A birthday lunch for Carol Brock

From time to time, someone walks unexpectedly into your life and you know they will be there forever, even when they leave this earth.  Carol Brock is one of these individuals.  She is an Auntie Mame character who I’ve known for 30 years. Her charm, wit and serendipitous joie de vivre leave you wanting to spend more time with her whenever you’re in her presence. 

Recently, a group of friends—including Joan Brower, Deborah Mintcheff and Lidia Bastianich—celebrated Carol’s 95th birthday together.  We gathered at Felidia, owned by Lidia and one of Carol’s favorite restaurants.  Carol had originally requested a meeting to discuss her vision for a professional conference that Joan, Deborah and I are co-chairing in 2020. When we learned the date coincided with her 95th, the three of us determined a birthday lunch was more fitting. 

Lidia joined our gathering for a few minutes to reminisce about Carol and their early friendship as neighbors in Douglaston, New York.  Carol quickly took control of the conversation discreetly turning the attention away from herself and shining the spotlight onto Lidia.  She reminded us that Lidia was one of only a few female chefs when she opened her now iconic Manhattan restaurant in 1981.  Like a proud mother, Carol bragged about her neighbor’s accomplishments as a mother, entrepreneur, and social activist.  We tried helplessly to bring the conversation back to Carol with a birthday toast of Prosecco rosé—while Carol elegantly nursed her red Lillet and continued to praise Lidia.

Lidia dashed off to another appointment and within seconds Carol pulled out of her purse a pile of index cards two inches thick.  “Let’s get down to business, ladies.  I want to discuss my thoughts for your conference before we get too distracted with lunch.”  And so it went.  Between bites and sips, we listened to an astonishing array of creative suggestions for the conference.  While we had inadvertently neglected to tell Carol the theme, most of her ideas were strategically on point.

Each of us understood Carol’s mission in bringing us together: to make sure the organization she created over 40 years ago, Les Dames d’Escoffier (LDEI), was soundly on track.  Equally important, however, Carol wanted to give us her vote of confidence.  As mentioned in previous blogs, this is an international organization of female leaders in the food, fine beverages and hospitality industry. Today, we are 2,300 members strong with 43 chapters throughout the US and in London, Mexico City, British Columbia, and most recently, in Paris. Thanks to Carol’s encouragement there are also on-going plans to expand to Cyprus and Italy.   

Always with an eye to the future, Carol queried why we had not yet explored a chapter in Korea and Israel.  All of this because of Carol’s dream of giving women recognition for their excellence at a time, back in the late ‘70s, when women were often excluded, overlooked and/or denigrated by their male peers.  Since LDEI’s inception in 1976, Carol Brock has maintained the position of iconic leader, role model and fairy Godmother for the membership.

During our Carol-mandated lunch, we all marveled at this woman who at age 95 had arrived to the restaurant on her own using public transportation.  Until recently, Carol swam every day which kept her body in tip-top shape.  Due to a recent fall, she now uses a sporty, cross-country pole (no cane for this lady!) to cautiously navigate the uneven sidewalks and subway stairs of New York. 

While Carol has also given up high heels in favor of “sensible shoes,” she has not relinquished her stylish attire, signature strawberry-blond coif nor meticulously applied eye-liner. Carol still bats her blue eyes with the best and possesses a captivating smile that would win over even a hardened New York cab driver.  She speaks slowing and thoughtfully verbalizes what she has on her mind as might be expected of a woman who spent her career as a writer and food editor at the New York Daily News.

Carol has a gift for making those around her feel special.  During our lunch, Carol surprised each of us with complimentary comments. When she read from her hand-written index card an idea which incorporated a cruise ship she demurely turned to Joan—a Public Relations expert with extensive experience in travel—and said, “We have with us someone very knowledgeable about the cruise industry.”  Then, when she was presenting an idea on food, she moved her coquettish gaze to Deborah, a talented cookbook editor, and said, “As a top food expert, Deborah, will understand my point of view.”  Then, she turned to me and remarked about my blog and how much she enjoyed learning about my Belgium upbringing.

Mindful, strategic and diplomatic. We can all learn from Carol’s unique approach to communication.

I asked Deborah what her favorite moment was at our recent lunch with Carol and she answered: “It was when Carol and I walked to the table and I helped her with her coat, scarf, purse and tote to make sure she had everything she needed as we got arranged at the table. She looked at me and said, ‘You understand. Your mom is 98.’ And I knew exactly what she meant.”

When asked the same question, Joan observed that "Carol's macro view of Les Dames d'Escoffier is that 'we are cultural as well as culinary, and we should not box ourselves in to only food,' and that global perspective is what has kept our dynamic organization growing and expanding."  Now, how many 95-year-old individuals do you know who think as purposefully as this? The woman has a mind and memory like a steel trap!

My favorite Carol moment was when she pulled out of her purse a giant-sized, plastic red apple and said, “Ladies. We are in the Big Apple.  Why not turn this into an amazing centerpiece and sell it for profit at one of the conference’s lunches?”

What I admire most about Carol is her unconventional nature.  Turns out, Carol is also a Grand Dame, just like Rosalind Russell, the Hollywood Grande Dame who starred in the late ‘50s film, “Auntie Mame.” The LDEI Grande Dame award is a distinction LDEI bestows on women of exceptional accomplishments within our industry.  While Rosalind Russell was scripted in her legendary role (which showcased a bubbly life of big-hearted mayhem that included raising a nephew), Carol Brock’s starring role is original.  She is, without a doubt, one of a kind.

And, while the film’s protagonist expressed a philosophy of “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death,” Carol only subscribes to the first part.  Her mission is to empower and inspire others so that they can savor life’s banquet at its fullest.

I will carry a touch of Carol’s Auntie Mame stardust in my heart forever. And, I extend my best wishes for a very happy birthday to a Grande Dame who is 95- years-young.