James Beard Foundation Award-winning restaurateurs José Andrés, Danny Meyer, and Aaron Silverman weighed in January 18 on some of the thorniest issues facing the hospitality industry today — including sexual harassment, the plight of undocumented workers, and how to properly make a martini for the commander-in-chief — during a wide-ranging discussion with New York Times correspondent Kim Severson.
The “Future of Restaurants” roundtable, which took place at George Washington University as part of the “Times Talks” series, brought together the multi-Michelin starred panelists at an exciting time in each of their respective careers. The humanitarian relief Andrés has delivered around the world has resulted in more than 3.2 million meals for storm-ravaged Puerto Ricans. Silverman recently unveiled Little Pearl, the coffee shop and wine bar that grew out of the daytime cafe he used to operate at critically acclaimed Pineapple and Pearls. And Meyer is working on opening the first Union Square Cafe outside of New York (stateside) at the Capitol Crossing complex in Mount Vernon Triangle.
“I am not sure exactly when it will open — it’s a massive project,” Meyer told audience members.
Here are some highlights from the talk:
Creating safe spaces and promoting diversity
Aaron Silverman: “I feel fortunate because I grew up in a restaurant culture with super positive environments that set the example for what we wanted to do. Every day I come in, we are trying to make the guests’ lives better and staff lives’ better.” Silverman says there’s been no reports of sexual harrasment within his organization to date, but he notes that customers have verbally assaulted employees in the past. “Kind of politely and not politely, we ask them not to come back.”
Danny Meyer: Many higher ups at his Union Square Hospitality Group — home to Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Shake Shack, and others — are women, from the head of human resources to the CFO. But filling leadership roles with women isn’t enough, he notes; creating the right overall environment is key for promoting positive change. “We have an amazing moment to talk about what we want to be going forward.”
José Andrés: “This is an important moment in history and an awakening for everyone. As a father of three daughters I adore, I want to make sure they have the future they deserve without having to fight for it,” he said. “We are only as good as the people we have around us. We need to call people out when we see something that’s not right.”
Moving the country forward
Andrés, who just penned an op-ed in the Washington Post about immigration reform, notes that “America is about pragmatism. We should be creating smart visas to give opportunities for those people to come in, work, get paid, and go back to their communities.” He’s stood alongside undocumented workers harvesting okra and sees the backwards mentality of how the system works. “All of a sudden when the okra season goes away an immigration officer shows up and kicks them out.”
D.C.’s evolving dining scene
AS: “The dining public here is incredible and are open to so much. There is so much more quality and unusual types of restaurants,” Silverman said of the culinary landscape, adding that there are “so many young and creative people taking risks.” Silverman just had a great birthday meal at Little Serow, he shared.
JA: When he came to D.C. 25 years ago, Andrés said the stage was already set for greatness, thanks to the “queen of organic cooking” Nora Pouillon, Inn at Little Washington founder Patrick O’Connell, and then-Watergate chef Jean-Louis Palladin. “D.C. to me is one of the most fascinating cities for a chef or someone who loves food.”
Getting off on the right foot
DM: Meyer, who admits there is a sense of arrogance in the NYC dining world, doesn’t want to have Union Square Cafe to be perceived as such. “It’s not a brash or arrogant restaurant but it is from New York. We learned from Shake Shack [expansions] that people are not necessarily thrilled to hear that ‘New York is happening to them.’”
Catering to the president
DM: When the first couple booked a last-minute dinner at Maialino before hitting a Broadway show, then-White House chef Sam Kass gave Meyer a crash course on what President Barack Obama most enjoys on a Friday night: a non-shaken martini made with unopened vodka (per the Secret Service’s request) and a “good steak.” Problem was, Maialino didn’t have steak on the menu — so Meyer got the general manager at Union Square Cafe to rush one over.
DM: “If you have a heart for hospitality we want to hire you. We need to start breaking down the stereotypes of who typically gets those jobs and where do they come from.” Rather than limit searches to traditional partners such as the French Culinary Institute, Meyer says he’s begun reaching out to organizations focused on rehabilitating former prisoners and others that empower people with learning disabilities.