The Secret Ingredient

By Max Gross

Published November 17, 2006, issue of November 17, 2006.
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Danny Meyer won’t be cooking this Thanksgiving.

When the Forward visited Meyer in Manhattan at his Union Square offices to ask the great restaurateur how to prepare for a Thanksgiving party, his answer was: “Spend the week before just loving each other. By the time [Thanksgiving comes], the warmth in your house will be palpable.”

Meyer — the culinary superstar behind such hits as The Modern, Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park and, of course, his signature restaurant, Union Square Cafe — is not like other well-known food mavens. He doesn’t race against the clock to come up with a kiwi-based béarnaise like Bobby Flay on “Iron Chef,” or make appearances at Nascar events, a la Mario Batali.

When it comes to finding a great chef, no one is better than Meyer. He has a certain genius at assembling an exquisite menu and wine list. And one feels a particular warmth in his restaurants that is notably absent from the coterie of snooty New York eateries where the staff behaves as if they’re doing you a favor by honoring your reservation.

But Meyer isn’t really a chef. When he cooks, it’s not at one of his restaurants. It is at home, with his family. “I find it very therapeutic,” Meyer said.

Cooking was the way Meyer first bonded with his father, a hotelier and restaurateur from St. Louis who died in 1990. And cooking — Jewish-style cooking, anyway — was one of the first things he learned in Hebrew school. (“We learned hamantaschen, blintzes, latkes — things like that,” Meyer said.)

Yet for a man who has given over his professional life to the preparation and sale of food, the food itself is only part of the experience, as far as Meyer is concerned.

In his new book, “Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business” (HarperCollins), Meyer advances what he calls “The 51 Percent Solution,” which means (more or less) that the quality of the food makes up 49% of the joy of dining; creating a happy dynamic within his restaurants is the other 51%.

This philosophy probably makes the most sense during Thanksgiving.

“Very few people are going to come back [to your house] because of a superior turkey,” Meyer warned. The whole love-in-the-air thing is what’s critical.

That being said, Meyer has a great deal to say about the food.

“The big problem with turkey,” he said, “is that it’s either tasty and dry or flavorless and moist.”

Meyer’s recipe for roast turkey with apple cider gravy, found in “The Union Square Café Cookbook” (Morrow Cookbooks, 1994), calls for refrigerating the bird for eight to 10 hours in a brine made out of water, kosher salt, brown sugar, garlic, peppercorns, juniper berries and bay leaves. After its stretch in the fridge, the turkey is cleaned off and stuffed with onion, celery, apple, parsnip, quince and herbs, and then covered in aluminum foil and put into the oven for two-and-a-half hours at 275 degrees. It is then brushed with butter (olive oil for the kosher observant) and cooked at 375 degrees for 30 minutes. After another coat of butter, it is cooked for another 75 minutes and basted every 30 minutes.

“One of the nice things about Thanksgiving is that, with the exception of the turkey, everything else can be made in advance,” Meyer said.

For that reason he advocates making a timeline; a week spent making desserts and side dishes can make life much easier in the six or seven hours before your Thanksgiving party reaches critical mass.

When Meyer was a kid, he and his family would assemble at his grandmother’s apartment in downtown St. Louis. “I can remember literally how it smelled coming off the elevator,” he said with a smile. Meyer would make a beeline for the hors d’oeuvre table — where his grandmother would invariably have steak tartare molded in the shape of a turkey — and stay there until dinner was served.

“Thanksgiving was far and away my favorite holiday,” Meyer said. “More than my birthday, more than anything. You get to be with family for a happy reason. It’s not fraught with any religious identity that can be divisive — anybody can enjoy it.”

A tall, slim man with brown hair and serene blue eyes, Meyer asks as many questions as he answers when interviewed. When he found out that a reporter had just lunched at Gramercy Tavern, he was pleased to learn what that reporter had eaten: bacon over spaetzle with baked apples and sautéed red onion. (Which, incidentally, is some of the best spaetzle this reporter has ever tasted.)

“Ah,” he said. “A Jew after my own heart.”

Indeed, a quick look at any of Meyer’s menus — from the roasted lobster with asparagus at The Modern, to just about everything at his barbecue joint, Blue Smoke — reveals an extremely nonkosher sensibility.

Does Meyer have a favorite form of treyf?

“Well, I view treyf the way other people view sex,” Meyer said with a mischievous grin. “It is almost impossible to have bad treyf.”

Almost immediately, Meyer wishes he hadn’t said that; for more than 20 years he has penned the Union Square Cafe newsletter, and if he ever includes a Jewish recipe that mixes butter and meat, or one that involves matzo meal in a non-Passover related dish, his customers are the first to let him know. But you have to scratch your head at the reasoning of an outraged customer; even the tuna sandwich at Union Square Cafe comes with a slab of bacon. Meyer, however, loves his customers too much to be very critical of them. “I just don’t want anybody to be hurt,” he said.

Meyer comes from a family of Midwestern German Jews who tried to assimilate as much as possible; although his father was a trustee of Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati and helped found a Reform temple in St. Louis, the Meyer family was staunchly secular. “My grandmother gave me St. Louis spareribs for the first time,” Meyer noted. It was a favorite dish.

In the early 1980s, Meyer arrived in New York. He worked as a salesman for several years before taking a job at the Flatiron District restaurant Pesca, where he met his wife, Audrey Heffernan.

When Audrey invited Meyer to join her and her Catholic parents for dinner, the Heffernans wanted to make their daughter’s Jewish new boyfriend feel at home. Audrey’s mother consulted a cookbook and decided to serve their guest tsimmes, a sweet dish prepared as a casserole and made of fruits and vegetables.

Meyer had never heard of tsimmes before. But ever the thoughtful and considerate eater, guest and host, he said the perfect thing: “This is the best tsimmes I’ve ever tasted!”

Max Gross is a writer for the New York Post.

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