Meet the Man Behind the Jell-O at Clifton’s, Opening This Week

Michael Luna is the storied cafeteria’s executive pastry chef

The historic Clifton’s Cafeteria is primed to make its grand reentrance on Broadway this week with a ribbon cutting and media event scheduled for Thursday. As the city awaits what will surely be the restaurant debut of the year, there’s one burning question on everyone’s mind: Will there be Jell-O?

“Of course we’re going to have Jell-O,” says Michael Luna, the newly announced executive pastry chef for the entire Clifton’s complex. “We’re just going to look for new and inventive ways to serve it.” He’s even started his own hashtag for the menu: #thejellostays

Luna has worked his way through the kitchens of Wolfgang Puck, Gordon Ramsay, Mark Peel, and most notably James Corwell of the acclaimed Le Foret in New Orleans. Most recently he was whipping up the whimsical sugar creations at Barton G., known for its dramatic, kitschy presentations.

“We want to serve stuff that looks to the 1930s, but that will be elevated and presented in a really fun way,” says Luna. So, for Jell-O, he might cut open a strawberry and feature strawberry gelatin inside it. At the Treetops steak house, S’mores will be deconstructed into a dish featuring marshmallow cream, peanut butter mousse, and jelly sauce. And the classic white sheet cake—the second-most asked about Clifton’s favorite—will feature elaborate sugar garnishes. “And don’t worry, it’s definitely going to have sprinkles,” he says.

Luna’s work will be complimenting the savory menus by Clifton’s executive chef Jason Fullilove, who is eagerly coming up with his own takes on mac and cheese and other cafeteria standbys. For research, both chefs consulted some of the thousands of old hand-written recipe cards that the cafeteria’s former owners, the Clinton family, held on to throughout the decades. “We’ll have the apple pie, the pumpkin pie, the pecan pie, just better than you remember,” says Luna.

The pastry chef will have a bit more creative freedom with the complex’s new culinary concepts, including the soda fountain, the basement Shadowbox speakeasy, the top-floor steak house, and the front bakery case, which will feature a full bread program. “If someone who lives downtown wants to pop by for a loaf of nine-grain bread or a baguette, we’ll have it for them.”

But Luna, who grew up in Austin, Texas, says of all the dishes he’s creating, there’s one item he’s most excited to put on the tray line: “my mom’s old fashioned buttermilk biscuits—everyone loves them.”