Michael Romano (New York, NY)
Chef and activist Michael Romano is one of Chefs Collaborative’s founding members. Our founders were early to recognize the impact of food choices on our health, the vitality of cultures and the integrity of the environment.
When Chef Michael Romano ran the kitchen at La Caravelle — the quintessential 1980s Manhattan fine dining salon — canned and frozen foods were still in use. “We served canned chanterelles,” Michael recalls with as much disgust as amazement. Disrespect for staff was worse. “When I hired their first female cook, one of the original chefs pointed at her and asked, ‘What’s that.’”
Growing up with great Italian food and working as a chef in Europe for six years, Michael had no patience with such cavalier attitudes. “The Mediterranean diet and healthy food, the Old Ways organization, that’s what spoke to me,” he says.
Michael was joining forces with Danny Meyer at Union Square Café as he helped Old Ways launch Chefs Collaborative in the late 1980s. He’s retired now but still Meyer’s partner. His former title was Director of Culinary Development at Union Square Hospitality Group. “Chefs were becoming a thing back then; they were on the verge of stardom,” he says. “Chef Collaborative allowed us to leverage that cache. We could step out of the kitchen and embrace our ability to influence public taste for the better.”
At Union Square, Michael took a stand against serving out of season ingredients. “People noticed. We were famous for our BLT, and we stopped having it on the menu when tomatoes were not at their peak.” As more chefs took similar stands, he recalls, access to great, local produce increased. “When chefs demanded change, they got it, adding a whole new dimension to our professional lives. It was thrilling.”
From the start, Chefs Collaborative chefs believed they had a social responsibility to purchase and serve sustainably grown and distributed food. While there is still ground to be covered, he says, that early work has made “sustainability part of the common parlance.”
The work continues. #MeToo has added equality and safety for women and minorities to the equation along with immigration issues and climate change. “We need to be vocal about our beliefs. Show people how it is done. Lend our support to others who are doing this work. Maybe it will rub off on the public. It’s time to show as well as tell,” says Michael.
Living that story of sustainability, sharing that story, gives chefs an edge in a fiercely competitive restaurant world, says Michael. “It is the work of Chefs Collaborative to make consumers care about these values; to teach chefs how to communicate these values; to demonstrate how these values enable chefs to operate financially sustainable businesses.”
Michael has been honored with James Beard awards for “Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America” and “Best Chef: New York. ” He’s been named Food & Wine magazine’s “Best New Chef in America,” and under his leadership, Union Square Cafe received the #1 ranking on the Zagat Survey Most Popular list an unprecedented nine times. Michael has co-authored two cookbooks with Danny Meyer, The Union Square Cafe Cookbook and Second Helpings (both HarperCollins). Michael’s newest cookbook is Family Table: Favorite Staff Meals from our Restaurants to your Home (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Spring 2013).
As Director of Culinary Development for Union Square Hospitality Group, Michael worked with Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke, Jazz Standard, Shake Shack, The Modern, Cafe 2 and Terrace 5 at The Museum of Modern Art, Maialino, Untitled at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and North End Grill, as well as Union Square Events and Hospitality Quotient, a learning business. Michael collaborated closely with Union Square Cafe’s Executive Chef Carmen Quagliata and helps select and mentor USHG’s peerless team of award-winning chefs. In addition, he is directly responsible for USHG’s role in Union Square Tokyo.