What happens when you bring dynamic Chef Geoffrey Zakarian, new Culinary Director at The Plaza, and world-class architect, designer, and artist Thierry Despont together in an iconic room?
Kristin Franzese: What does it mean to you both to work on such an iconic New York landmark?
Thierry Despont: It is a great honor, pleasure, and responsibility to bring the famed Palm Court back to life.
Geoffrey Zakarian: Absolutely. When Sant Chatwal, one of the owners, so graciously approached me, I saw it as the chance of a lifetime. I have been coming here for almost 40 years. I know all the staff here and I even live on the same street! So let’s face it, The Plaza will outlive us all, and it was a great opportunity to be a part of its history.
KF: You have collaborated before on other projects. How did the process work here?
GZ: Thierry is a genius. You can always trust his judgment. I think he came up with one iteration, and that’s all it took!
TD: Geoffrey has a very specific vision for how the culinary program and service should run at The Palm Court. Since we know each other well enough, we trusted each other in our areas of expertise—he didn’t complicate the design process, and I didn’t add my ingredients to his cocktails.
GZ: I’m a stickler when it comes to operations, and Thierry knows that. We worked closely together on the footprint.
For example, I knew I wanted to expand the seating area, and we were able to do that— hard to believe since we added the bar in there as well.
KF: Talk about that bar. Whose idea was it?
GZ: We both said it at the same time: This place needs a bar! And what it has done to this room is to completely animate it in such a way that the sky’s the limit! Make no mistake, The
Palm Court has always been a beautiful place, and now the room just swallows you!
TD: Yes, we both agreed there had to be a bar, and I convinced Geoffrey to make it the centerpiece. I designed it as a monumental flower planter inspired by an original arrangement of flowers and palm trees that was part of the original Palm Court design.
KF: What was your approach to respecting The Palm Court’s history while modernizing the feel?
TD: We did a lot of historical research and gathered a lot of historical photographs. I very much wanted The Palm Court to be what it was originally: a winter garden with palm trees and flowers. The result fully respects the landmark status and historical character of The Palm Court.
GZ: Yes, there was certainly a lot of research done. For example, we brought back the latticework from circa 1912 after studying pictures. You can see it along the bottom of the bar, on the screens, and reflected in the carpeting. We added in many more palm trees, as Thierry mentioned. The stained-glass ceiling is magnificent, so we added some lighting to showcase it.
TD: The relighting of the entire Palm Court was done with Bill Schwinghammer, a professional lighting artist and engineer.
GZ: All in all, we were both of the mind set that we wanted to make The Palm Court the quintessential place in New York for afternoon tea, and that’s all in the details. For example, the glass-top tables were created so that when you look at the reflection in the table, you see the dome. It reminds you that you are in a really special place. Thierry did an incredible job from the landmark aspect.
TD: It’s a matter of first respecting the character of the room, which is not meant
to be a cafeteria but an elegant place where people can relax and enjoy an afternoon tea as well as a great lunch or early afternoon tea.
KF: What was done to enhance the tea experience from a design aspect?
TD: We worked very carefully with Geoffrey to design comfortable seating options, and on precise table heights to make sure the guests could best enjoy their afternoon tea experience.
KF: Geoffrey, as Culinary Director at The Plaza, The Palm Court is only one part of your duties. Talk about your overall approach to reconceptualizing all the culinary functions.
GZ: You have to think of it as being on a 747 at 40,000 feet and asked to redo the interior, land the plane, and paint it all at the same time! So what you really have to do is take a section at a time—and here we are starting with first class.
KF: Still, there is a lot to coordinate.
GZ: Sure, there is a lot going on at The Plaza, and my feeling is that we want to make the experience perfect within every location so that guests will respond by saying, “That was great; I want to come back.” In the end, they are going to use The Plaza as they want to. They might come to The Plaza and never leave the lobby, or never get to it. You just never know. You can’t choreograph life; it just doesn’t work that way. So all I can do is worry about getting it right, keeping it focused, and making a statement. If you do that, the customer will get it. Trust me.