The Meatball Hero: After Sandy, Michael Chernow Gives Back to the City that Gave Him Everything

Michael Chernow gets his hands dirty. As one half of the cheeky duo behind The Meatball Shop, the successful mini-chain of ball-focused foods, the Manhattan native made a name for himself by capitalizing on polite toilet humor and mugging for the cameras that love him. But don’t be fooled by the high profile.

In the days and weeks following Hurricane Sandy, Chernow found himself compelled to lend his hand to the people and the city that needed him. Taking a step back from business, Chernow was working in the Rockaways a week after the storm to help rebuild damaged communities. Over a month later, he continues to organize efforts to support those who need help.

The restaurateur discussed his experience with Fork in the Road, weaving his speech with equal amounts of humility and gratitude. “I was a kid growing up here and this city has given me everything,” he said. Now, he’s trying to give something — anything — back.

On taking action:

“When it was all going down, I was really inclined to contribute but I had no idea where to begin. Having never done any kind of hands-on volunteer work before, I felt I needed a good connection to make an impact. Then, the following Sunday, I was practicing yoga at Ashtanga Yoga New York in lower Manhattan. The shall (yoga studio) was cold and without power but we were led by candlelight. The experience actually kind of beautiful and I felt so grateful to be part of the community. Eddie Stern, who runs AYNY, approached me to discuss his volunteer efforts and I immediately said, ‘let’s put a plan together for tomorrow morning.’ And that’s how it started, we were both just sharing the same thought.”

On recruiting:

“Of course, getting the work done was something else entirely. I reached out to many of my colleagues in the restaurant industry and, one-by-one, people came to the table. Mathieu Palombino, of Motorino Pizza, was particularly incredible (Ed. note: Despite the closing of the East Village Motorino location due to Sandy, Palombino worked in the dark, mixing pizza dough by-hand in an enormous vat atop a kitchen table). For two weeks after the dust had settled, in my neck of the woods at least, I focused my energy and efforts on bringing food to the people out in the Rockaways. On the first Monday following the storm, we brought 1000 meatballs for 1000 people. On Tuesday, we brought 250 pies of pizza and a ton of bread from Il Forno bakery. That was how it went, everyday, for the next two weeks.”

On volunteering:

“On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, we brought out meals for 1,000 people and set up shop at PS 197. Eddie arranged to have a DJ and face painters at the event. All the families we’d met in the preceding days came to the school with their kids and picked up supplies and ate warm food. The experience was incredible for everyone, but it was also greater than the day itself. People caught a glimpse of things starting to turn around, they felt the small sea change. To see the happy, smiling faces of the children who’d been impacted so deeply — with their homes gone, their belongings destroyed and their schools closed — was like a ray of light guiding us towards better days ahead.”

On what’s still needed:

“We’re trying to figure out what to do next now that there are businesses opening and things starting to turn around. The donations have been incredible and many people do know where to turn for supplies. But now the efforts need to be directed towards the higher price tag items- generators, heaters, hand and foot warmers- those things are still desperately needed. Many people have electricity but some are still living without it. Smaller homes and buildings have largely been left out to dry. I know many people will knock the Red Cross, but I’m not going to be that guy. People are helping in any way that they can and, at the end of the day, the government is doing incredibly good work. Nobody can prepare for a disaster like this one. Unfortunately, this is a crash course in what to do when it happens again. At the same time, it’s inspiring to see the wealth of New Yorkers that are ready, willing and able to lend a hand to people whose lives have been drastically altered by a storm.”

On giving thanks:

“This is my hometown and I’m forever humbled by the business that I’ve created. Initially, I said to my business partner, Daniel Holzman, hey man, I want to do this work and I’m sorry that the business could probably use me right now. But he, and the rest of the great people I work with at The Meatball Shop, have been supportive and understanding of my change in job description for the last month. I don’t really know how to explain what I felt — this personal call to help — but I wanted to do this work. I just sort of had to.”



NYC Chefs Modeling for J. Crew, Uniqlo

Fashion brands like J. Crew and Uniqlo are recruiting NYC chefs as models for their brands, according to the New York Post.

Mission Chinese Food chef Danny Bowien is modeling for Uniqlo, the culinary team behind the Fat Radish is in a new ad for the prepster label Gant, and Michael Chernow of the Meatball Shop is posing for J. Crew.

