, or Asiate, is ever predictable. A non-drinker among us has the Emperor’s Punch: blood orange purée with lychee and orange juice – bloody brilliant. Another, who has sworn off champagne, has a Gin and ‘Tonic’, which is to say Bulldog gin and Fever-Tree soda (surely, the soda du moment) with a dash of Contratto Bianco vermouth, a wicked twist on the classic G&T. The thing about Asiate is that it’s cutting edge, but it’s also, oddly, traditional. Or do I mean the other way around?
Asiate is cutting edge, but it’s also, oddly, traditional
Chef Angie plating a dish
I love this room, with its stunning views of Central Park, the East Side and the Midtown Manhattan skylines – this, in a city that is not short of good views. I love its hardwood floors, its soft fabric chairs that seem to envelop you, its glittering ‘tree branch’ sculpture for a light, emulating, so they say (and who am I to argue?), Central Park in winter, and its mirrors that have the clever effect of making the room seem at the same time larger yet more intimate. Through the five-metre-tall floor-to-ceiling windows, the traffic on Columbus Circle, 35 floors below us, is mesmerising. You could watch it all day if, well… if you weren’t so busy watching your plate. Or the people. Because the people are quite something, too: New York ladies who lunch, some serious chaps from the French wine trade, a Midwestern couple with an awkward son (why didn’t they tell him not to wear a T-shirt?), and a rather smart Korean gentleman, all on his ownsome but happy as a sandboy. It’s quite an eclectic group. Actually, on the subject of dress, Chef Toni is pretty cool. She thinks of the restaurant as her house and doesn’t want people to feel they have to be too formal, but on the other hand she would probably draw the line, she says, at flip-flops and shorts.
A waiter so deft, so inherently gracious, you are barely aware of dishes being placed in front of you, or, indeed, removed, asks my preference for water. I tell him New York water will do fine. ‘Ah, Château Bloomberg,’ he murmurs, before pouring from a stainless steel pitcher that is deliciously beaded with condensation. He points to the CNN clock, high in the sky, which reads 91 degrees, and he nods. ‘This,’ he says sagely, indicating the restaurant room, ‘is where you want to be today.’ He’s right, of course, and not just for the benison of air conditioning on a day when the mercury is going to top out at nearly 100 degrees, before lunch is over.
Foie gras torchon with Long Island duck and summer berries
I’m guilty of something in restaurants, very guilty. Here’s my confession. These days I yawn when the freebie amuse-bouche arrives, such a pointless parody of itself has this obligatory, high-end tidbit become. But not at Asiate. Because, here, the amuses are utterly perfect, utterly balanced. Smoked lobster comes with blueberry gazpacho (imagine) and salmon tartare with Asian pear, a touch of brilliance that, because the grainy pear lends the salmon the most extraordinary crunch. The amuse-bouche, believes Chef Toni, is the signature of the chef: like the opening credits of a movie, it sets the tone. Well, I’m definitely not yawning now – I’m sitting up and paying careful attention to soba noodles with osetra caviar, to hamachi with salmon roe and citrus ponzu dressing, and that’s before the peekytoe crab and corn risotto hoves into view (more on that corn later), a dish worth crossing an ocean for, let alone town.
A moment later, when I flick a speck of said citrus ponzu on my sleeve, within seconds a waiter is at my side, miniature bottle of soda water and clean napkin in hand. He makes no speech, he doesn’t wait around for praise; he just leaves me to get on with it – a good deed in a naughty world.
The wine list at Asiate is glorious. I’ve never seen a list – well, certainly not in the Big Apple – less greedily marked up. The choice under $70 is remarkable – a wonderful Ribolla Gialla from Colli Orientali del Friuli comes to mind, or the Red Car Pinot Noir from Sonoma, specially bottled for Mandarin Oriental.
