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New York Daily News

Master Of Shell Game Is Retiring


May 26, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

When it comes to toting up life's accomplishments, most people would have trouble putting a number on it. Not Ismael Cortes, who, in 36 years at '21,' has shucked nearly 1 million clams and oysters and whipped up more than 2.2 million servings of secret steak sauce. And that doesn't include the vats of Caesar and blue cheese dressing he turns out every week, or the mounds of shrimp he manages to wash, shell and devein without turning his fingers arthritic.

No more.

After a kitchen career that has spanned nearly half of the restaurant's 75-year life span, this ecailler and saucier is packing up his shucking knife, passing down the secret sauce recipe and calling it quits tomorrow.

"I'm tired," says Cortes, 65, the sixth-longest-tenured employee in '21's' history. "I'm ready to stay home with my wife."

Who can blame him? The Puerto Rico native, who parlayed a one- week dishwashing gig into an invitation to stay as long as he wished, rarely gets to rest his sneaker-clad feet. He arrives at 8 every morning from Jersey City, walking from Penn Station to the restaurant on W. 52nd St., then digs in: He makes salads for parties (they average 10 a day); cuts romaine for la carte Caesars; creates bouquets of baby greens; cleans and cooks upwards of 75 pounds of shrimp, and slices lemons for the oysters.

Ah, the oysters (Blue Point and Malpeque) and the clams (mostly littleneck). If there is a secret to serving them, Cortes says, it's not opening the mollusks until they're about to be eaten. And they have to look as fresh as they taste.

"A lot of people eat with their eyes - if they see a nice plate, they like it. If it doesn't look nice, they don't eat."

Cortes' oysters glisten. "Everyone can open them, but not everyone knows how to open them without breaking them." With that, Cortes grabs his worn, wood-handled knife, thrusts the tip into a corner of an oyster shell and flicks. The shell pops off. He flips over the silvery mollusk and declares it ready for prime time.

But if oysters dominate his life, the steak sauce, which he makes two to three times a week in 5-gallon tubs, is his signature. One part vinegar, two parts mustard, one part ... well, we can't divulge the recipe, which was allegedly born as a hangover remedy for legendary journalist-and-drinker Heywood Hale Broun.

When he started out, Cortes was one of several people who made it, but soon he became the sole keeper of the coral-colored ketchup- with-a-kick. And if you've ever eaten a burger, steak or fries at '21,' you've probably discovered its appeal. Sauce fans, '21' staffers say, range from Sen. John Kerry to Julianne Moore, Matt Dillon, Frank Gifford and Kelly Ripa.

A few weeks ago, executive chef Erik Blauberg tapped Michael Orsillo, a poised 21-year-old kitchen hand, to take over the sauce- making. And on a recent afternoon, he watched intently as Cortes worked, quietly elated to be carrying on a grand tradition. "It's a great sauce," Orsillo said.

Asked why he chose Orsillo, Blauberg praised his skill at following recipes. Cortes, with a propriety smile, put it another way: "I'm going, and Mike's staying."

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