Extraordinary Lives—Danny Meyer 4-19-10

Getting a Taste of an Extraordinary Life

Bill Kelly in Conversation with Danny Meyer

by Jackie Glasthal

The expression “food for thought” took on all new meaning on April 19 when New York restaurateur Danny Meyer joined GC president William P. Kelly for a one-on-one conversation about Meyer’s life, restaurants, and overall career. The event, which took place in the GC’s eighth-floor dining commons, was the second in a series exploring the “Extraordinary Lives” of public figures who have played a major role in shaping the fields in which they work.

Now the founder and co-owner of eleven highly acclaimed New York City eateries, ranging from Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern to the dining facilities at the Museum of Modern Art and the not-so-fast food Shake Shack mini-chain, Meyer, by his own admission, almost missed his culinary calling. After graduating Trinity College in 1980 as a political science major, he was about to take the LSAT’s when a discerning uncle asked him why he was pursuing a law degree when all he had ever talked about was opening a restaurant.

At that time, noted Meyer, “food was not a spectator sport.” These were the days before there was a Food Network, food blogs, or the wide range of “foodie” publications that currently fill magazine racks and store shelves. Most college-educated culinary role models in the early 1980s—such as Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, and Paul Prudhomme—had found their way into the restaurant business via the kitchen. So, telling his parents that he was considering a career as a chef, Meyer accepted a job paying $250 per week as an assistant manager at Pesca, an Italian seafood restaurant in New York’s Flatiron District. His father also arranged for him to study as a culinary stagière in Italy and Bordeaux. What he took away from these experiences, said Meyer, is that he did not have what it took to be a great chef. “I needed to be doing a lot of different things as a generalist,” he reflected. “Great chefs go really, really deeply into one topic.”

This revelation seemingly had a profound impact on Meyer’s choices when, in 1985, at the age of twenty-seven, he opened his first experiment in haute cuisine, the Union Square Café. Presuming that this was the only time he would ever get such an opportunity, “I took everything I loved food-wise, and tried to superimpose it onto this one restaurant,” he told his GC audience. Combining as best he could the spirit of a Roman trattoria with that of a French bistro and the unpretentious ambience of a San Francisco bar and grill café, Meyer created what is now his signature casual approach to fine dining.

When asked by Kelly to speculate on why his restaurants have such staying power, Meyer emphasized the importance of participating in a dialogue with the people who work and eat at each venue. “These restaurants are dynamic,” he pointed out. “They live.” He contrasted this with the process of writing a book, which, as he put it, “once you write it, it’s done.”

Citing the etymology of the word ‘restaurant’ (which is from the French restaurer, and literally means to ‘restore to a former state’), Meyer noted how important it is for the guests at his restaurants to feel that they are being cared for. Presumably it is this strategy that has won him the International Association of Culinary Professional’s Restaurateur Award of Excellence, and his restaurants and chefs such accolades as an unprecedented 19 James Beard Awards, and the No. 1 and No. 2 top spots on Zagat’s list of most popular restaurants. The lesson to Meyer and his staff in all of this: “How our restaurants make people feel,” he said, “is at least as important as how good they thought the food was.”

Submitted on: APR 19, 2010

Category: President's Office - Events