My Lunch at the Condé Nast Cafeteria

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Psssst… don’t tell anyone, but I’m about to sneak you into the Condé Nast cafeteria. That’s right. This is where Anna Wintour (you know, Meryl Streep’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada”) goes to eat, alongside the fine people from Gourmet, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and so on. People are fascinated with the place-they’re always writing about it on Gawker–and many people wonder (including myself, before last week) what kind of food do fashion models, feisty editors and literary luminaries eat together? Well now I have the answer. My friend Mr. X just started a job there and he invited me to join him for lunch as long as I didn’t take flash pictures or reveal his identity. So, get your heels on and “gird your loins”–it’s time to do the Condé nasty

The 4th floor of the Condé Nast building has a hallway with two ends: at one end is Gourmet Magazine and at the other is the Cafeteria. We arrived around 1 pm and the cafeteria was bustling. Two things happen before you enter the cafeteria proper: (1) You put cash on your card (sort of like we did in college) so you can pay by swiping it afterwards; and (2) You read the specials on the board:

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As you can see (despite the blurry picture) the options are pretty unique for a cafeteria: Polish food, fish and chips, grilled beef satay and halibut. I’m not sure–and I just tried to research it, to no avail–but it feels like Gourmet has its hand in the food they serve across the hall. Lots of the food looks like Gourmet Magazine food–colorful, fresh ingredients. Then again, my friend Mr. X said that the cafeteria is run by the same management company that ran our college cafeteria.

I didn’t take a picture of the food stations because that would’ve been too conspicuous. Far more fascinating than the food arrangements, though, were the people lined up for food: there were older men in suits chatting about “fact checking,” young fashion model-y types heading straight for the salad station, and there was this blond guy with glasses from The New Yorker who interviewed Rufus Wainwright two years ago at The New Yorker festival. (I know, because I was there!) And yet, despite all these illustrious characters, the room was a bit depressing. Dark and crowded, I still felt like I was in a cafeteria. Which proves the adage: “a cafeteria is still a cafeteria, even at Conde Nast, dumbass.”

After we paid, we made our way to a table in this Frank Gehry designed environment:

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I should’ve mentioned that sooner: Frank Gehry designed the Conde Nast cafeteria. As you can see, it has his signature wavy architecture and idiosyncratic shapes. I enjoyed all of that but the overall aesthetic reminded me of EPCOT: a kitschy, retro version of the future.

But who cares about the aesthetic, this is a food blog and you want to know about the food. Let’s study my plate, shall we?

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Look how it glistens. At 12 o’clock, you can barely make out cauliflower in some kind of chile sauce; then, moving clockwise, there’s asparagus, bowtie pasta, and–from the Polish table–Kielbasa, Pierogi, and braised red cabbage.

It was all pretty good. I say pretty good because I don’t wish to have any of it again. And some of it lacked flavor, though kielbasa and grainy mustard is a classically good combination. All in all, I was disappointed: this is what all the fuss was about? Is this really what Anna Wintour eats?

Before I was ready to dismiss it all, though, Mr. X and I split this cupcake:

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I don’t know why, but I loved this cupcake. We cut it down the middle and there was cream on the inside too. The cupcake was a green color–was it pistachio? Or lime? It was hard to tell but one thing I know is that it was one of the best cupcakes I’ve ever eaten. It almost made me wish I was Anne Hathaway tracking down an impossible copy of the newest “Harry Potter” just so I could eat that cupcake everyday.

Otherwise, though, I won’t be returning anytime soon (except to hang out with Mr. X, who is fun company). Cafeteria food is institutional food, no matter how you slice it. Prison food, school food and this are all in the same family. And like Meadow Soprano, who went to Columbia and may now go to law school and who dated a hot dentist in the last season, she is–despite all her accomplishments–still a Soprano. This is still a cafeteria. To quote a great woman: “That’s all.”

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