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.