‘It doesn’t have to be the most expensive,’ says Chef Toni, proving, as if proof were needed, that Asiate is very much her own restaurant, the shots called by her and chef de cuisine Angie Berry. (That, in itself, is refreshing in the often controlling hotel restaurant culture, where hotel bosses call the tune.) ‘Of course, we have plenty of things if you want to splurge’ – a bottle of Château Latour 1er Cru 1982, for instance, which will set you back $5,000 – ‘but a lot of the time Annie is looking for the unknown, the exciting and the affordable.’
This ties in with Chef Toni’s food philosophy. Like many great chefs, she loves humbler ingredients – green garlic and wild fennel, say. ‘Stuff I pick up from the sidewalk,’ she says, only half joking. Again, this is not to say she and Angie Berry are not equally at home with the great culinary luxuries, shown off in ‘sprauncy’ dishes like foie gras torchon, or (fabulous) butter poached lobster with white polenta and kaffir lime emulsion, or Wagyu beef with smoked potato purée. It’s just that these are not the whole story. I ask her, as you must ask any chef, her favourite season, and without even hesitating she answers, ‘Summer.’ She waits all year for soft fruit or a decent tomato, and when I mention the local corn, the sweetest corn in the world, which, incredibly, grows right on the other side of the Hudson in New Jersey, she closes her eyes again and clasps her hands in an expression of ecstasy. ‘Now I’m salivating!’ she says.
Belgian waffle with Vermont maple syrup
You don’t often see a chef salivating over corn, and I’m starting to wonder about Chef Toni’s other passions, secret or otherwise. ‘Well, I’m a runner,’ she enlightens me, ‘a marathoner, in fact.’ Lots of chefs run as an antidote to stress, and with Central Park on the doorstep, I might have guessed Chef Toni would do, too. (Only I didn’t guess, did I?) She usually runs about two miles, three times a week. ‘The first mile I usually cuss, by the second mile I’m meditating. And the team always knows when I’ve had a good run!’ Despite a pretty gruelling timetable, she found time last year to run marathons in Paris and Philadelphia, and in 2013 she is competing in Buenos Aires and New York. When the New York marathon was called off in 2012 at the last minute, because of Hurricane Sandy, she and a host of other runners ran instead to Staten Island, to help some of those worst affected by the super-storm.
Stress-busting runs or not, I still express amazement at her ability to stay calm under pressure. ‘I used to be a medic,’ she says, ‘so the stress is always going to be less than it used to be.’ You can’t argue with that.
‘I used to be a medic so the stress is always going to be less’
Asiate’s chef de cuisine, Angie Berry
Grapefruit semifreddo with lemon and thyme shortbread, and mint ice cream
Thinking of others seems to come naturally. At Mandarin Oriental, New York, Chef Toni has introduced a ‘Star Chef’ programme for hotel colleagues – regardless of their department – to ‘chef’ in the staff canteen. ‘They cook, serve and sign autographs,’ she explains. ‘They’re a celebrity chef for a day!’ With staff originating from more than 30 countries, the programme brings personnel from across the hotel together in a fun and lighthearted way. Chinese, Italian, French and Jewish cooking has all featured, and lots more besides. The director of human resources is Sicilian – he brought his grandmother in to give her verdict on his efforts.
Preparing the peekytoe crab risotto
Good as the amateur chefs may be, I don’t think Chef Toni will have to watch her back any time soon. I comment, not for the first time, on all she has done – for the terrific cuisine throughout the hotel and especially for keeping Asiate at the forefront of New York restaurants. This, despite the economic challenges of the past five years, not to mention the competition, which, in New York, is forever raising the bar. But she is typically quick to deflect personal praise, directing it instead to Mandarin Oriental as a whole. ‘You know, Asiate is really unique in New York,’ she says thoughtfully, ‘because it’s a restaurant operated by a hotel.’ For a restaurant of this calibre, to be operated directly by a hotel, may not sound like a big deal, but it is almost unheard of these days. Then again, with Toni Robertson at the helm, the unheard of becomes possible and the biggest challenges suddenly seem a breeze.