Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group has long been the pinnacle of innovation in the restaurant industry — this is the place that pioneered Shake Shack, the first burger chain to focus on high-quality, local ingredients; that took the lead on no tipping; that extends one of the most generous parental leave policies to employees. But up until a month ago, the ultra-progressive restaurant group didn’t have a single female chef heading up one of its spots.
Enter Suzanne Cupps — the extremely impressive, longtime USHG vet who recently stepped up to lead the kitchen at Untitled, Meyer’s contemporary American restaurant in the Whitney Museum. Here, she tells us about her leadership style, her mentors, and her somewhat incidental path to the restaurant biz.
How did you get your start in the industry?
Cooking did not come naturally, at first. It wasn’t something I dreamt about. I got interested in it when I moved to New York 14 years ago after college — I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I got a job working in HR at the Waldorf-Astoria and realized I really enjoyed the hospitality business. There was a woman in my office going to the Institute of Culinary Education for baking classes, and that sparked my interest.
I didn’t even realize there was such a thing as cooking school. I did some brainstorming about my future, and cooking kept coming back to me. I went to check out ICE and from there, it was a blind start. I didn’t know what I was doing!
You ended up working in some pretty impressive kitchens, including that of Anita Lo. What was that like?
It was amazing. She was so great and natural for me to work with. She is very good at allowing everyone to learn. I feel like when cooks are focused on just one station, it’s hard for them to see the bigger picture and to pick up techniques, but if someone trusts you enough to teach you how to do things above your station, it keeps people interested. That was how Anita led. And her creativity was amazing. She traveled so much, and showed me all these different flavors I had never worked with or eaten before. As a leader now, I hope to be a great teacher to my cooks. I actually almost became a math teacher instead of a chef!
Sounds like a pretty amazing gig! Why did you end up leaving for Gramercy Tavern?
I had worked with Anita for a long time and decided I need to be thinking about my next move. It was a lot more thoughtful than when I started working at Annisa — that was such a quick decision. I was familiar with the restaurant, Gramercy Tavern, because I had done an externship there. I wanted to work lunch, but I wanted it to be a competitive atmosphere. Lots of fine dining restaurants are just doing, like, soup and sandwiches for lunch. And I wanted it to be contemporary. I didn’t want something French or Italian.
Gramercy was the perfect fit. It was the only place I applied. At first, I turned down the job because it wasn’t enough money, but about a month later Mike [Anthony, Executive Chef at Gramercy Tavern] called me and said, I want you to work here, and gave me the salary I wanted. Asking for more money was really hard — that’s not something I was used to doing — but I’m really glad I did.
What has been different about working for Union Square Hospitality group versus other restaurant groups? What sets it apart?
It’s the best of both worlds. I get to run my own business, but I have a company that supports me. And the great opportunities that USHG specifically creates for people — it’s because they are passionate about expanding businesses. They don’t want to lose people that are great. They want to find a place for them to grow. USHG doesn’t open with a celebrity chef in charge; they take people from within that don’t necessarily have a name that have worked hard and are ready for the next step.
And that mentality is how you got the job you have now?
I had been working with Mike for so long when we opened. We did everything together. He had been really great about teaching me how to run finances and manage costs; he was running Gramercy Tavern as well, so I would assume a lot of his responsibilities when he was out. It was a pretty natural progression to taking over the kitchen. But when he told me about the promotion, I was pretty surprised — we had never talked about it. But at the same time, I felt really ready. I felt like I was already in the process of doing that job.
Being a chef in a restaurant group, and also being the chef of a museum restaurant — do you feel like you have the latitude to do what you want, or do you feel limited?
I don’t feel stifled. It’s more that we just have to be aware of who our guests are. If I’m going to be a successful chef, I have to make sure that people who are going to the museum find something enticing to eat, and the destination diners find something interesting and fun and a reason to keep coming back to the restaurant. It’s a challenge creatively, sure, but it’s just about catering to different groups of people.
How do you plan to add your signature to the menu?
I just put out a brand-new menu, which was exciting because it was the first one that I composed by myself. I still wanted to do contemporary American and vegetable-forward food, but I was interested in adding a little more seafood, because that’s how I like to eat. My cooking style naturally veers a little lighter — I want people to leave feeling satisfied, not stuffed.
I also have very consciously added more ingredients and flavors from Asia — especially Japanese flavors, since both Anita and Mike have ties to Japan. I am half Filipino, but I’ve never cooked Filipino food —I’m trying to learn more so I can add it to my cooking. But it’s not a natural thing yet.