Carmen Quagliata of the Union Square Cafe on American Food and the Great Hamburger-Hot Dog Debate


New York City isn’t short on American restaurants, so figuring out whom to interview for Americana Week was tricky. But the Union Square Café, Danny Meyer’s first venture, fits the bill, having witnessed changes in the American foodscape for the past quarter of a century. So we called up chef Carmen Quagliata to learn more about what American food means to him, his favorite summer ingredients, and, most importantly, whether a hamburger or a hot dog is the best food for the Fourth of July.

It’s Americana Week on our blog. How would you define American cuisine?

You know, I think it’s just about using whatever’s available. That’s the way people shop [for food] now. They go to markets and they use the heritage that they brought with them. Around holidays Americana has a more assigned vision. But the whole melting pot definitely exists. Then again, you could say that’s pretty ethnic, too. The further South you go becomes more Americana. When you get soft shells or corn, you think American cuisine. Americana is also retro food, like Boursin cheese. It’s so bad, but it’s great.

What are your favorite ingredients to work with?

People always ask what I like to cook. I love to cook pasta. I’m obsessed with eating it and cooking it. I guess you could call that an ingredient. And I love when summer comes — the summer Italian garden: squash, tomatoes, eggplant. And porcini mushrooms. Pork. I love sardines — love ’em to death, all those little funky fish.

Any foods you truly hate?

I’ll eat anything. Textures don’t bother me, but I don’t like snails. They’re over-mineraly and there’s never enough garlic to mask it. At least the last time I had snails. I also don’t like tomatoes and asparagus together. I think, why would people put them together?

What’s your average day like?

It depends. Most days are an early start. We make changes based on the Wednesday Greenmarket, so I’ll see what we have and take notes and talk to the farmers. Then I have to get back in the kitchen and work with the sous chefs and get them going. I’d love to just be in the kitchen but you have to be involved in many situations and you have to develop your staff so they can make decisions on your behalf. So from about 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., I’m in the kitchen. Then I’ll have meetings from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Then there’s lunch, and then I’ll bust out interviews and stuff like this from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and then get involved in dinner, and then wind down around 10 p.m. It’s a balancing act.

How would you describe the mood of the kitchen at the Union Square Café?

I’d call us a constantly athletic kitchen. Not Zen, but smooth. We like to think and be intuitive and be quick from the elbow down and keep it clean. It’s tough because it’s an old kitchen. It’s definitely an educational environment. If someone was blindfolded, you’d never know it was a 25-year-old restaurant. We’re bent on being great and in touch with the past, but we’re cooks pushing forward.

What’s the secret to being in business for 25 years?

Everyone in this company gives a stock answer of hospitality, and that’s obviously the case, but I try to stress with the cooks that hospitality is everything that we do; it’s the strive for excellence. I remind the cooks that they are part of it, too. Whether it’s the dishwasher washing the plate great, or the host greeting people or the prep cook washing vegetables, it means that everyone is putting their best foot forward.

What’s the best night to eat at the restaurant?

I should say Mondays because that’s when we need more covers! But Thursdays have a great energy. Because of the Greenmarket on Wednesday and Thursdays, those are good days, but that doesn’t mean we can’t hit our stride on a Monday, because we do.

What’s the most popular menu item?

It’s always whatever seasonal salad we’re doing. That snap pea salad we had, and now it’s a shaved summer squash salad with pecorino and lemon. Those seasonal, spontaneously-put-together salads draw people in.

What are you doing for the Fourth of July?

I’ve designed a new bean trellis. Oh, that’s my favorite food, actually — my grandmother’s heirloom romano beans, which she brought in her purse from Italy. We’ve been growing them forever in the garden. But they’re growing so fast, so I need to build a trellis. So Sunday morning I’ll do that. And then we’ll do a cookout with the family.

And the most important question. What’s better for a Fourth of July barbecue: hamburgers or hot dogs?

Hamburgers. I like ’em better.

Check back in tomorrow, when Carmen reveals his culinary influences and his most spectacular kitchen disaster.