Rolled-up Sleeves and 'Squished Cheese': Life at Union Square Cafe


Photo courtesy of Union Square Cafe

As I opened the oversized mahogany-and-glass door to Union Square Cafe on my first day of work in October of 1988 and entered into the restaurant where I have since spent a significant portion of my life, the world of formal French kitchens I had just stepped out of completely faded away. In the ensuing days and weeks I became acutely aware of the differences between my new world and the old. The atmosphere at Union Square Cafe seemed so freewheeling and loose. It was my great pleasure and privilege to discover what care and seriousness resided on a deeper level.

As the months went by, I discovered exactly why this is such a special place in the hearts and minds of so many New Yorkers—why it adds up to so much more than the walls, ceiling, and floors, the cramped restrooms and tiny kitchen. It was, is, and always will be the people working there who breathe life and joy and excitement into the place day after day: the dedicated people in the kitchen cooking comforting and easy-to-love food, and the delightfully spirited people in the dining room who can "read" a table and engage in friendly dialogue better than anyone I've ever seen.

The young girl, perhaps seven years old, had written a recipe for me with her crayons on two sheets of paper. The recipe was for "Squished Cheese."

I sought to fit in and understand the restaurant and incorporate as seamlessly as I could all that I wanted to keep from the "old school" (for example, requiring all staff members to refer to me as "Chef" rather than by my first name) and what I needed to adopt from the new (the relaxed, rolled-up-shirtsleeves atmosphere among the servers). I was constantly astounded by the USC staff. The operative principle seemed to be that if you hired enthusiastic, talented, intelligent, intuitive, and caring men and women, trained them rigorously, and extended to them a great measure of trust, amazing things would happen.

And amazing things did happen, day after day. And day after day I came to see, in a way I had never before, that a restaurant is a whole, vibrant, living entity. As I ventured into the dining room and met the guests who were enjoying our food, drink, and hospitality, I began to embrace my role as much more than someone directing the food offerings from somewhere in the "back of the house." I was discovering just how much fun, and how very rewarding, this business could be. Getting out to the dining room helped me learn how my food is a means to connect with and nurture our guests and community—and how I am nurtured in return.

Hanging on the wall in my kitchen at home is a frame that contains a precious work of art. One evening, 15 or more years ago, a server at USC asked if I might step out into the dining room to say hello to a family. The couple and their two very young children were happily enjoying their dinner and wanted to meet the chef. What's more, the young girl, perhaps seven years old, had written a recipe for me with her crayons on two sheets of paper. The recipe was for "Squished Cheese" and contained an illustrative drawing of the finished product. The instructions involved buying a can of water, adding some cheese, squishing them together and "mickowaving" the combined ingredients for several minutes. "Voila!" wrote the author, with the proud postscript of "I just made this up. You can make it too!"

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For all these years, I have held on to that drawing in a folder in my office, and then finally decided to have it framed for my home kitchen, where it still hangs today. It brings to mind that wonderful moment every time I cook, and reminds me of not only how simple and pleasing cooking should be but also how it connects us to one another.

On the occasion of USC's 25th anniversary this past October 21, we decided to throw not a lavish soiree but an alumni-only after-hours party. It was a celebration of the people who have worked together this past quarter-century - chefs and cooks, servers and managers, hosts and porters—to make USC one of America's most beloved restaurants. In attendance were many of my fellow teammates from the early days, as well as newer faces. For anyone who might have forgotten, the celebration served as a joyous reminder of how the restaurant has impacted so many lives—including my own—and of the family created among those who call USC home.

Presented by

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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