How MoMA's Cafes Feed Over a Thousand People a Day
"It's never boring—there's always something fun to do. I want to do more than just put a plate on a table. I want to make sure I know the people here."
Executive Chef Lynn Bound and General Manager Tracy Wilson have a lot on their plates at MoMA; on top of serving 900 full meals to guests at Café 2 and Terrace 5 as well as grab-and-go snacks and dessert, they serve staff meals for all 300 MoMA staff members, handle the independent event catering, and work with curators for private art-based dinners. They even get involved with the art itself—that fresh Bibb lettuce doesn't get on a sculpture on its own.
It all happens behind the scenes; what customers do see are menus that keep seasonality and health in mind with food that's inclusive of all ages and dietary limitations without being boring. How does Danny Meyer's team do it? Here's a snapshot into their working world.
What was the restaurant scene here like when you first started?
Tracy: It was very much a family restaurant—lots of piles of papers and napkins—and we felt we could take it to the next level as a "Danny Meyer restaurant". At that point we had cashiers; you would place your order, and we'd give you a number to bring to your table. Visitors would put the number on the table, and the runners would circle the airport three or four times looking for a number while the food was getting cold!
One major change we made was to transition to front of house service; one day we were cashiers and the next day we were waiters. The majority of my staff didn't know how to be restaurant servers, so we had three weeks of training to bring them up to a Danny Meyer-style server, which means to be attentive, educated, sensitive, and empathetic.
Does the international clientele also affect the menu?
Lynn: I think that when people come they want to see food besides their own culture. So I like to make it interesting, where it looks intriguing and they're still able to understand it.
Does the art itself affect the food, too?
Lynn: The art is so beautiful and so fulfilling for people to look at. When people come to eat here they want equally beautiful food. So that's where we kind of try to keep the food—Italian with a contemporary twist. We have done dinners with the curators, and we did a cookie once for Starry Night, but I don't want it too become kitschy, and a lot of the artists don't want you to take their work and paint it on a cookie—they feel that it's kind of not taking it seriously. There's a line between doing something right and it not feeling authentic.
Was there a time that bringing art to food worked?
Lynn: When we had Diego Rivera we did a concha—a typical bread from Mexico. We had a great exhibit, and then when people came out they could enjoy and question it. So things reminiscent of the artists and not the art itself feel good to me.
You work in a modern art museum but your food isn't swimming in modernist cuisine. Did it at some point?
Lynn: Yeah, at different places I've worked in. It's just not natural to me and was never my style. I like food to be not so manipulated, to be very natural, to taste like what it is, and not to have it be disguised in too many ways. I appreciate those plates, and think they look beautiful too, but I think there's a time and a place for it.
In your seven years here, what's changed the most?
Lynn: When I got here this wasn't a preferred position; staff would prefer to go to the Modern, so I had some inconsistency with staff not showing up, calling out, and not being skilled. There was also the hurdle of getting guests away from ideas of museum food: "Where's my wrapped sandwich?" "Why is this salad $11?" They're not expecting a great meal, they're just looking to sit down and observe. Now I like that they come in with "it's just another museum" and then leave thinking, "That was great!"
Tracy: I've made hundreds of small changes. We'll have a big family in one spot and right next to them a couple in their 90's, so we had to start thinking about how we could make this a warm, hospitable environment that was safe and clean so that people could rest. We have hundreds of children a week here, so we show attention to even the smallest things; a concierge for strollers, we warm bottles, we provide warm food, and if they need something we make it from scratch as much as possible.
Lynn: We offer food for the babies too, for free, like hummus or polenta.
In freestanding restaurants you have critics and social media attention. But less so here, and few people expect an evolving, seasonal menu. How do you deal with that black hole of publicity?
Lynn: I know this isn't a place that's going to get reviewed, and I'm fine with that. It's challenging, so you work within the challenges to see how you can make it great. I just try to do my absolute best for my guests and my staff and my company. We don't have Open Table or anything so we don't know who anyone is, and we just see these incredible stories people write that say, "Wow, I had no idea." I just want to work with integrity and do the best I can.
Of the many hats you wear in this space, what's most satisfying?
Lynn: We have these opportunities to be creative with artists and curators—when we first started I don't think anyone thought about collaborations. It only came from building relationships and talking about shared interests. People love art and they love food. It's never boring—there's always something fun to do. I want to do more than just put a plate on a table. I want to make sure I know the people here.
Tracy: I agree with Lynn that it's the relationships. We train all of the 300 volunteers, the security team, the visitor's services, and lobby managers. They have a sense that the institution is so much larger than one individual person, though we try to make it about them. The team is growing because we're here and it's a mutual relationship. These curators love Lynn, they love what we do, and they want to be in a dialogue.