Chef Carmen Quagliata: A Sunday Sauce for Sandy

Chef Carmen Quagliata is one of the warmest, most generous chefs I’ve ever met, bringing me almost to tears in our interview for my We Chat With column on Serious Eats. For a press dinner, he made me a five-course meal on par with what my colleague were having, though mine was completely gluten and dairy-free to fit the diet I’ve been on for medical purposes for the past twenty years. He has a fervent love for New York City, which was extremely present when we started talking about how the city was recovering from Hurricane Sandy. With that superstorm two years behind us and Union Square Cafe on the brink of relocating, this long bit from our conversation feels even more meaningful. Only a snippet of this made the original interview final cut. Enjoy.

A Sunday Sauce for Sandy

Chef Carmen Quagliata, as told to me in February, 2013

My grandparents had a restaurant when they first came here – this was in the 1930s or 40s – a place called Cozy Corner. It was in a heavily populated Irish neighborhood, and they did this little Italian place. And they did well because of it. When New York State bought the land to put a road through they moved two blocks north and opened a little market with an Italian butcher counter, and my grandmother started making sausage.

I remember that when you were young you could sweep the floors in the market. Then when you got a little bit older you could stack the cases of soda or beer or help put the pork butts away in the cooler. And then when you got a little older you could help her feed the meat into the grinder. There was always something about getting to the point where you could help make the sausage. And my grandmother’s sausage was the best. Everything was about leading up to Sunday, with her Sunday sauce or bracciola. So that’s the memory. And I guess I cook because I remember it that way.

But now when I say “Sunday Sauce” at Union Square Café, it always brings me back to the storm in October.

It was a really hard week. I felt lucky because we were pretty much unscathed except for the power going out and knowing how much damage there was. I was like everyone else – shocked at what was going on. And then when we had to come in to throw away all the food. At first me and the sous chefs were just excited to see each other all safe, and then we strapped flashlights to our heads and started clearing out the walk-in.

We were joking around, but after about a half an hour it had gotten so depressing to throw things away – things we had pickled from the local farms, things that were part of our pantry. Part of what Italian food is about is the preservation you do, whether it’s cheeses that you salt or prosciutto or things we do in the kitchen that make their way into the food long after the season is done. Those things give us our personality; they give the dish the “mole on its face”. So when we started throwing things away that were going to impact our winter or holiday menus … wow. It was hard to throw away food because, on top of throwing away food that people need, we were throwing away part of the soul of our 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. I had stayed in New York since it was so cold in New Jersey the day before without power, and then I saw on Twitter that the power was going on in Chelsea. So I came down here and sat in the dark here until eight o’clock when — boom — the power went on. I was so excited. I called Danny [Meyer], I called our manager Sam, and I got the restaurant running.

The next day we started fresh in the morning, and the crew got a menu online by noon. And we went through that day and I said, “You know, what everybody in the city needs now is 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. There are two sides to me as a chef: the person that loves the athleticism and the rush and the crisis management – I’m a junky in that way – the nut in me that loves to teach and train and work in a professional kitchen. And then there’s the grandma in me; I think I must have been one in a past life. I like to bring people a bowl of soup. I’ll go “run off and make something”. I have that vision of myself just bringing people food. Like when you came for that press dinner – I just didn’t want you to feel left out. And that’s what hit me that day, that Saturday night. It was a long week and it had been a long day. I started at 8pm that night and had it on the menu Sunday morning. And since then we’ve had it on the menu on Sundays for lunch.

So Sunday sauce means a lot to me. It just does.

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