The Recipe the Waldorf Astoria Doesn’t Want You to Know!

It’s under such headings that recipes for red velvet cake have been spread for decades. You’ve come across similar stories I think. A customer sits down at an expensive restaurant or in a famous hotel dining room. He/she likes the (INSERT FOOD ITEM) so much that he/she asks for the recipe. The waiter is happy to oblige. He returns moments later with the recipe, hand written by chef. Then the shock comes: the bill. On it is a “recipe surcharge” for (INSERT LARGE AMOUNT OF MONEY). Incensed, particularly because the recipe’s secret turns out to be nothing more than (INSERT SIMPLE TRICK), the customer pays the exorbitant bill, vowing to shout the secret to the four winds and punish (INSERT ESTABLISHMENT) forever. And here is the super-secret recipe!

These sorts of urban myths are as old as the hills in America, dating back to the very early decades of the 20th century. Recipes for all manner of sweets, soups and savory dishes have been spread using this essential formula, and have oftentimes fooled newspaper and magazine editors. That said, red velvet cake is the all-time most successful iteration of the ticked-off diner myth (with the possible exception of the Mrs. Field’s Cookie version that emerged in the 80’s). It first popped up in print in the early 60’s and made the rounds for many a moon. The patron was, as always, a Mr. or Mrs. X, but the venue was consistently the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York.

Why the Waldorf Astoria? Maybe because it was well known as one of country’s premier hotels at a time when grand hotels were still centers of American culture, places where the famous and the well-to-do met and mingled. One could well imagine red velvet cake in that setting, with its regal, snow-white frosting and scarlet interior, evocative of the rich red carpets and drapes of a first class establishment like the Waldorf. It may be for that very reason that the myth resonated so well and was passed on so faithfully for so long.

That’s all speculative of course. What is known is that the Waldorf unsuccessfully fought the myth for decades, from the 50’s through the 60’s, 70’s and — wearily — straight through to 2006. That was the year that management finally adopted a “if you can’t beat’em, join’em” attitude and published a recipe for red velvet cake in The Waldorf Astoria Cookbook. Because when the dessert-eating public has made up its mind about the truth…what’s the use in arguing?

20 thoughts on “The Recipe the Waldorf Astoria Doesn’t Want You to Know!”

  1. I have rarely asked for a recipe from a chef. If it is something I have never heard of I usually could imagine what went into it and it was fun to try and duplicate it. Now, you can pretty much google everything you might eat. Though it is not always a great recipe its a starting point.

    The few times I have asked I have had about 50/50 response. I don’t blame the chef. They developed that flavor (usually) it belongs to them. But I have never had one that was not pleased to be asked.

    1. But it makes good cookies. …for a crowd ;>

      The volume of that recipe is how I began making cookies for my husband’s entire company every Friday many years ago.

  2. This is so interesting! I’ve never heard this story about ridiculous charges for recipes. I didn’t figure out that red velvet cake is actually just chocolate cake with red food coloring… oh the embarrassment. Haha. Great post.

    1. It’s a bit more than that, but I can’t argue with your overall thesis, Sally.

      – Joe

    2. I’ve always thought of Red Velvet as a buttermilk cake is a hint of chocolate flavor.

  3. Heh. I remember the first time I came across that story. It was in an email back when dial up was considered blindingly fast and the recipe was for chocolate chip cookies from Neiman Marcus.

  4. I consider being asked for a recipe as high praise that the item baked (or with me on a rare occasion cooked) was good enough to want more and want to be able to get more when more is wanted (did I get lost in all those mores?). I am amused that people will ask so timidly like I’d bite their head off for DARING to ask. I guess that comes from relatives who want to take their “secret recipe” to their grave and kill it for the rest of time or some egomaniac chef who starts brandishing a cleaver when asked. I always argue all recipes should be shared barring it is something you make that is your livelihood. In that case I can agree you have a right to keep it private. I do admire restaurants or chefs who are flattered and gladly share their knowledge and skills. I do remember the Neiman Marcus one the best. I think I have a copy buried in my thousands on my laptop…swearing it was gotten by nefarious means!!

  5. I completely agree with you on the over hype against a red velvet cake! 🙂 I had even written it on my blog ( about the mystery over a red velvet cake. I always thought it was a vanilla cake with alot of food colour. Two weeks back i decided to do all my research on the cake and finally attempted to make it. And it turned out quite well 🙂 I thught i’d share my view point after reading this post. I’ve made quite a few dishes from your recipes and they’ve all being a huge hit! cheers 🙂

  6. I, too, have experience with the Neiman-Marcus chocolate chip cookie myth and even have a copy of the circulated recipe somewhere in my recipe mess. I even made them…once! Once I tasted the cookie (and it was a good, but not great, choc chip cookie), I realized it had to be a story concocted by someone who thought their recipe so good it needed a little drama to get people to try it. I thought it a rather clever way to get it done!

  7. I know of several people who always leave out a key ingredient when asked for their recipe. I never understood this, either decline to give out the recipe or give a complete one out. I guess they must feel good when the person tries the recipe and fails at it. Incidentally, I know of a few people who won’t share their recipes too! I am with you though, I think all recipes should be open source unless, of course, you make your livelihood from it.

  8. I sure would recipe for the True like to have the Waldorf Astoria Cake. Many years ago I made the Red velvet cake and all the people at the church love it….. I do so enjoy feeding people……And I love that cake…

    1. Hey Diane!

      Honestly I’m not sure there really is one. I think it’s mostly a myth, though Red Velvet cake sure is good!

      Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

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