April 28, 2005
Howard Johnson's, Adieu
By Jacques Pépin
WHEN word spread that the last Howard Johnson's restaurant in New York City, in Times Square, would probably close, there was something of an uproar. Though plans are uncertain, brokers say it is likely that a big retail chain will replace it. The idea that this icon of American dining will disappear from the city landscape made me particularly sad, since it was at Howard Johnson's that I completed my most valuable apprenticeship.
I had been in America only eight months when I started working at Howard Johnson's. I moved there from Le Pavillon, a temple of French haute cuisine, where I had been working since my arrival in the United States in 1959. Howard Johnson, who often ate at Le Pavillon, hired me and my fellow chef, Pierre Franey.
It was Mr. Johnson's contention that I should learn about the Howard Johnson Company from the ground up. I worked a few months as a line cook at one of the largest and busiest Howard Johnson's restaurants at the time, on Queens Boulevard in Rego Park. I flipped burgers, cooked hot dogs and learned about the specialties of the house, among them tender fried clams made from the tongues of enormous sea clams whose bodies were used as the base for the restaurants' famous clam chowder. Other specialties I became familiar with included macaroni and cheese, hash browns, ice cream sundaes, banana splits, and, certainly, apple pies.
Howard Johnson's was my American apprenticeship, and it was a long one, nearly 10 years, mostly spent in the company's Queens Village commissary. Mr. Johnson gave me and Pierre carte blanche, and we experimented with different types of stews, like beef burgundy, and dishes like scallops in mushroom sauce. I became comfortable using 1,000-gallon pots and operating enormous machines. Mr. Johnson would often visit us at the test kitchen to taste, ask questions and make suggestions. He might tell us that the last time the sauce was thinner or ask why we were using frozen button mushrooms in the beef stew or why we had changed the size of the clam croquettes.
After working on a standard Howard Johnson's recipe in the test kitchen, Pierre and I would prepare it in progressively larger quantities, improving its taste by cutting down on margarine and replacing it with butter, using fresh onion instead of dehydrated onion, real potatoes instead of frozen ones. We made fresh stock in a quantity requiring 3,000 pounds of veal bones for each batch, and we daily boned 1,000 turkeys and made 10 tons of frankfurters.
Albert Kumin, the famous Swiss pastry chef, soon joined us, working to set up a pastry department that produced 10 tons of Danish pastries a day for the hundreds of restaurants in the chain and thousands and thousands of apple, cherry, blueberry and pumpkin pies each day. This was my first exposure to mass production. I developed products for the Red Coach Grill, which was the Cadillac of the Howard Johnson chain, as well as the Ground Round, and the grocery division of the company, which supplied supermarkets, schools and other institutions.
Pierre and I would occasionally visit the restaurants on the New Jersey Turnpike or the New England Thruway to see how our commissary inventions were faring with the customers. But I loved the restaurant in Times Square especially, and often went there, incognito with my friend Jean-Claude. We enjoyed fried clams, and with them we always drank what was the best Manhattan cocktail in town - it came with a full pitcher for refills alongside the initial filled glass.
Unfortunately, the orange roof with the Simple Simon logo has all but disappeared. Few of the restaurants left - among them the one in Times Square - are still called Howard Johnson's (the apostrophe indicates one of the early restaurants). For me, Howard Johnson's reliable, modestly priced food embodies the straightforwardness of the American spirit. It saddens me that New Yorkers looking for this kind of gentleness and simplicity will soon have to find it elsewhere. It won't be easy.
Jacques Pépin is the author, most recently, of "Fast Food My Way."