Michael Romano, age 53, has been executive chef at Union Square Café, in his native New York, since 1988. A graduate of the culinary program at New York City Technical College, he honed his skills in Paris, Switzerland and the United Kingdom before returning to the United States to become chef de cuisine at the late, great La Caravelle. He has authored two cookbooks, The Union Square Café Cookbook and Second Helpings From the Union Square Café, with business partner Danny Meyer. He is also a lifelong wine lover whose passion for Bordeaux predates his high school graduation, and his knowledge enhances Union Square Café's wine program, which holds Wine Spectator's Best of Award of Excellence. He recently spoke with Wine Spectator Online during a rare moment of quiet in the dining room.
Wine Spectator: How did you develop an interest in wine?
Michael Romano: My memories of it were very early, because both my grandfathers, who were born in Italy, made wine here in New York. They would get grapes from California--I think they were using Thompson Seedless [laughing], but maybe it was Zinfandel. They each had a press in their basement. They were very different men, and the wine was completely a reflection of [that]. My maternal grandfather was a tough guy--he had been in construction--and that was his wine: heady, alcoholic and rough. My paternal grandfather was a much more gentle spirit. He was actually blind for a lot of his adult life, but he still could make the wine, and it was much more mellow, more refined, more elegant.
When I was 18, which was then the legal drinking age, I picked up Alexis Bespaloff's Signet Book of Wine and I started learning about Bordeaux. I went to Sherry-Lehmann--I was living up in the Bronx at that time and had barely any money--and a young salesman was very sympathetic and he sold me a '63 and a '64 Château La Mission-Haut-Brion, so I could get a sense of what one year's weather and the success of a vintage could mean to a wine. I went to Baccarat and bought a wineglass that was called, and still is, the Haut-Brion. I think I paid 10 dollars for it, which was an enormous amount of money to pay for a wineglass, and I could only afford one. I still have the glass, from the late '60s or early '70s, and what's interesting is that it shows how times and tastes change. When I bought that glass, I thought it was enormous, but when you look at it by today's standard, it looks like a water glass. I definitely got hooked on Bordeaux, and on La Mission, which is still my favorite. I've had it pretty much from every decade, starting from the '20s. I just recently had my birth year, 1953, which was amazing.
WS: Tell us about the wine program at Union Square Café.
MR: We really wanted to have a list that speaks to the wine lover, that says, "Come enjoy great wine, we're not going to gouge you." The thing is to find wines that go beyond just the bright lights, wines that come from a relationship between the grower and the négociant and us. We appreciate wines that provide great value and great integrity.
WS: How does the list relate to your food?
MR: It's a relationship that's developed over the nearly 21 years we've been open. We've always been very heavily French and Italian. We've gone through phases where the list has expanded to include wine from all over the world, and then we got together and said, "This doesn't make sense for our menu. Let's tighten our focus so that a customer is not going to go wrong choosing one of our wines with our food." On a more specific level, because there are certain signature dishes that have been on the menu since we opened, we know what goes with those. Sometimes it's unusual things, like certain reds that go with the filet mignon of tuna. I once cooked for an Oregon Pinot Noir dinner, and I did tuna with a green peppercorn sauce, and it was one of the most astounding matches I've ever encountered. It was one of those moments where you can't tell where the food stops and the wine starts.
WS: What's in your cellar?
MR: I started, early on, focusing on Bordeaux, but in the past few years I really shifted to Burgundy, which is more demanding on the part of the drinker, understanding the subtlety of it. When it's good, it's amazing. So I've been collecting those. I favor the Côte de Beaune, that softer, cherry fruit style. I'm definitely Eurocentric--Italian, French and German. And Spanish, although I'm not a big fan of the modern styles that are very fruit-forward, with high alcohol. They don't go as well with food, and to me that's very important.
WS: What's a "dream" wine you'd love to have in your cellar?
MR: The '59 Lafite, which I had the good fortune to taste on two different occasions, once before I was ready to appreciate it, and then later on when it just astounded me. Or any La Mission--the '53 again, that would be nice [laughing].
WS: What do you like to pour for guests in your home, when you have the time to entertain?
MR: I'll tend to pull Italian Dolcettos or Burgundies from the lighter years. I also like Long Island wines, which definitely go with food. The reds are racy, in a Bordeaux style.
WS: How do you stay inspired after being in the same restaurant for nearly 20 years?
MR: I try to keep a balance between new ideas and old favorites, and always pay attention to the seasons. If you follow the seasons, you can't help but see new things all the time. Also, I have a secret weapon, my chef de cuisine, Carmen Quagliata. … We have a great ongoing dialogue about food … which is a constant source of inspiration.
WS: Are there any changes you'd like to see within your industry?
MR: I think it shouldn't be an option for beginning cooks to be educated about wine. It should be an integral part of their education, because it's an integral part of the dining experience. To me, it's inconceivable to have a meal without a glass of wine.
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