Sometimes the backstory to an article is as good, if not juicier, than the article itself. Such is the case with Bruce Feiler’s “The Therapist At The Table,” the archival piece from Gourmet magazine’s October 2002 issue that Gourmet Live featured in its Restaurant Issue last week. In it, Feiler describes what it’s like to go through the Danny Meyer restaurant training program and work as a maître d’ at Union Square Café in New York City.
So did how Feiler land this plum insider job? It all began with his first James Beard award winning article, “A Pocketful of Dough,” in which he chronicles his success at bribing his way into “hard-to-penetrate” New York restaurants, which ran in the October, 2000, issue of Gourmet magazine. (Full disclosure: I was one of the lucky ones roped in to fill out the foursome at Alain Ducasse.)
“The bribing piece really became a thing,” Feiler said when I called a couple of months ago to catch up with him as part of an editors’ note to “The Therapist At The Table,” updating what’s happened to Danny Meyer, Union Square Café, and Feiler since that story ran. How could a story describing Feiler’s success at bribing, along with “Ten Tips for Tipping” not create a lot of buzz in the restaurant and media worlds?
Before it ran, however, Editor-In-Chief Ruth Reichl was worried about lawsuits. “I spent weeks in the legal department,” recounted Feiler. “I had to get everybody’s name. And everybody was fine except for Danny Meyer, who was upset I had bribed my way into Union Square Café… He wanted to know who took the bribe and I never told him.”
A few months after the article appeared in Gourmet, the magazine celebrated its 60th anniversary with a party at The Whitney Museum. Feiler was there and Danny Meyer, whom he hadn’t yet met, came up to him. “He stuck a 50 dollar bill in my hand and said, ‘Are we even now?’ He wanted me to give out the name of the guy at Union Square Café.”
Without missing a beat, Feiler replied, “No, I want to work as a maître d’ at Union Square Café.’” Meyer agreed and graciously pocketed the 50 dollars.
So that’s how Feiler landed the gig at Union Square Café, which gave him rich fodder for his third James Beard award winning article. By sheer luck it also gave him the best opening line for a restaurant story: “In my first minute on the job, table 31 caught on fire.”