20 Questions with Union Square Cafe’s Lena Ciardullo
In the Resy Questionnaire, we play a game of 20 questions with the industry folks behind some of our favorite restaurants. What’s your most memorable restaurant experience? Your favorite food movie? What restaurant would you want to time-travel for?
In this edition, we talk to Lena Ciardullo, the executive chef at the helm of Union Square Cafe, the greenmarket-inspired American favorite that launched Danny Meyer’s hospitality group when it opened in 1985.
The Resy Questionnaire
1. Favorite thing you’ve ever cooked?
Slow-roasted lamb shoulder. It’s low lift but when done right, it’s one of the most comforting foods ever. I like mine cooked over an enormous bed of onions to create a French onion soup-like fond. I also always love when I get to change someone’s mind about food: my dad was convinced he hated lamb. Now, at least, he says he likes it when I cook it. I’ve done this at Marta and Union Square Cafe in different ways, and it’s something I’m really proud of.
2. Kitchen tool or equipment you couldn’t live without?
I mean, a chef’s knife is pretty obvious, but assuming I could cut things, my next might be a Matfer Exoglass kitchen spatula — they are great for sauce work. Or a Microplane. It’s really too hard to choose.
3. What pantry items would you bring on a desert island?
Calabrian chile, white balsamic vinegar, olive oil, colatura di alici, and black pepper.
4. What’s your favorite place to get a slice in New York?
I rarely get a slice in New York. I live right by Razza in Jersey City — I love Dan [Richer], the owner, and that’s my go-to pizza spot.
5. Favorite cookbook?
I love all of Yotam Ottolenghi’s books. They’re beautiful but also really easy to use and follow.
6. Your drink of choice?
Currently vermouth and soda — I’ve been feeling the low ABV vibes lately.
7. Favorite food movie?
I really liked the movie Chef. It felt like there was a genuine passion for the food and the team, which felt more authentic than in most other food movies.
8. Your ideal dinner party guests, dead or alive?
Fairly obvious, but Julia Child and James Beard.
9. What restaurant industry person do you admire the most?
Danny Meyer. It’s not just that he’s so professionally successful, it’s that he’s genuinely happy and values home and family, too. He’s also still a pretty optimistic dreamer, which is impressive after all the sh*t he’s seen.
10. The greatest restaurant experience of your life so far?
I think my best dining experience may have happened in Rome. My husband and I went for our honeymoon and went to Roscioli (the now very well-known hot spot). Everything was just so well executed — truffled mortadella, perfect semi dried tomatoes with burrata, anchovies, and bucatini amatriciana with the best guanciale bites I’ve ever had. All were dishes I’d had before, no one was reinventing the wheel. That said, I was in Italy with my husband, splurging on great wine, and everything was exactly as I hoped it would be. It was one of those perfect moments of a time and a place where all your expectations are met and exceeded.
11. Your greatest professional achievement?
Being a part of the Maialino opening. There were a lot of days that sucked, but it made me the professional I am today, and everyone from that original team still holds a special place in my heart. And reopening Union Square Cafe after that first terrible COVID shutdown.
12. What single dish best describes your personality?
Maybe a really good pomodoro pasta. It’s simple and all, but it it’s also fresh and packs a punch.
13. If you could go back in time, which restaurant would you dine at?
I’d love to see Union Square Cafe back in the day. Late ’80’s Union Square would be a real study for me.
14. Your favorite meal from childhood?
My Aunt Betty’s gnocchi, no contest.
15. Your wish for the restaurant industry?
Make guests happy without sacrificing quality of life for our employees. Oh, and turn a profit!
16. What do you wish you did better? What do you do well?
Better: I wish I was a more technical butcher or salumi maker — I’ve always admired that skill but haven’t spent a lot of time training in it.
Well: I’m good at creating dishes and understanding what our clientèle wants to see.
17. If you could eat through a city for a day, where would you go?
No idea! My best days are organic and spontaneous, and my cravings are usually weather-driven.
18. The one thing you can’t resist splurging on when you go out?
Langoustine, head-on shrimp, or simply grilled seafood.
19. What do you value most in restaurants?
Passion and vision, with hospitality to make it come alive.
20. It’s your last meal on earth, what are you eating?
Aunt Betty’s gnocchi.