Chef Sandro Romano hates the phrase “prepared food.” As newly appointed culinary director and executive chef at local grocery chain Union Market, he’s revamping what they call “the case”—full of the kinds of items you pick up on your way home from work or drop into a picnic basket for an afternoon in Prospect Park. It’s fair to say that the items he’s serving up, like a beets in truffle vinaigrette, are a bit more thought-out than the goopy potato salad you might picture when you hear “prepared food.” His intention is to shift those expectations and prove picnic fare can be delicious, satisfying and even a little bit elegant.
After spending the bulk of his career in fine dining at big-name restaurants Union Square Café, Eleven Madison Park, The Modern and Armani Ristorante, this move is a major change of pace. He’s redesigning the grocer’s commissary kitchen, refreshing the menu and expanding their use of local produce, beginning with the purchase of micro-greens from Brooklyn Grange. And chef Romano couldn’t be happier with the adjustment. He has time to go see The Melvins play at Webster Hall; he can grill a chicken rubbed with olive tapenade for his friends—and then bring that recipe into the store.
“Our store has that platform and has been doing very well, but there’s a few pieces in the whole flow of the day-to-day operation that are super exciting to develop, tweak, change,” he tells me over afternoon drinks at Buschenschank in Carroll Gardens, just a block away from one of Union Market’s four locations. In addition to his work on the items you can pick up ready-to-eat, they’re also in the early stages of developing a chef’s table that will serve as an open kitchen and event space for meals, workshops, classes and more. Chef Romano doesn’t want it to serve only as a place for him to do plated dishes, but as a community builder: He envisions Saturday morning cooking classes for kids, or Thanksgiving turkey tutorials.
Right now, though, the focus is on the case, where he’s taking the tools he learned in fine dining and translating them to work for this wider audience. They’re doing their version of a meal kit by leaving some items to be finished in each store à la minute. “We separate the herbs and sauce, pack separately, and put a label on with instructions, so the person behind the case is finishing,” he says.
What he’s not bringing over from fine dining is a focus on minuscule details that don’t affect flavor. “We can do an awesome lentil salad with carrots and smoked tofu, and batch it, send it and it’s great,” he says. “We don’t have to do the perfect carrots like in fine dining, because who cares? It’s beautiful. We don’t want to enter that league where all the little cubes of tofu have to be all exact.”
He’s also excited to be able to do specials without needing to conform to a restaurant’s vision. When there are ramps, he’ll do a dish with ramps for three weeks. The store is allowing him a great deal of freedom. “Fifty percent of items will be there all year long because they’re amazing and people love it,” he says. “Then you have 30 to 40 percent left that will be seasonal; 10 to 15 percent is for specials.”
Union Market’s case is also proving to be a welcoming place for anyone with dietary restrictions, from gluten intolerance to nut allergies. “The use of vegetables is always cut, sauté, season, boom—same thing with beans, lentils and cereal,” he says, but he’s looking to do more for alternative diets, including veganism, without condescension and without sacrificing flavor. There are so many cuisines throughout the world that don’t always use animal products or wheat, he notes. “I’m very concerned about gluten, nut allergy, vegan—I have none of those in my diet, but I know it’s important. We get lazy using things that are very convenient but also very bad for us,” he says.
For the Super Bowl, for instance, he used rice flour for the store’s chicken wing options and opted to bake rather than fry them. “Very crunchy but soft, and you don’t have this oily or greasy thing. [They were] finished with combo of lemon juice, sriracha and honey—so you want to go back, back, back” for more, he says. On a daily basis, the rotisserie chickens on offer allow for different diets. A big seller is one that’s seasoned simply with salt and pepper, and is appropriate for those with onion allergies. This ability to feed as wide an audience as possible while still serving meals of exceptional quality is Chef Romano’s overarching goal.
“You choose to go to a restaurant based on what you’re reading, where you are, what’s cool. At Union Market, we have different religious beliefs, dietary restrictions, ages, backgrounds, but what are we going to do if our salad appeals to .01 percent?” he says. “It doesn’t mean I’m just doing vanilla ice cream and fried chicken. There’s a fine line between doing too much and doing just enough, and I think Union Market is right there.”
If you’re eager to try what Chef Romano is cooking up, you can stop into any of Union Market’s four locations or meet him at the Food Book Fair’s Foodieodicals event, happening this weekend at the Wythe Hotel. He’ll be serving up their brown rice salad with cranberries, mint, sheep ricotta salata, candied walnuts and sherry vinegar.
Photos courtesy of Union Market.