Yesterday evening, author and New Yorker essayist Adam Gopnik moderated a discussion featuring restaurateur Danny Meyer and Union Square Hospitality Group culinary director Michael Romano. The event was designed to promote the duo's recent book, Family Table (co-authored by Karen Stabiner), which focuses on the meals Union Square Café serves employees, and the idea that keeping their staff happy and fed is crucial to providing their trademark hospitality. But some of the most interesting aspects of the conversation had to do with the career paths of Romano and Meyer, the way they were part of an evolution in American dining, and how they keep their restaurants busy and relevant.
Here are some of the best snippets:
Romano on the environment in French kitchens: "I found it disheartening after a while... We were all sitting eating staff meal one day in Paris, and the sous chef, who was at the head of the table, put a piece of cauliflower in his mouth and then spit it out. Everything got very quiet, and then he asked, 'Who cooked this?' This fourteen-year-old with a dirty apron said he had done it, and the sous chef asked him to come see him. When he got there, the sous chef punched him."
Meyer on family meals and the importance of keeping staff happy: "I've never run a restaurant where an unhappy staff does a good job of taking care of customers. We don't think we have commerce or much of a business if when you walk in, it's not palpable that the people working there are having a good time."
Romano on France's relevance: "France was the promised land and the place you needed to go to get a culinary education. Now, it's shifted in a large measure to Japan. If you go to good restaurants, now the cooks have either gone or want to go to Japan... It's because of the aesthetic, the lightness of the food — the way people eat right now. You can go through a thirty-course meal and yet feel fine. They've always been hyper-seasonal."
Romano on Sukiyabashi Jiro, in Tokyo: "I ate there. The sushi was excellent, but there was zero hospitality."
Meyer on the NYC dining scene in 1987: "It was a real turning point when, three years into Union Square Café, I was able to convince Michael to come downtown. This guy who had been cooking French food at La Caravelle came down to Union Square — it was a pretty new thing. He had been cooking three courses for $55 and came to a place where the check average was $38."
Meyer on USC: "Union Square Café, along with Arizona 206, was among the first casual American restaurants to earn three stars from the New York Times. That was a big turning point. We're in 1988 at that point, and we realized we didn't have to be French. But there was nowhere like France where you could learn that solid technique."
Meyer on American cuisine's evolution in the 80s: "France decided to stop growing. They didn't want any other influence at that point, and basically for twenty years thereafter. Whereas in America, people started taking influences from Latin America, Asia, Mexico, Italy, France, Germany. France stopped growing, and we kept growing here."
Meyer on what made USC: "Union Square Café was an amalgamation: there was the California element — let it be simple, let it be from the heart and soul — the French element, and the Italian element. That's what Union Square Café was, and that's what our country became. It wasn't just French anymore."
Meyer on how things have changed: "We now have Ivy League graduates who are happy to wait tables. There's no question about the impact the media has had on this industry."
Romano on the animosity in classic restaurants: "One of the things that most disturbed me — and I must say I still see it in France — is the animosity between the front of house and back of house. You can be in a restaurant and say, "I'd love the roast chicken, but could I have it with the garnish from the steak dish," and you can see the waiter cringe because the kitchen is going to give him a hard time. I never understood that."
Meyer on vibes: "People always ask me about serving the perfect dinner party at home, and far more important than what you're serving is thinking about how your family treated each other that day. I can feel if a household is happy or not, and I'm going to remember that feeling."
Meyer on keeping his older restaurants busy and relevant: "I would argue that our oldest restaurants, Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern, are qualitatively doing the best they have ever done. If you look at all of our restaurants, those two are the least concept-focused. So there is nothing to go in or out of style about either of them. When someone says, "What's new about Union Square Café?", I'll tell them to walk through the green market, because that's what it's about. Also the hospitality, which is the bulwark on which they are founded, never goes out of style. The more digital we all get in terms of how we relate to people, the more we need an honest hug at the real table."
Meyer on keeping his older restaurants busy and relevant: "The average New Yorker will want seven out of ten restaurants they go to to be new, since that's part of the fun of eating out. But if you can become one of the three that they go back to, then you're in pretty good shape. It gets more difficult when a restaurant is more conceptually focused, since certain cuisines can go out of style."
Meyer on how things have changed: "There is the knife-wielding, inked up, cursing, pierced chef image of today, and that's fine, as long as they cook really good food for the pleasure of the people eating it. I think the great thing about it is that now there is a dramatically wider pool of interested applicants. I don't think there's been a time where we've had the opportunity to work with so many gifted people. The only negative part is the people who have the misperception that this is theater."
Gopnik, discussing seasonality, shares something André Soltner told him: "'There was a long time when we really didn't go to the market. We sometimes went and posed for photos in the market!'"
Meyer on the importance of seasonality these days: "Now, when I read a review and it's waxing poetic about an asparagus dish and it's not that short window of time when it's available, I realize that restaurant is so out of step."