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On NASCAR in NYC: What’s Cooking

By Cathy Elliott
Tuesday, December 02, 2008

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Columnist Cathy Elliott chats with Chandra Johnson and her husband, 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, at the Champions Dinner Monday night at New York City's Waldorf=Astoria hotel.
Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCAR
Last night, I had dinner in the kitchen.


I know what you’re thinking; what’s so noteworthy about that? Along with feeding the dog, trying really hard to get the kids dressed at least halfway respectably and to school roughly on time, or groaning “Five more minutes” as you hit the snooze button on the alarm clock, dinner at the kitchen table is just another normal part of an average day in the life. Right?


Right. Except perhaps I neglected to mention that Mike Helton, Chad Knaus and 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson were having dinner in the very same kitchen.


Champions Week in New York City is full of glamour. It is a spectacular sport’s ultimate spectacle. There are parties and press conferences and television appearances and photo ops galore. It is difficult to even find a moment to shower. Forget the idea of a semi-quiet meal in the kitchen with a handful of friends. That’s just silly, not to mention unrealistic.


Except it isn’t. For the past several years, dinner in the kitchen at the legendary Waldorf=Astoria hotel has been a highly anticipated part not only of Champions Week, but of the champion’s week.


My first indication that this evening would be a little something out of the ordinary came as we were being escorted to the kitchen by Waldorf Executive Chef John Doherty. He stopped in the lobby to tell the small group of about 25 people the story of an old photo hanging on the wall, something about a two-story-tall wooden stunt cake and an accidental pratfall.


It was a cute story, but it struck me more for its effect than its content. First, some of the most influential names in NASCAR quieted down and paid close and respectful attention. Second, Doherty made a compelling comment. “I walk past this photo every day,” he said, “but sometimes I forget the great story it tells. Let me tell you about it.”


That photo is probably 50 or 60 years old. There are so many similarly great NASCAR photos out there, featuring smiling black-and-white people in differently styled clothes, hanging on so many walls and telling so many great stories. I appreciated being reminded of that.


In short order, I also came to understand what everyone else already appreciated about John Doherty. In addition to being affable and articulate, the man can put together a great menu. On this particular evening, selections ranged from scallops and salmon to fois gras, roast duck and rack of lamb.


An extremely fun and interactive part of the evening came when Doherty and his staff elicited hands-on help from the guests, who donned latex gloves and participated in “plating” the food.


This ranged from Johnson serving rack of lamb and his beautiful (and friendly) wife Chandra placing tomatoes just so, to frumpy journalists being put in charge of a chervil garnish, but continually referring to it as parsley.


Big mistake. Apparently, parsley lacks panache.


The lamb and tomatoes were a huge hit. The parsley – excuse me, chervil – not so much.


It sure was fun, though, and nostalgic to boot. Don’t we all cherish those fond childhood memories of whipping up some confit in the kitchen and proudly serving it to our guests during the holiday season? What is confit, anyway? Do you have to take the purses out of the oven to make it? That seems harsh.


In a life lived in the fast lane, where a thousandth of a second can literally mean the difference between Victory Lane and a very bad day, isn’t it kind of refreshing to picture this incredibly dominant driver, who has accomplished the nearly impossible task of winning three consecutive championships, just standing at the counter slapping meat on a plate?


It’s like the old joke about celebrities being just like us, putting their pants on one leg at a time and such. Blah, blah, blah. We all know celebrities are different. By virtue of their talent, timing or sheer blind luck, they have transformed themselves from ordinary into extraordinary. They are special.


Still – news flash! – three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson sometimes eats dinner in the kitchen. For one night, I had the opportunity to do that with him, and it was great.


I didn’t ask him to pass the salt, though. Like NASCAR itself, Johnson is chervil, not parsley.


Even in the kitchen, it is sometimes possible to go too far.

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