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Smith & Wollensky's Danny Kissane on 33 Years of Steak

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Photo by Nick Solares

Danny Kissane started working at Alan Stillman's Midtown steakhouse Smith & Wollensky at age 20, before he was even out of college. He started cutting meat after a year, and now, 33 years later, he oversees every piece of beef that comes into the restaurant. With a small team of butchers, he orders and breaks down up to three tons of beef every week, and then manages the dry-aging process. Order a steak at Smith & Wollensky, and it's as much the work of Danny as it is the chef. Here's Danny on work days that start at 4 a.m., the proliferation of steakhouses, and his preferred steak-cooking method.

How long have you worked here?
Danny: I've been here since '81. '77 was when Alan [Stillman] opened the restaurant. So I've been here a long time. [Laughs] Forever I guess!

How did you get into being a butcher?
Well basically I'm not just a butcher. I do all the ordering for the restaurant, I do maintenance, a lot of the back of the house stuff I do. But how I got into it: I was always in the business when I was younger. I worked in the Catskills when I was 11, 12 years old. It was like slave labor back then, they had me washing dishes...

Is that where you grew up?
No, I grew up in the Bronx. I worked every summer, I dish-washed, I waiter-ed, I was like a cabana boy, I was a bartender, and my last year I actually was helping run the resort. It was called the Kilcar, it was right above the mountain, in the lower Albany area. And in between my junior year and my senior year of college they sold the building, so I didn't have a job. And that's basically how I ended up here.

What did you start out doing when you came here?
I'll tell you how I got the job here: my dad owned a beer bar in the Bronx. It was called The Beer Bar [laughs]. It had the old tin roof and the sawdust on the floors, and basically all it served was goblets of beer. And a bunch of the guys that lived in the neighborhood and all hung out there worked for Alan and his organization. Tommy Hart was the general manager here for years and years, but at the time he was just a manager. And he had me come down and I started as a box lifter. That was my first job, and then I eventually ended up working in the kitchen, doing different things. I went to Pace University in Pleasantville, and I commuted back and forth and worked here on the weekends.

So when did you start doing the actual butchering for the restaurant?
I started doing that basically when I got out of college in 1982. I started doing all the ordering and butchering.

How did you learn how to do it?
I did it on the job. I learned very quickly. They had someone here who was leaving at the time and I was just thrown into the position.

So why have you stayed here so long?
Well it has a lot to do with a lot of things. It has to do with all the employees that are here, very great people to work with. Some of them have been here 35 years, some of them have been here 30 years, and that's amazing for the restaurant business. And then Alan's been really good to me. And Michael [Stillman], in the last eight to ten years that he's been doing it, has been really good to me. I'm very content in my job.

So what does a typical day look like for you?
I actually live out in Suffolk County Long Island, so I get up at about quarter to three in the morning and I drive into work, 'cause there's no trains at that time of morning. I'm in here about quarter to four in the morning, and I go from there. I come in, I open up all the boxes, all the refrigerators, check everything. Start taking deliveries in at 6:00 in the morning, start butchering at 6:30, 7:00. There's a lot to be done, so that goes on until 3:30 or 4:00.

Do you ever wish that you had a job that didn't start so early?
Yes, that's probably what I like least about this job [laughs]. In a way it's not bad because you're home at not a bad hour. Being in this business that's not bad, and I have three kids at home who all play sports, so it's good with that. But yeah, when I'm laying in bed at 10:00 saying "Oh god, I gotta get up again in four hours," that's not fun.

Do you think you'll ever do anything different?
Probably not at this point in my life. We'll see how it goes, but right now it's going fine.

So in terms of quantity, what does a day of butchering look like?
Well we have three butchers here that work full time. They also do other jobs, but they're basically full-time butchers, and myself. We butcher anywhere from a ton of beef to three tons of beef a day here.

What does that break down into?
There's all different cuts of meat. Most of it's all primal meats, center cut meats, loin meat, shells, filets, rib roasts.

What do you sell the most of?
Our Colorado rib steak and our Cajun rib steak are our best sellers. They're two pounds, on the bone, and it just looks very impressive.

And do you manage the steak aging as well?
Oh yeah that's very important. We do all our own aging here. We've been doing that since the day Alan opened it. We age our own meat, anywhere from three to four weeks, and it's a very important part of the whole process. Every day we get in all different cuts of meat. We weigh it all, tag it all — the weight, who the purveyor is, the date — it goes into our aging box, and in the aging box it's all on a rotation system. So everything stays where it is, and you get to it when you get to it. What the aging process does is break down all the impurities in the beef. It pulls out all the moisture from the beef, it tenderizes the beef, it brings out the full flavor in the marbling and the beef itself.

So that's something you're in charge of?
Yes I am. Every piece of beef that comes in here I check personally. If things need to be sent back I send them back. Prime beef is only two to three percent of the beef in the country, and we probably only take the top 25 to 30 percent of that beef.

What are your criteria?
It's gotta be the right color, the right size, the right marbling in the meat.

How often do you end up sending stuff back?
Not very often, because we now deal with six or seven different purveyors, and I've been dealing with them for a long time, and they know better than to send something here that's not gonna meet my standards. Because I'll send it back, it's gonna be a waste of their time, it's gonna be a waste of my time, and they don't wanna listen to me bitchin' and complaining.

Who are your purveyors?
There's a lot of them. We deal with Masters Purveyors, Straussberger, Prime Beef out on Long Island, that's basically the top ones, where we get most of our main, primal meat from.

When you eat here, what do you get?
I would get the Cajun ribeye steak, medium rare, with some hash browns and some creamed spinach.

