The first time I was backstage at the Century Plaza Hotel, I led a small but sturdy, well-chosen band through a bland-looking side door, down a concrete corridor and finally into a covey of waiters waiting to serve dessert. Those following me were Ronald and Nancy Reagan, the newly elected governor of California and the First Lady. It was the night of the Governor's Ball at the new hotel. Halfway down the utilitarian passageway, I thought, "What if I'm leading them out into an alley, or worse, into a furnace room from which there is no exit?"
Had it been into the alley, I would have kept on walking and would now be living in Tierra del Fuego, teaching ballroom dancing to the natives.
But to my surprise, I delivered my charges to the holding area at stage right, just in front of the light board, right on cue.
That was in 1967, and I've had good luck at the Century Plaza ever since. One morning after a national election, I ordered eggs Benedict from room service for six newsmen who hadn't quite left because the election returns weren't in until the new dawn and one does want to be gracious.
One evening Richard Hepperle, who is banquet manager, took off his black bow tie and gave it to me for Norman Cousins to wear. His was snug in his bureau drawer in New York, and he was due on stage to emcee a prestigious dinner. Hepperle never hesitated when I ran into his office and said, "Richard, give me your tie."
My most recent visit was last week to have lunch with executive chef Raimund Hofmeister, who oversees 20,000 meals a week, not counting those in the dark-paneled, tapestry-hung new dining room La Chaumiere, in the recently opened tower. The host there is Gulen, a man of relaxed hospitality. The passage from the main hotel to the tower has been decorated with a spare elegance in a hundred shades of cream and beige. There are marble tables, immense, which bring an unlikely softness to the furnishings. It's the same soft look a pearl has, warm and lustrous.
Lunch in Hofmeister's private dining room was a salad of several lettuces, the ubiquitous radicchio and endive, with a satiny dressing having yogurt as its base. Lunch ended with fresh raspberries and a custard sauce like zabaglione. The frippery at the end of the meal was a box holding strawberries dipped in chocolate and fondant. The box was made of chocolate with a half-open lid.
Hofmeister is laden with honors for his boyish 35 years. In 1983, he was awarded the prestigious Chef of the Year award by the California Restaurant Writers Assn. In Osaka, Japan, at the World Culinary Trials, he was captain of the U.S. team and brought back 12 gold medals in 1983.
In Frankfurt in 1984, Hofmeister won two gold medals and one silver. The entries are judged for originality, color and food coordination and practicality.
To prepare for the Culinary Olympics, he was gone a week every two months for two years.
Raimund Hofmeister was born in the Black Forest in Germany, into a family of chefs. He left home at 15, and his father sent him to the meanest chef he knew, where Raimund and the other eight apprentices were given a beating every day. He did not see his father for 15 years, and when he finally went home, the walls of the family living room were covered with the pictures of Raimund and his awards.
He runs the Century Plaza kitchens on the apprentice system. There are always 12 apprentices, in addition to the company of chefs, and every six months two apprentices graduate and two new ones are taken on. There is a waiting list of 50 young men for the three-year, 6,000-hour program.
Raimund came to the United States after a lengthy and rigorous training in fine hotels in Germany and Switzerland. "I came without a penny in my pocket, so I couldn't go back." He has been the chef in hotels in Johannesburg, Kansas City, Atlanta, Detroit, Tulsa and on Maui. And to every post he has brought his pristine philosophy of cooking: "A great chef thinks his way into his clients' thinking. I can make something gourmet out of a taco. Or the chicken salad I made for President Ronald Reagan when he wanted a simple lunch dish.
"A chef must be receptive to what the community wants. In Detroit, I was taught to make pumpkin bread by a neighbor. You never stop learning. It's a marriage between kitchen and service."
He has known his wife since he was 15. "She says my mistress is the kitchen. The most fun for me is being alone on the weekends so I can cook. My wife is a trained chef.
"You never stop learning. You study the different cultures, diet, nutrition."
Pictures of his prize-winning entries in the Culinary Olympics are as balanced in composition and as rewarding in color as miniature paintings.
After spending the time with Raimund Hofmeister, and observing his devotion to excellence, his discipline and his superb techniques, I don't think I'll cook again. I think I probably hit my peak with macaroni and cheese in the seventh grade.
Or maybe that casserole with tuna, potato chips and mushroom soup, the fall-back, just-before-payday dish of every bride after World War II.