Perhaps it was prophesy when the graduating class of 1978 at the Culinary Institute of America voted John Doherty as student most likely to succeed, because by the time Doherty turned 27, he was named Executive Chef at The Waldorf=Astoria.
The year was 1985 and Doherty became the youngest person ever named to the position of Executive Chef in the New York landmark's notable history. Today, 20 years after his appointment to the post, the passionate, affable culinary leader holds the distinction of having cooked for more presidents, royalty and heads-of-state than any other chef in the country. Photographs of Doherty alongside some of the world’s greatest leaders, including several past presidents, dress his office wall overlooking the impressive, block-long main kitchen. In the fall of 2006, Doherty released his first cookbook, The Waldorf=Astoria Cookbook, featuring over 120 recipes that cover the best in the Waldorf=Astoria dining experience.
“Being called on to cook for special guests is one of the biggest thrills of my job. But I also love the challenge this hotel presents to me every day. Our international reputation means that the expectations of guests coming to stay at The Waldorf are enormous, and I look forward to that test of our abilities. It is what gets me up in the morning and what has brought me back here each day,” Doherty says.
Whether it was gleaned from the inspiration of his grandmother’s rustic cooking, work stages he performed at Europe’s two- and three-star Michelin restaurants like George Blanc in Macon, or his early training under Waldorf chefs – he began in the hotel’s kitchen as an intern at age 19 and worked his way to the top – Doherty’s culinary philosophy is simple: quality ingredients, classic technique and a focus on flavor.
“I prefer just three key ingredients per dish, highlighting the best of the season and focusing on cooking methods that enhance existing shapes, flavors, textures and colors instead of complicating them.” Doherty’s approach to food has recently transcended the hotel’s pre-existing restaurants, to launch the recently opened Chef’s Table, an exclusive dining venue in the heart of The Waldorf’s main kitchen. Therein, Doherty and his team of chefs and cooks take to the stove, preparing elaborate, multi-course dinners for up to 30 guests. Formerly available only to special guests, royalty and the like, the moveable feasts are now open to the public and are held twice monthly. The highly successful Chef's Tables have also become a testing ground for Doherty’s creativity, where dishes that may be one day served to the President or appear on a future menu are featured.
Beyond cooking technique and creativity, Doherty’s admirable leadership abilities are key to the success of The Waldorf’s culinary operations, which garner more than $45 million in annual sales and are responsible for cuisine at some of the country’s loftiest galas, events and fundraisers; 24-hour room service; and three distinct, successful restaurants, Peacock Alley, Bull and Bear, and Oscar's.
Doherty says he mapped out a leadership plan to take the Waldorf kitchen into the future when he became chef. “I expected it would take me at least five years, maybe seven to realize my vision to elevate us to become a contemporary, world-class kitchen. I’ll concede that for once, my timing might have been off! However, I’ve achieved my goal and beyond, taking the kitchen to new standards and into the new century.”
His management approach has also endured. Here again, Doherty insists on a three-ingredient recipe of “giving crystal clear direction, setting measurable expectations and holding people accountable. They are essential criteria for a successful team.”
His inspired team – which today includes seven chefs and 120 culinary staff – also has impressive alumni, including Executive Chef Laurent Manrique of San Francisco’s Aqua; Chef Paul Sale of New York’s Blue Fin; New York’s 11 Madison Park Chef Kerry Heffernan; and Neil Gallagher, Executive Chef, Oceana. The new college culinary career book So You Want To Be A Chef features Doherty and his Waldorf role. His Chef’s Table has been the focus of the PBS show, At The Chef’s Table and Doherty has appeared in numerous Travel Channel, A&E and Food Network programs. He is a frequent guest speaker at national culinary colleges and industry events and is an advisory board member to New York’s City Harvest, The French Culinary Institute and the Culinary Institute of America. The culinary program at Johnson & Wales University granted a scholarship in his name (2005), he was recently awarded a Silver Spoon Award by Food Arts and the March of Dimes, Long Island Chapter, named him Chef of The Year (2000).
The father of three – Jenna, Patrick and Evan – lives on Long Island with his wife Donna.