Before Alice Waters There Was Mussels Polonaise

By Ana Kinkaid

Farm-to-table and tide-to-table cuisine have become an enduring trend in the culinary industry that ensures both fresh flavor and sustainability to diners. Alice Waters is often credited with initiating this vital trend. Yet before her very important contribution, there was Albert Stockli and Mussels Polonaise.

Albert Stockli was the original chef at the famed Four Seasons Restaurant, a restaurant that the phrase “power lunch” was coined for by Esquire Magazine. Opened in 1959 (Alice Water’s Chez Pannise opened later in 1971), the restaurant welcomed guests that included Jackie Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, Norman Mailer and Barbara Walters, along with many other influential people and celebrities.

Photo 2 Segram Building and Picasso Mural
The Seagram Building, site of The Four Seasons restaurant, and massive hallway mural by Picasso.

Even though its elegant decor, designed by the architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, was designated an interior landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, it was Chef Stockli’s remarkable cuisine that captured the attention of its discerning guests.

Born in Switzerland, Stockli took over housekeeping as the oldest child after his mother’s death when he was just nine years old. He learned more formal cooking from an uncle who was a chef in a leading Zurich hotel.

He soon moved on to Antwerp, Rotterdam and Paris, always studying and learning.  He became, however, increasingly impatient with the rigid culinary view of the time that postulated only one way of preparing a classical dish.

Seeking a change of venue and a new approach, he shipped out on a Dutch vessel to the East Indies. There he became intrigued by the new spices and flavors. He was also fascinated by the quick-cooking method used in the Indies to preserve the rich flavors of local meats and vegetables.

During World War II he bravely served on the hastily built Liberty Ships, bringing aid and support to America’s European allies struggling against Hitler. At the war’s end he found work as a chef at the Claridge Hotel in New Jersey.

He soon joined Restaurant Associates, which received the concession to run the restaurant at the new Arrivals Building at Newark Airport. The owners were looking for a more ambitious and imaginative culinary approach for their new restaurant. There he invented dishes that brought patronage from not only travelers but also from non-traveling diners.

His next move was to the Hawaiian Room in the Lexington Hotel in Manhattan, where the menu soon included dishes like “Flaming Snow Mountain—an Ice Mountain of Tropical Fruits to Dip in a Delicious Rum Sauce—Afire!”

In 1959, he opened the elite Four Seasons in the new Seagram Building on Park Avenue. Stockli, whose commanding presence was extended by his chef’s toque, was the first destination restaurant to print its menu entirely in English.Photo 5 Menu

But Chef Stockli’s innovations went even further. His inventive dishes featured fresh neighborhood foods–he visited farms and dairies himself, and had a network of hunters and fishermen who would bring him game. As a result, his restaurant was the first restaurant in the States to incorporate wild mushrooms into the menu.

Chef Stockli died just one year after Alice Waters opened Chez Pannise in California, Thankfully he left a record of his favorite recipes in his one and only cookbook, Splendid Fare. Written while in semi-retirement (for what chef ever stops cooking and creating entirely?), it preserved for lucky readers his dedication to fine flavorful food prepared with the freshest, locally farmed  ingredients possible.

One of his favorite dishes was Mussles Polonaise, literally shellfish prepared in the Polish style. Chef Stockli’s insightful cuisine reflected his belief in culinary diversity and absolute freshness, resulting in dishes that were created with respect for the original source while still honoring innovation and quality.

Mussels Polonaise

(Adapted from Splendid Fare)

Ingredients

2 lbs Taylor Mussels, yielding 3 cups cooked mussel meat, steamed until done

1 lb cucumbers, peeled and sliced in thin discs

1 tsp salt

1 lemon, juiced

1/3 cup heavy cream

1 cup sour cream

4 tbsp vegetable oil

2 tbsp cider vinegar

2 tbsp fresh dill, finely chopped

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp pepper

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1 egg, hard-boiled, finely chopped or rubbed through a sieve

Directions

  1. Steam mussels until cooked.
  2. Remove meat from shells and refrigerate. Discard mussel shells.
  3. Place sliced cucumbers in a bowl and sprinkle with salt. Allow to sweat for at least 1 hour.
  4. Squeeze all moisture out of cucumbers. Discard cucumber liquid and return cucumbers to bowl.
  5. Add lemon juice and heavy cream.
  6. In another bowl, mix sour cream, oil, vinegar, chopped dill, salt, pepper and mayonnaise. Pour mixture over cucumbers.
  7. Add the chilled mussels.
  8. Chill entire mixture for at least one hour.
  9. Just before serving, plate and sprinkle with finely chopped egg on top of salad.
Kinkaid, Ana
Ana Kinkaid brings 25 years’ experience in the hospitality industry to her writing. As a world traveler, nothing delights her more than discovering an innovative restaurant or a unique ingredient.  Ana is a consultant to leading food companies and also speaks at major culinary conferences, often linking past culinary traditions to current and future trends. Her areas of expertise include culinary history, ethnic foods, terroir, wines and cocktails, as well as sustainable development within the food industry.

2 thoughts

  1. I am happy that you wrote about Albert Stoeckly. He hired me April 1960 to open the Restaurant Associate John Peel Restaurant as Executive Chef. He was always supportive and helpful. After he left RA he opened as chef owner the Stonhenge restaurant in Connecticut. He was a wonderful man.

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