The madcap, random genius of Chef Joe Hyde
Joe’s only cookbook. I can’t find my copy so I need to get another one…
Joe, I hardly knew ye…
Wish I’d known Joe Hyde just a little bit better… you’ll see why:
First and foremost, Joe Hyde was a renowned chef of the French school, Manhattan restaurateur, expert mycologist (mushrooms!), rabid nonconformist, lover of life, bad boy, wild man and angel, cook and caterer to the rich and famous, and oh so much more. I need to do a bullet list because the random pieces of his life make my head spin:
- As a kid, he taught Sir Laurence Olivier how to sail
- He catered for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor several times
- His neighbors at Sneden’s Landing, New York, included Orson Welles, John Steinbeck, Katharine Cornell, Jerome Robbins, Mike Wallace, Aaron Copland, Noel Coward, Vivien Leigh, Bill Murray, Mike Nichols and Burgess Meredith, many of whom happily ate his creations
- As a student of the French school, he was a frequent inspiration for Julia Child
But he was also my cousin-in-law. Actually, my second half-cousin-in-law once removed. Here’s how that works: my father’s mother (my grandmother) had a sister Mary (my great aunt) who had a son Eliot, nicknamed Bud (my second cousin once removed), who married Susie Hyde, whose birth mother died soon after she was born and who, after some romantic maneuverings that still take a bit of a flow chart to fathom, became part of an expanded family that included a half sister Angie, and two half brothers, Francois (Francy) and Joe Hyde. Simple enough? But to family, the “half” part of Joe’s relationship disappeared – he was brother Joe, Uncle Joe.
Joe lived and cooked, beguiled and horrified guests in multiple places around the U.S., but his principal home base was Snedens Landing, a secluded section of Palisades, NY, on the Hudson just a few miles north of Manhattan. His second home – mostly in summer – was his camp on Martha’s Vineyard’s Lake Tashmoo, and because I spent summers there for some 55 years (along with cousins galore) that’s where I knew him. Or, knew him sort of. He came and went sporadically, fished avidly, gathered mushrooms, threw parties, ate and drank with enormous gusto, and I was still more or less a kid who didn’t easily connect with all that back then. And so I can let others tell their stories:
One of his best pals and fans was writer Robert H. Boyle, who wrote several books about fishing, and who celebrated Joe in a Sports Illustrated article from 1971:
“Some years ago at a garden party for Patrice Lumumba’s delegation to the U.N. (my note: Lumumba was president of the Congo for 6 months in 1960 before being executed), [Joe] showed the befuddled Congolese how to eat corn on the cob. Having done so, he threw the finished ear behind him with a flourish. A week later, at least so the story goes, the Congolese attended a formal dinner in the state dining room at the U.N. Corn on the cob was served, and the Congolese startled everyone by tossing the cobs over their shoulders.”
I’m trying to visualize a dozen or so African dignitaries hurling corncobs over their shoulders at a formal banquet. And what Joe’s reaction must have been.
And, Boyle goes on —
“At Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard, where fishing for striped bass can be a pretentious production calling for belted waders, plug bags and floating flashlights, Hyde once appeared on the beach carrying a rod and wearing a dark blue suit, brightly polished black shoes and a derby hat. As the other anglers watched in silence, Hyde waded into the surf up to his armpits, caught two 20-pound stripers, tipped his bowler to onlookers and departed dripping wet.”
Joe teaching a class, 1960s.
And my own story, heard second hand: as former President of the New York Mycological Society, Joe frequently prepared fabulous feasts for the membership. At one such event he featured a huge, frozen dessert carved into the exact shape of a notoriously poisonous mushroom. Man, you can’t trust this guy for nothin’!
The notoriously psychoactive Amanita Muscaria… were THESE the model for his special dessert?
The Pommes Dauphine Disaster…
But first: Joe loved fresh fish and small game – the latter including birds like larks, starlings, and blue jays. To eat. His rule of thumb for aging these birds (and hanging meat, as well) was to wait for “one or two maggots” to appear in their flesh as a sign that they were now just tender enough to prepare. (Terrifying but true story!)
