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.
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.