We Chat with Chef Carmen Quagliata of Union Square Cafe

"There's the grandma in me. I think I must have been one in a past life. I'll go run off and "make something." I have that vision of myself of just bringing people food."

[Photographs: Brent Herrig]

Chef Carmen Quagliata is practically the quintessential Italian grandma. I experienced this first-hand when I showed up for a small private dinner and he'd made me an alternate menu sensitive to my allergies, one that was course-for-course on par with the other guests' dishes. It wasn't expected and hardly requested; he responded to my effusive thanks with a humble, "I just didn't want you to feel left out."

The whole ambiance at Union Square Café resonates with that warmth, from the pleasant and attentive staff to the new 14-seat chef's table where Quagliata serves whole fish and porchetta. He's helmed the restaurant for eight of its 27 years, and you might expect the menu to fade with the passing of time. But the cafe remains a destination for well-executed, completely relevant food.

It's the blending of old New York and new New York that Quagliata (and the tight front of house staff) gets right. And evidently it takes a lot of team effort.

Where do you see your menu in the landscape of New York? I'm Italian, and that heritage keeps me rooted. I was raised with those flavors, and that's what makes me feel good, so it almost inspires me to be creative in that way. I cook like an Italian, but what I cook isn't always Italian. And that's what I feel about my menu here—Union Square Café was always described as "farm to table American with a Tuscan soul."

You have the Union Square Market 50 yards away. Does putting the ingredient first come with its own challenges? Oh, yeah. You can't turn your back on "this is how we cook" when it's so close. If produce-based cooking is what drives you, you have to be really good at time management. In peak season something's changing out there every week, so you have to manage your time and stick with the spontaneity.

And I assume you have a shorter amount of time to build a dish—you can't stew on it. You have to act quickly, right. And that's one of the great things about Union Square Café, everything in that original description means there's a lot of room for playing with ingredients and techniques.

Grilled local scallops with black rice, Windfall Farms winter greens, and preserved Meyer lemon.

Does it make it easier that way, not being boxed in? Yes. It's fun, too. And it's fun for the guests.

But does it create a problem when a guest has something they enjoy and can't get it a week later? Absolutely, you're describing the whole challenge. The whole "going out to eat and coming home at the same time" is a tough balancing act. There was a certain time, maybe after two or three years, that I felt like I had to start taking some sharp turns from where we were...

How so? Just in saying, "I'm ready to move away from that dish." These were dishes that had been on the menu for a long time; regulars loved them. It took some time to build the trust of the regulars and then, I'll tell you, they were stomping their feet when I did a few things.

"Italian soul" can still encompass a lot of things; how do you translate to the guests what your Italian food tastes like? You hear a term a lot called "big flavor," and for me it's all about flavor. There's conflict and contrast going on the plate; sharp edges of acidity or spice going against fat. It's conflict that, when you're eating, becomes harmonious.

Is this type of cooking something that came to you viscerally growing up in an Italian family or a process you discovered in your studies? I think it more came from growing up learning about food and loving to eat, through the journey of cooking.

Wild boar ragout with stracciatella and rosemary.

What about your upbringing resonates most strongly with you? I'm a gardener, and not a great one. But a lot of love goes into my gardens. And my grandmother brought over some beans from Italy with her. Everyone who's ever left from where we were from in Binghamton took some and started to grow them on their own. I started one in California and now I plant those same beans in New Jersey. It's always kind of been a symbol of my grandmother and grandfather that we can always relate to—they had a great garden.

What about your Sunday sauce? Sunday Sauce at Union Square Café brings me back to the storm in October. It was a really hard week. I was like everyone else—shocked at what was going on. And then we had to come in to throw away all the food. At first the sous chefs and I were excited to see each other all safe, and then we strapped flashlights to our heads and started clearing out the walk-in fridge. After about half an hour it got so depressing to throw things away. Italian food is partially about preservation—things we do in the kitchen that make their way into the food long after the season is over—that gives us our personality, that gives that dish the "mole on its face." It was hard to throw away food because you're throwing away part of the soul of your menu.

Anyway, the final day I was like, "the power has to come back on today." The city needed to get back on its feet. And I saw on Twitter that there was power returning in Chelsea, so I came down here and sat in the dark here until eight o'clock. And boom, the power came on. I was so excited. Then we went through that day and I said, "You know, what our guests need tomorrow? A bowl of pasta with Sunday sauce." I'd never made it here. Never. So the next day we made a Sunday sauce, and it just warmed my heart to make it.

I don't often hear "warmed my heart" from the heads of restaurants. There's two sides to me as a chef; the person that loves the rush and the crisis management, who teaches and trains and works in a professional kitchen. And then there's the grandma in me. I think I must have been one in a past life. I'll go run off and "make something." I have that vision of myself of just bringing people food. And that's what hit me that Saturday night. It was a long week and it had been a long day. Since then we've had it on the menu on Sundays for lunch. So Sunday sauce means a lot to me.

Pan roasted Berkshire pork chop, maple-braised rutabaga, pickled Lady apples.

So we really should be thanking your family for this restaurant now. I cook because my grandparents had a restaurant, in the 30s or 40s, a place called Cozy Corner. It was a heavily populated Irish neighborhood and they did this little Italian place. And they did well because of it. But when they moved a couple of blocks over they opened a little market, and my grandmother started making sausage and had a butcher counter that an Italian would do. And I remember there was always something about getting to the point where you could help make the sausage. My grandmother's sausage was the best.

Her work ethic was amazing, and so was my mother's. My mother raised four kids pretty much by herself. On Sunday, the store would be open and the bell would ring, so while we were eating she'd go to the market to take care of the customer. Look at the trust she had in the people in her neighborhood. The store was was empty, and if you knew that she was eating dinner with her family every Sunday, it'd be so easy to steal from the store. But no one ever did.

Do you feel a sense of community here? It starts at the subway for me, on those mornings that I come in early and Sycamore Farms happens to have the first bag of corn of the season and I get to take it back here. A lot of chefs are going to get that corn and do great things with it, but I just feel special that I get to do that. I love Union Square—it's great. As far as the restaurant in particular, there's something loveable about this restaurant that kind of hugs you right away. And it's the kitchen, being in there with the cooks. I always get pulled back to that.