And the disaster: One more Joe account, as provided by his nephew (and my cousin) John Macy, a pretty skilled chef in his own right and founder of John Wm. Macy’s Cheesesticks, now celebrating its 40th anniversary. It’s about John’s experience on Joe’s boat, anchored in Lake Tashmoo, as a floating sanctuary for private gourmet dinners with free-flowing wine, but on this night reveals something of Joe’s occasional ability to slip into a deep funk:
I did spend the summer working with Joe on his big boat (The Constellation, a 65-footer) in the summer of ’79 and remember the dinner we served to [a big family crowd]. I’m not sure if it was that dinner or not, but one evening he became so enraged, first that the Pommes Dauphine weren’t coming out right, and then even more so when I didn’t show the proper reverence to his master chef instruction, that he threw the two Dauphine spoons in the batter, stormed out of the tiny kitchen and disappeared for two hours. This was as dinner was about to be served, but I was able to pull it off. In retrospect I can see that this was a tense time for Joe because he had sold both the Vineyard Camp and the huge house in Snedens Landing … to buy that boat. The boat trip up from Florida had been a fiasco and it was probably becoming clear that the dinner boat was not going to be the money maker that he had dreamed about. – John Macy
In fact, The Constellation was later stolen by drug runners and completely trashed. Joe didn’t have insurance for it. In effect, after selling his houses and losing his boat, he ended up with nothing.
Except acquiring status as a legend. Joe died in 2007 at age 79 after a wildly unpredictable, well-fed, fully-lived life.
Joe deciding to look ominous, sharpening knives.
Joe’s perfect high-heat roast beef
This recipe, from Love Time & Butter, works especially well on a standing rib roast with a generous saddle of fat on top, like the one we recently had in this photo. People tend to call it “prime rib,” which it generally is in a good restaurant, but from the supermarket and most butchers the grade is “choice,” not prime. Anyone care? Not me! This is a two-rib roast (for two people!) rubbed with salt and freshly ground pepper.
I do have some friends who slow-cook a roast like this. They get the oven up to 500 or so, put the roast in for 30 minutes, then turn the oven off and let it sit in there for about 6-8 hours. It’s quite good, I think: the meat is a rich pink and tender, but the fat hasn’t had a full chance to sizzle or release its flavor into the flesh. My own view is you can’t beat high heat, a la Joe Hyde. Why? Because the searing seals the juices inside, where you want them.
What to do:
You need a standing rib roast for 2 or 4 people (2 ribs or 4 ribs), with a nice layer of fat. Put it in a pan and rub the fat with salt and pepper. A two-rib roast will want to topple over; I shimmed ours with a couple of small wedge-shaped stones to keep it upright.
- Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Pretty toasty!
- Put the roast in for 18 minutes (for 2 ribs), about 25 minutes for 4 ribs.
- Remove the roast and let repose on top of the stove for 20 minutes. Lower the heat to 350.
- After the repose, put the roast back in to cook for another 45-50 minutes (2 ribs), about 1 hour for 4 ribs. This should make it medium-rare. It’s likely the rib bones will separate from the meat – good, that’s proof of tenderness!
Check the roast with a sharp knife slicing between the ribs a couple of inches. If it’s too red, cook a few minutes more.
Joe’s passed on, but his nephew, protege and student John Macy carries on the culinary heritage, with some delicious baked goodies.
John Wm. Macy’s Cheesesticks (and other products) are now justifiably famous, all over the U.S. and Canada. I remember visiting John and his wife Joy’s apartment in lower Manhattan in the early 1980s for an overnight stay, and slipping into a rapture from the pervasive fragrance of cheddar cheese. All night long. The machines – the vats, the mixers, the ovens – were all there in the loft, before the company expanded and moved into a larger space.
Hannaford used to carry them, but alas! no more. According to John’s website, Morse’s Sauerkraut is the place closest to us to get them – worth the trip (it’s always worth the trip to Morse’s, whatever you’re buying)!
John’s new company logo, to launch early this summer. You saw it here first!
Yes, John is always just as happy and pleased as he looks here…
There’s more to come about Joe Hyde and his best recipes – after I get another copy of his book. Crazy madcap stuff and amazing food from one of the great and most wildly original American chefs.
Many, many thanks to Joe’s family members (and my cousins) for contributing to this post and finding old family photos: Joe’s daughter Anne Hyde Dunsmore, and Joe’s sister Susie’s kids: John Wm. Macy, Tim Macy and his wife Bobbie, and Sarah Macy. Great work, gang!