For most diners, the dividing line between a good and a great restaurant is an invisible one. Yet those in the industry know that, beyond sourcing the best ingredients or carefully polishing each glass, noteworthy hospitality starts with cultivating a certain kind of culture behind-the-scenes.
When discussing the cultural experience of Untitled at The Whitney on New York City’s west side, one might anticipate a discussion of “culture” with a capital C—of fine art, frozen in a specific space and time. Yet what Chef Suzanne Cupps is excited to discuss is a very different type of culture—a real-time, progressive and ever-evolving effort towards a collective goal.
“When you’re in this space, everything is open. Our front-of-house and back-of-house teams are always face-to-face, so it feels like we’re moving in the same direction, instead of working as separate teams,” Cupps begins. Encased in floor-to-ceiling glass, at the base of one of the skyline’s most iconic buildings, transparency is literally built into Untitled’s DNA—and the kitchen is no different. Turning to look across the sleek bar top, it strikes you that one rarely sees such an expansive view of “the line” in a New York City restaurant.
When Untitled first reopened at the new Whitney in Spring 2015, guests would have recognized Gramercy Tavern’s Chef Michael Anthony on the other side of that bar. Anthony is, rightfully, a local legend in greenmarket fare, and was a formative reason why Cupps decided to make her career in the kitchen—long term. “There was a point when I thought I would eventually shift to something other than cooking,” Cupps notes, “But working with Michael at Gramercy Kitchen—and Anita Lo at Annisa, earlier in my career—I saw that there was a way to push boundaries with food, while also being a leader in a way that aligns with my values.”
That balance of progressive cuisine and a human-centric, service-oriented environment has become the hallmark of Union Square Hospitality Group and restaurateur Danny Meyer, yet each restaurant is still its own microcosm within that galaxy. Cupps underscores, “I didn’t want to work for a group with cookie cutter restaurants, where I didn’t have the ability to change or grow my business in a way that I am passionate about. Danny really lets us own what we are doing; there’s a freedom to have our own personality and culture at Untitled.”
For Cupps, that unique culture means sharing the spotlight with the rest of the kitchen, as embodied by the brand new menu structure debuted this summer. “We’re keeping things seasonal and local, but shifting to more sharable plates, so that guests can taste more dishes,” Cupps explains. “Everything is clean, beautiful and carefully done, but the flavors and techniques take inspiration from multiple parts of the world, because we have a really talented group of cooks that come from everywhere. Before now, that was something we were only sharing at staff meal, and we wanted diners to experience that fuller representation of us.”
For guests, that diversity of influences can be seen in such dishes as a Japanese-style summer squash tempura, a Southern-inspired fried tilefish with dilly bean tartare sauce; or a subtle, sesame-cured char. “It took me seven years as a chef before I transitioned from simply loving the work to loving the stories of the people behind the work,” Cupps remembers. “We want to prompt questions from guests—to spark their curiosity about what we are doing—because they can feel that something is different in the way we cook or serve food.”
In the end, creating culture isn’t about any one aspect of the menu, the workspace or the team you hire. Rather, it’s the collective whole. As Cupps reflects, “It’s every single decision. How you schedule your team to work, for example. Give them two days off in a row, if possible. Ensure they have time to focus on the rest of their lives. Because cooking should be a career that’s sustainable—not just something you do for 5-10 years when you’re young. We are attracting people from all over as an industry—not just old school diehards—and we need to learn how to keep them and teach them to see cooking as a serious, lifelong profession.”