We live in a culinary world chock full of chef-lebrities. With media and publicity up the wazoo, chefs are writing memoirs, competing for the title of master on reality tv, and lending their name on everything from salsa to slow cookers. At his bi-annual Morning Market Meeting, Danny Meyer managed to hush that hubbub and remind us of the basics: exquisite hospitality, quality ingredients, and good company.
We arrived at the Union Square Café (USC) at 7:50 am last Wednesday with the itinerary – Mr. Meyer and Elizabeth Ryan, of Breezy Hill Orchards and the Union Square Greenmarket, would speak briefly, and Chef Carmen Quagliata was to demo a recipe or two, all surrounding summer’s most succulent fruit… the peach. To my surprise, the attendees were not members of the press or famous actresses, but a gaggle of Danny Meyer super fans, some of which have been coming to the meetings for over 15 years.
Embracing old friends and shrieking with excitement that this morning had arrived, the small and intimate crowd comprised of a majority of women over the age of 45. The Morning Market Meetings act as a reunion of sorts over pastries, coffee, and orange juice, so fresh it didn’t even taste like the orange juice I know. When Danny walked in, he was among friends, “Hello Marjory! How’s your son?” waving, smiling, while lending a kiss on the cheek, all genuine.
An amalgamation of gracious and unassuming host, wit and charm, Danny welcomes us and begins the breakfast with a free form “non-press” press conference. Reflecting on his own life and food, he amuses of how his son, raised in NYC, had never been to a mall, our nations bread and butter.. After participating in America’s fast food mall diet with his family, he comments that he is “proud of how far we have come as a food loving country, but this is a big part of how America is eating today. It’s not a menu that is about what grew nearby and was picked last night,” he reflects, “I’m not sure they are doing anything especially wrong, but I’m also not sure it’s especially right.”
What is especially right is Danny’s philosophy of celebrating local and seasonal ingredients, which he integrated into USC 27 years ago. Danny continues to implement this philosophy in all of his restaurants, including the unassuming Shake Shack, his all-natural interpretation on fast food. ”What we try to do as much as we possibly can is to not be the big bad chain. We try to celebrate what’s local in the community. And you can do that without changing the burger, or without changing a custom recipe.” Amen to that!
Elizabeth Ryan, the owner and operator of Breezy Hill Orchard in the Hudson River Valley and one of the founding farmers of the Union Square Green Market, brought the local, divulging us in her expertise of stone fruit, and in particular, the glorified peaches. “Peaches are the tomato of the fruit world,” Elizabeth proclaims. Ripening from the inside out, peaches can often look beautiful on the outside, but be flavorless, green and hard on the inside, just like the tomato. Sensing her passion, Elizabeth’s biggest turmoil is when to pick a peach (the horticulturist’s ultimate dilemma) and what to do with all those pits!
Whilst sipping a peach appertif, the newest addition to the seasonal cocktail program at USC, which serves a weekly new cocktail for 52 weeks, Chef Carmen Quagliata throws us into a master cooking lesson, spotlighting Elizabeth’s peaches. Chef Sunny, pastry chef at USC, then presents us with the perfect peach tarte tatine; the paper thin flakes of dough fall to the cut and peaches are caramelized to an unrecognizable sticky, sugary candy. Next is the corn and peach salsa, and I can’t help but think, what did I do to deserve this treatment? and for free nonetheless. Nearing the end, Chef Carmen, hilarious and kind, tours us through the Union Square Green Market, introducing us to farmers, foods, and friends, bringing the morning full circle.
For no other reason than to kindly share his home with us, Danny Meyer and the lovely staff of Union Square Café welcomed us into their sanctuary and fed us with food and edible knowledge, beyond satisfaction. Each patron was elevated to the role of guest of honor, evident by the great care bestowed on us. “Hospitality is improvisation. In Japanese culture, they are taught to treat everybody the same way all the time, whereas hospitality is treating everybody a little bit differently based on what you think their needs are. Hospitality is a dialogue, as opposed to a monologue,” Danny professed. We were witness to this dance and the evolution of food ideas – from the restaurant owner, to the farmer, to the chef, to our mouths.
It’s apparent that Danny Meyer and Chef Carmen don’t host Morning Market Meetings for publicity. Their intention is to connect the people with the food and farmers. With all of the impervious weight the Danny Meyer’s name bears, he just added a few more tons.
Recipe for Peach Tarte Tatine and Corn and Peach Salsa
All photos credit Zoe Schaeffer for I’m In The Kitchen