The Defining Moment: When I Became a Chef

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Earlier this month, Danny Meyer, CEO of New York's Union Square Hospitality Group, introduced a roster of new contributors from his acclaimed restaurants. This week's piece is from Michael Romano.

Recently I came across an old photo and hung it on the wall in my office. It's a picture of me at my graduation from New York City Technical College, where I took formal courses in French cooking and earned my degree in Hotel & Restaurant Management. The year was 1974. Every so often I glance up at the young fellow in that picture with the shocking head of hair and absurdly wide tie (remember the '70s?).

Thirty-six years have passed since that newly-minted culinarian, much longer on enthusiasm than sense or experience, set out to seduce the world one meal at a time. It's been a time rich with the experiences of people, places, and tastes from all parts of the globe—a time I'll have the great pleasure of sharing with you here over the next months.

One moment set the whole thing in motion. I had dragged myself through two years of Fordham University, with precious little idea of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. By that time I had had exactly two jobs in restaurants and was in the second, a quirky little place called Serendipity on East 60th Street in Manhattan. Several nights a week, I stood at the stoves flailing about as a very inexperienced cook. The owners perceived that I might have an interest in the business beyond just getting my next paycheck, and set up an interview for me with the venerable James Beard.

I don't recall everything we spoke about in the kitchen of his apartment in the West Village, except one very important sentence: "Well, if you think you like cooking so much, why don't you learn how to do it and make a career out of it?" That simple thought empowered me to stop vacillating and take control of my life, quit college (to my parents' extreme consternation), and enroll at Technical College. I remain eternally grateful to James Beard for his sage advice. Several years later, much to my delight (and his surprise!), I was able to thank him personally when he came to dine at Michel Guerard's Michelin three-star restaurant in Eugenie-les-Bains, where I was happily working as commis poissonier.

The renowned French chef Fernand Point (1897-1955) wrote, "It is with my stoves that I people my silences," which I find to be an incredibly beautiful thought.

Throughout my years as a chef, I've often reminded cooks never to lose sight of how very special is our work. There are, I've told them time and again, many paths in life one may follow that render service, or simply delight, to one's fellow man. Think of the person who cuts your hair, or sews your clothing, or drives the bus you take to work. Or the person who sings and dances for you, plays the piano, or pitches for your favorite baseball team. As cooks, what we do is unique in that the fruits of our work actually become you, and in that intensely intimate exchange both enormous satisfaction and serious responsibility can and should be found.

That has been my point of departure and guiding principle these nearly four decades. It came to me, I believe, through the food and nurturing of my earliest days. My mother's and grandmother's food was always prepared with care and love that transformed mere ingredients into genuine nourishment. Today, watching people squirm with delight while tasting a dish I've just cooked brings me immeasurable pleasure.

The renowned French chef Fernand Point (1897-1955) wrote, "It is with my stoves that I people my silences," which I find to be an incredibly beautiful thought. Those words speak to me of the relationship between a cook and his stove, which serves him as a tool much as a writer employs his pen or a painter her brush. In each instance it is a means of communication—in this case, between the cook and the fire, and then with those who care to partake.

These days my stoves are no longer found in one place, within the walls of one particular restaurant. From day to day I am in communication with the very talented chefs at all of Union Square Hospitality Group's restaurants, tasting a dish here, discussing a menu there. Or I might be in front of the stoves at our catering facility, Union Square Events, testing new dishes for a consulting project, or cooking for a party. Or perhaps my stove will be found in Japan, at our Union Square Tokyo restaurant (where I will be for the next two weeks), preparing seasonal dishes with the bounty of that country's land and sea. Or even standing before a blueprint, calculating where the stoves for our next venture will be best situated. Finally, there is the stove at my home in eastern Long Island—the place where Chef Point's words perhaps find their fullest expression in my life.

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Michael Romano is senior partner and culinary director for Union Square Hospitality Group, which includes some of the most acclaimed restaurants in New York City, such as Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, Tabla, Blue Smoke, Shake Shack, The Modern, and Maialino. More

Michael Romano is senior partner and culinary director for Union Square Hospitality Group, which includes some of the most acclaimed restaurants in New York City, such as Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, Tabla, Blue Smoke and Jazz Standard, Shake Shack, The Modern, Cafe 2 and Terrace 5 at MoMA, and Maialino, as well as our catering business Union Square Events and the food offerings at the Whitney Museum of American Art. With 20 years of experience within USHG as chef/partner of Union Square Cafe, Michael has been instrumental in laying the culinary foundations of all of USHG’s existing businesses. In his new position, Michael is responsible for the development of culinary programs and kitchen design across all of USHG. Michael continues to collaborate with Union Square Cafe’s executive chef Carmen Quagliata, and he will help select and serve as a mentor to USHG’s team of award-winning chefs. He is also directly responsible for USHG’s role in Union Square Toyko.

Union Square Cafe became Michael’s home in 1988, and six months later The New York Times gave it three stars. In 1993, Michael became Danny Meyer’s partner. Over the years, Union Square Cafe has moved from a 21st ranking in the New York City Zagat Survey to the most popular restaurant eight times, a record! After its sister restaurant Gramercy Tavern took over the top spot in 2003, USC rose to the top yet again in 2004, becoming the first restaurant in Zagat’s history to reclaim the number one position; and after sitting behind Gramercy Tavern as the second most popular restaurant for the last few years, USC again regained the number one spot in the 2008 and 2009 guides. USC received the James Beard Outstanding Restaurant of the Year 1997. To share with others their passion for gastronomic pleasures, Danny and Michael collaborated in writing two cookbooks, The Union Square Cafe Cookbook, published by Harper Collins (1994), and Second Helpings (2001).

Michael has been honored to be the recipient of various nominations and awards. This includes the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef in New York City, for which he was nominated seven times and won in 2001. He’s also been nominated for Food & Wine magazine’s top ten chefs in the U.S.A. In 2000, he was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America. In 1997, he kicked off The New York Times’s weekly column, “The Chef,” with a series of eight articles. As a founding partner of Tabla, which opened in the fall of 1998, he helped to create an exciting dining experience that marries New American cuisine with the spices of India. Michael was also a founding partner of Blue Smoke, an urban barbecue restaurant that opened in 2002.


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