Child had a lovely dinner. The next day, Meyer received a hand-delivered letter from the New York Times, and was excited to open it up and read it.
“It turned out to be a very long typewritten letter from the managing editor of the New York Times telling me that he had been at the restaurant the last night, and Julia Child was at the next table. And ‘It was clear that we mattered a lot less than she did.’ It turned out to be a scathing and very very painful letter to read. He was absolutely right, in retrospect,” Meyer said. “It taught me one of the most important lessons of my career, which is that there’s only one Julia Child, but there are many regulars and celebrities that come to the restaurant. The lesson was how critically important it is to pay more attention to the people you don’t know first, because then they won’t notice how much time you’re spending elsewhere. But if you go to people you don’t know last, they may spend their entire meal with the feeling that they didn’t matter to you.”
Meyer, of course, went on to write “Setting the Table,” one of the most impactful books on hospitality. And on Tuesday, the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts announced that the Shake Shack founder and owner of more than a dozen other restaurants will be the recipient of this year’s Julia Child Award for his influence on the hospitality industry. When he heard the news a few months ago, he was on his way to Chez Panisse, and “I was skipping up the steps to the restaurant.”
That memorable visit from Child wasn’t the first time she had come to his restaurant, which was shortly after Union Square Cafe had opened.
“As a 27-year-old first-time restaurateur, to have Julia Child come into the restaurant was akin to if I were the priest of a very small church and the pope were to pay a visit,” Meyer said. “It completely rocked my world and it helped to put us on the map.”
Another time in the early 1990s, he was presented with the opportunity to have Child film a segment of “Good Morning America” in his home, where the picture of the two below was taken.
“It took me about a half second to say yes, and it took another half day for me to question my judgment,” he said. But the segment went off without a hitch, and afterward, the pair walked to Union Square Cafe, where “She put away a mammoth portion of braised short ribs, and between the two of us we downed two bottles of Beaujolais and I didn’t have more than a quarter of a bottle myself,” he said, describing it as “one of the most memorable experiences of my entire career.”
Like the Pritzker Prize is for architecture, the Julia Child Award is intended to honor a living person of distinguished achievement in the industry. The award is given to someone who has had “a profound and significant difference in the way America cooks, eats and drinks.” Its first recipient was Jacques Pepin in 2015, followed by Rick Bayless in 2016. The award is selected by an independent jury comprised of chefs, a culinary historian and a food journalist, and this year, “they unanimously decided Danny is the right person,” said Eric W. Spivey, the foundation’s chairman. “He is an innovator in a number of ways.”
But there’s one thing Meyer doesn’t have in common with his predecessors. He’s not a chef — and he’s the first non-chef to win the award.
“The goal of this award is to be an annual reminder of the qualities that Julia shared with the public, while recognizing someone that carries that torch,” Spivey said. “Julia was, at the bottom line, an educator … Danny’s done that in different ways, including being an author, but it’s really about being a mentor to hundreds of people in the hospitality industry.”
The award comes with a $50,000 prize intended to be donated to a charity of the recipient’s choice. Share Our Strength, a nonprofit that fights childhood hunger, was a natural choice for Meyer — he’s on the board. Spivey and other speakers, including Eleven Madison Park chef Daniel Humm and food personality Ruth Reichl, will present Meyer with his award at a gala dinner at the National Museum of American History on Oct. 26. It’s also a fundraiser for the Smithsonian Institution’s American Food History project, and will kick off the third annual Food History Weekend, with round table discussions from scholars, special meals and an evening event dedicated to beer history. Traditionally, the award has also been a chance for the museum to add artifacts to its collection from honorees. But Meyer isn’t sure what he’ll donate yet.
“I’ve had a tough time getting my head around it, because I don’t know what of mine anyone would ever want,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of archives from the early days of Union Square Cafe, and I’m thinking we are going to find some things that might be useful.”
He’s hoping he might stumble upon the menus from that night with Child. Another possibility is the original manuscript for “Setting the Table.” Really, the curators can take whatever they want: “As far as I’m concerned, whatever I have is theirs, because it will help me clean my office,” he said.
The next few years will be busy for Meyer. Shake Shack is expanding to Hong Kong, and then China. He also has a slew of openings in New York, starting with “three new places that all express our love affair with Rome in three different ways, in the next month and a half. One is going to be called Martina” — a riff on his pizza restaurant, Marta, but without a wood-burning grill — and behind Marta, he’s also opening a Roman coffee bar, and a Roman wine bar “with fried snacks,” both still unnamed (“Naming restaurants is the hardest thing, you cannot believe it.”) Elsewhere in New York, he’s working on a yet-unnamed casual restaurant on the 60th floor of a skyscraper called 28 Liberty Street.
“What we’re trying to do is to create a down-to-earth restaurant in a high-altitude space,” he said.
And finally, in early 2019, he’ll be bringing the Union Square Cafe to Washington, as part of the Capitol Crossing development. Though Meyer said he hasn’t begun the design process yet, he hopes that it will be the same as the original — which reopened in December after changing locations.
After the move, “We said to ourselves, guess what, whether we liked it or not, we opened a new Union Square Cafe. And it was fun, so we said, ‘Why don’t we do it again?’” he said. “People love this restaurant. We’ve had a wonderful experience in Washington for five or six years with Shake Shack. We’ve had dozens of people who have said, ‘We love Shake Shack, but can we have a full service restaurant?’ And it felt like this was the one.”
But as much as Meyer can talk about the future, he’s also been thinking about his past, and that brings him back to Child. He said that whenever she dined at one of his restaurants, she would write him a letter.
“I can still see the typed letters with the Cambridge return address. Not many people who were that big and that important were also that gracious,” he said. “She was a cheerleader for what was good. She impacted a lot of what went on the menu. She encouraged us to keep using butter and to keep cooking beef and keep serving great bread. And to not be afraid of extra crème fraîche on an apple tart. She loved using the word ‘marvelous.’”
And now that he is a Julia Child Award winner — one who will soon be represented in the Smithsonian Institution’s collection — he’s also thinking about the legacy he will leave.
“I think how you’re treated is, if anything, more important than what’s on the plate, than what’s in the glass,” he said. “That’s how I’d like to be remembered.”
More from Food:
Correction, 11:40 a.m: A previous version of this story referred to Meyer’s forthcoming “rum and coffee bar.” He is opening a Roman coffee bar.