Jim Poris / June 2001
Food Arts presents the June 2001 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Michael Romano, who has had a large hand in codifying a cuisine of relaxed urbanity that has become the vernacular for countless American chefs. As the longtime executive chef/partner of Union Square Cafe in New York City, Romano loosed his many years of experience in formal French restaurants on Americans' favorite foods—pasta, grilled steak, roasted chicken, seared salmon, and the like—twisting them into modestly sophisticated dishes that are Italian spirit and 100 percent American in punchy flavor and portion size.
"At Union Square Cafe it's never been about the flashy stuff or the next thing, but about the real thing, things I like to eat," says Romano, a New York City native who began cooking in the ice-cream parlor Serendipity (now Serendipity 3) 30 years ago. "The food isn't fussed over and it isn't challenging. It's hearty, wholesome, and reasonably priced. I disagree with those who say you should never cook the same thing twice, that you have to challenge your guests. That's fine for a certain segment of chefs, but I like to go back to places and order the same thing again and again."
The soothing familiarity of Romano's food coupled with owner Danny Meyer's welcome-home service ethic have made Union Square Cafe an iconic restaurant. For five years running, it's been voted by Zagat surveyors as the most popular in New York City. When Romano arrived at Union Square Cafe in 1988, more than two years after it opened, he had "already been through nouvelle cuisine and the rarified and expensive thing" during formative stints with Michel Gúerard, for whom he ran the workaday culinary operation of chef de cuisine of the Michelin two-star Chez Max in Zurich; and at La Caravelle in New York City, where he became the first American to command the kitchen of that venerable bastion of French classicism. "After all that, I viewed Danny's vision for Union Square Cafe not as a restriction but as a challenge," Romano says. "Doing 300 to 500 covers a day out of a small kitchen was a whole different way of cooking for me."
Over time, Romano opened his menu—and guests' minds—to the wonders of the Greenmarket two steps from his kitchen and to the Indian-influenced dishes, which, from his interest in yoga, lef him first to subcontintental excursions and then to a partnership with Meyer at the crossbreed Tabla. This fall, Romano and Meyer will add the barbeque joint Blue Smoke as Union Square Hospitality Group's fifth restaurant (Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park are the others in the organization) and come out with Second Helpings from Union Square Cafe, a sequel to 1994's The Union Square Cafe Cookbook. All this was recognized when Romano won the 2001 James Beard Award as the top chef in New York City.
"In a world where many chefs try to push the creative envelope," Meyer says, "Michael has the confidence to prepare non-showy food with only one goal in mind: your pleasure."