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Danny Meyer: Pearls of Wisdom

By William Drew , 17-Aug-2012
Last updated the 17-Aug-2012 at 10:10 GMT

Related topics: Pearls of Wisdom, Business, People, Restaurants

Founder of the Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG), which includes Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke and Shake Shack among its number, legendary New York restaurateur Danny Meyer also penned the seminal book on hospitality, Setting the Table. 

Danny Meyer

Danny Meyer

Within five minutes of being born, each of us gets our first four hospitality gifts: eye contact, a smile, a hug, and some pretty good food. Don’t think for a moment we don’t go searching for those same gifts in every subsequent transaction of our lives. Do those things in your restaurants and you can’t lose.

The night before I was due to do my final law exams I had this dawning realisation that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I was out to dinner with my uncle, who said, “Life’s too short to do anything you don’t love.” The thing I’d always loved was restaurants.

Restaurants should be like wine: grounded in their terroir. Just as when you drink a bottle of wine you should get a sense of where it’s from, so you should get a sense of where you are in a restaurant. I hope our places have the soul of the city in them.

I enrolled in hospitality school with a friend. He lasted three classes, but he put me in touch with his one contact in the restaurant world – an Italian restaurant called Pesca on 22nd Street. I got a job there as a lunchtime manager with no experience whatsoever.

The most common error is for chefs and restaurateurs to open restaurants and cook food to satisfy their own egos.

I went to Europe to learn how to cook as a stagiaire in France and Italy. But when I came back to New York I realised that despite adoring food and cooking, I was much better suited to work in a dining room.

I don’t like restaurants that are so noisy you can’t talk to the person you’re with. Noise levels are a bit like chefs with salt – too little is no good, but it’s tempting to add too much.

When I opened Union Square Cafe [in 1985] I had only worked in the industry for a year.I didn’t understand cash flow, I couldn’t read or write a balance sheet, I didn’t know anything about marketing or PR. But I had an instinct for treating customers the right way.

I think Paris is having something of a culinary renaissance. It’s suffered recently because too many of its restaurants were concerned with the old way of doing things. Now there are more young chefs and restaurateurs making it great again.

I love to cook. The garden at our weekend house in Connecticut dictates the menu. Last weekend we had pea soup, radishes with butter, zucchini with basil, grilled cauliflower, black raspberry pie – all from the garden. The only thing we didn’t raise was the chicken we grilled.

Eleven Madison Park [formerly part of USHG] has all the ingredients of a great restaurant: a beautiful historic room, a view out over the park, peerless service and Daniel Humm’s cooking, which is out of this world.

I spent years making excuses not to write Setting the Table. Eventually, as the group grew, I had to write something to communicate our philosophy and ideas to the staff internally, so I thought I’d combine the two. Then the publishers said I had to make it partly a memoir in order for it to sell I hated writing that aspect of it, but they were right, of course. The book is now in its 40th printing in the US.

The late Jean-Claude Vrinat of Taillevent [in Paris] taught me that you can run a refined restaurant without losing the twinkle in your eye. I like my restaurants to be excellent and fun, and to create for our guests a blurred line between going out and coming home.

What do I look for in the people we hire? It’s 49 parts how good they are at what they do; 51 parts how important it is to them to make other people feel good. It’s a simple recipe, but simple is hard.

London is truly inspirational in ways that would never have been the case some years ago. It has influenced our latest restaurant, North End Grill, where chef Floyd Cardoz is doing brilliant things cooking over charcoal.

It’s only taken 18 years, but 2013 will finally see the first Gramercy Tavern cookbook. We’re also doing another book called Family Table, outlining the recipes that our staff cook for each other on a daily basis.

I’m a big fan of Maybourne [owner of Claridge’s in London], but we’re not opening a restaurant there. While I’d never say never to the UK, it would be a major stretch.

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