Are there any other places in the city that you like?
Yeah there's a lot of good steakhouses. We own two steakhouses, Quality Italian and Quality Meats, which you can't beat. But you can go to the Palm, the Palm has a good steak. Some of the old-time ones like us keep up their standards.

How much do you interact with other butchers at other restaurants? Is there any sort of community?
Not much. A lot of times people call me because I'm known in the industry, and people will say, "oh go call Danny." If some of the purveyors I deal with have someone who wants to start dealing with them, they'll have them call me to give them a recommendation. Which goes a long way.

What's your favorite part of doing this job?
Probably the employees, dealing with people every day. It's a lot of fun. If it wasn't, 33 years later I wouldn't be doing it. If you cut me I bleed green.

What's your least favorite thing?
Like I said, getting up early in the morning. And during the summer time it's really hot downstairs. We deal with all the different conditions in the basement. It's hot during the summer, it's cold during the winter. It's getting harder on my old body.

Do you have any particularly memorable moments or stories from the time you've been working here?
If these walls could talk. I'll tell you a good story: when I first started this job, I was young, and a little bit wild, so I'd get to work sometimes a little bit late. But the guy that was doing the buying downstairs says I had to be here at 4:00 in the morning to do inventory with him. I said, "I'm not gonna be here at 4:00 in the morning!" He says, "Yes you are." He made me sleep at his apartment that night, and I got up and took the train with him in the morning, the 6 train down from the Bronx, and I'm sitting on the train saying to myself, "I will never, ever, do this again in my life, I swear to God." And here I am doing it every day of my life! [Laughs].

How often do you eat steak?
I eat steak probably once or twice a week. I'll take home some of the good scraps from downstairs. You take the best scraps off the edges of the meat, and you just know how to cook them. And I come in here probably once every two to three weeks to eat just to make sure everything's up to standard.

How do you cook your steak at home?
I barbecue it, 12 months of the year. I have a Weber gas grill that's hard wired into the house so you don't need propane or anything. In the winter I shovel a path to the barbecue.

And what do you cook to go with the steak?
Eh, basic things, instant mashed potatoes and stuff that you can cook easily at home that doesn't take long.

I bet your family loves that.
Actually it's funny, my kids are very picky eaters.

How old are they?
Actually my oldest son works here as a bartender, he's 24 years old. My daughter is going into her senior year at Tampa, and my son is 15 years old, he's a sophomore in high school.

When did your oldest son start working here?
Actually he started working here right out of college. He went to school for criminal justice, so he's actually waiting to be called for the New York City Police Department, which should be soon. He's done a lot of tests already, been going through the process for about a year, two years now.

Do you ever work at the same time as your son?
Yeah sometimes he works during the day shift. Years ago when I was first working here and got married and had children I bartended here, I bartended at Maloney & Porcelli, I did what I needed to do to survive. I actually maitre'd -ed here at nighttime. I did a little bit of everything. One time when I was a maitre d' Michelle Marsh came in, she was a news anchor, famous back then. And she was here between her 6:00 shift and her 11:00 shift and she was puttin' down martini's like you wouldn't believe. She got into it with me, she was just complaining about everything, like at 9, 10:00 at night and I said, "This lady has to go back and do the news at 11:00 at night? Oh my god." Those were the old days.

Are there any regulars here that you interact with?
Yeah, there's a lot of regulars. Not as many as the old days. The old days lunch was a big thing. It's not as big as it was years and years ago, when people would come in five days a week for lunch. But there's still a lot of customers that come in that I'll come up and say hello to.

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[Photo by Nick Solares]

Has the restaurant changed much in the time that you've been here?
Yes, it's changed dramatically. Years ago when I started there was only maybe five steakhouses in Manhattan. Now there's probably a couple hundred steakhouses. So you gotta keep up with the times. We hired a new chef here about a year and a half ago, and he's changing a lot of dishes. But the quality of the meat hasn't changed. The standards on the meat have always stayed the same, the aging process has not changed.

Is that boom in steakhouses a good thing or a bad thing for New York?
It's a good thing, but it's sort of getting a little bit over-saturated. It wasn't a bad thing for a while, but just now everywhere you look there's a steakhouse. Right up the block here on 53rd Street.

Is there anything else you want to add?
You know how after a long time people don't wanna go to work anymore? I don't mind getting up every morning and going to work. It's not like it's a job to me. It's something I enjoy and that's why I do it every day.

That's lucky. And I'm sure they're lucky to have you.
I hope they think that. I know they think that [laughs]. Actually, I'll be honest with you, being here long I'm not just the butcher, I'm part of this building. There's things in this building nobody knows about, they come and ask me. If there's some sort of a breaker our somewhere, if there's a stoppage in the drain, I know where to go to unstop that drain, I know where the lights would be. If there's a problem with an air conditioning unit, I know what that problem would be and where it would be. If there's a leak somewhere, I know what that would be. Every nook and cranny of this building is part of my being. The only thing I don't buy for the restaurant is the booze. I buy these tables and chairs, I deal with every different purveyor for anything else there is, any mechanical work that's gotta be done, or anything else, it's on me. I'm in charge of having the porters clean everything. I walk around every morning and inspect the building. If I see something that's gotta be painted or cleaned or whatever, it's my job to have somebody go and clean it, paint it, fix it, whatever has to be done. I'm a man of many tasks, I guess.
· All Coverage of Smith & Wollensky [~ENY~]
· All Coverage of the Five Days of Meat [~ENY~]

Smith & Wollensky

797 3rd Ave, New York, NY 10022

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