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.
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.