History Is Delicious at Chicago’s Palmer House Hilton
Stephen Henry, the executive chef at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago, took us down into the basement of the hotel and into the hot boiler room. We walked past huge machines that help provide hot water for the thousands of guests whom the hotel serves each day, and we could even look up through a small grate to one of downtown Chicago’s busy streets above. Finally, he led us to the back of the boiler room, where he moved away a small barricade to reveal a dark tunnel with rudimentary lighting strung across its ceiling.
Inside of the 19th century tunnel, which is older than the Palmer House, sat six large oak barrels that supported six smaller barrels. Each of the barrels had held a different type of liquor and Henry was now using them to age 100 percent Vermont syrup. He plans to incorporate the syrup in many of the Palmer House’s dishes, such as the infamous Bertha’s Brownie, named after the wife of the hotel’s founder, Potter Palmer.
Bertha’s Brownie, the first brownie ever made, was created in the Palmer House pastry kitchen in 1893 for the Columbian Exposition World’s Fair in Chicago. The culinary projects at the Palmer House, like Henry’s syrup science project, all bridge a new creativity with the history of the hotel, which first opened in 1871.
It’s impossible to ignore the history of the hotel as a guest. The elevators have a vintage feel and the main lobby features a high ceiling with intricate paintings lining every inch of it. There are glass display boxes of soda and china that were loved by Bertha Palmer. And there’s even a tour of the hotel led by Ken Price, the hotel’s 32-year resident historian. Price’s tour, “History is Hott!!,” is a glimpse into who the Palmers were as people instead of just who they were as historical figures. When Price describes them, he speaks as if he had been their close friend. And, in fact, he has spoken with their distance relatives.
Mathew Wiltzius, executive chef at the Palmer House’s Lockwood Restaurant, told me that the history definitely has an effect on what or how he serves something at the Lockwood. He said that Price will sometimes bring him a recipe that’s 80 years old and he will reinvent it to make it fit the restaurant’s updated, American style.
Wiltzius and Henry teamed up recently, for example, to make a new version of Bertha’s Brownie with one of Henry’s aged syrups. They used Bertha’s Brownie, vanilla ice cream, and whipped maple syrup to create Bertha’s Baked Alaska.
Though not every dish served at the hotel or at Lockwood was directly inspired by the hotel’s history, Wiltizius and Henry both said that every dish does have a story. That detail is important when you realize that most of the small details on the hotel — the doorknobs, old newspaper clippings on display, the artwork — were all a part of hotel before its renovation or were something that belonged to the Palmers themselves.
During my history tour of the hotel, Price said that history with just names and dates and without personalities and stories isn’t even accurate history. That mindset seems to inspire the Palmer House’s approach to food as well. Bertha’s Brownie was delicious because it’s a brownie, and who doesn’t love those? But it was better than something you could make at home because of its history — a history that we can carry on, enjoy and make even better with dark-rum aged syrup.