“We believe that both clothing and food are crucial elements of people’s everyday lives, you can’t really live without either,” Kensuke Suwa, chief marketing officer of Japan-based Uniqlo told the Post.

Creative director Christopher Bastin of Gant cited the parallels between fashion and food “The same care and love goes into artisanal food, like homegrown tomatoes from a rooftop in Brooklyn, as does the finishing of an indigo-dyed Oxford shirt,” he said.


Michael Chernow on the Meatball Shop – Meatball Factory Rivalry: Interview Part 2

Yesterday we spoke with Michael Chernow, co-owner of the popular Meatball Shop and co-author of the just-published The Meatball Shop Cookbook, who gave us tips for making great meatballs at home. Today he tells us how New York City’s culinary landscape has changed since he grew up here and shares his thoughts about the new Meatball Factory (231 Second Avenue, East Village, 212-260-8015).

So how do you feel about the Meatball Factory getting up on the meatball market?

We welcome them. This is New York City and it’s a big place. We wish them well and hope that they’ll succeed. There’s more than enough room for multiple meatballers.

How would you say you’ve distinguished yourself from the Meatball Factory?

We’re just happy to be at the forefront of meatballs. We opened a few years ago, and it’s been amazing to see people follow suit. We’ve seen meatball concepts open throughout the country, and that’s been really gratifying.

You grew up in New York City. How do you think the culinary landscape has changed?

Obviously chefs are up there on a celebrity platform. That’s really taken shape and the food scene has followed suit. People are eating focused foods as opposed to five-course tasting menus. I’ve just noticed over the years that people are more likely to gravitate towards a meal with more value involved. Do one thing, and do it really well; people are interested in the “best,” be it the best pizza, hot dogs, or meatballs.

Where do you eat when you’re not at the Meatball Shop?

I’m a sushi guy. I love Tomoe Sushi, and I love Takahachi. I love the burger at the Spotted Pig and there’s also a new restaurant in the neighborhood that I love, Betto. That restaurant is very special.

And they make meatballs, too!

Yeah, they do.

OK, so, finally — if you weren’t making meatballs what would you be doing?

I’ve found a real passion in designing restaurants, so I think at this point I’d be consulting and helping people design and decorate their own restaurants.


Michael Chernow Reveals His Favorite Recipes From The Meatball Shop Cookbook

Michael Chernow is one half of the duo behind the wildly successful Meatball Shop, located on the Lower East Side. This past summer saw the opening of the shop’s Williamsburg branch, and now Chernow has co-written The Meatball Shop Cookbook along with chef Daniel Holzman and Lauren Deen. But the Meatball Shop almost wasn’t meant to be. Chernow tells us how he and Holzman had originally intended a very different restaurant all together.

So, how did you come up with the meatball concept for a restaurant?

Daniel [Holzman] and I grew up in New York City together. We’ve been best friends since we were 13 and had a dream to open a restaurant together. After high school, I worked in restaurants and Daniel went to California to work. I did front of house and then went to culinary school to put fire under my butt to get going. Then Daniel came back to help launch the restaurant. We had another concept in mind and the meatballs were a side project, but then as we were looking for investors, we cooked them meatballs. Once we saw the action at the table, we decided to hop on the meatball concept and bang out the idea. What we found out was that people love meatballs. They’re accessible; everyone has a meatball story. Ask about their meatball pasts and they’ll have skeletons in the closet.

What was the other concept that you scrapped?

The other concept was more of a Mediterranean one. We had been working in fancier restaurants and wanted to bring a fancy Mediterranean concept to a more casual setting. Instead we took an at-home food and brought it to the restaurant.

Is it hard running a business with your best friend?

There are definitely challenges. But we’ve known each other for 18 years and love each other dearly and fill in the gaps for each other, for sure.

Let’s talk about the book. What should everyone know about making meatballs at home?

The book is really self-explanatory. It makes it really easy for you. I guess the A-Number One tip is don’t intellectualize when cooking. Really have fun with it and don’t overthink it and don’t squeeze your meatballs into a tightly packed ball; roll a fluffy light ball. Having fun is the number-one piece of the puzzle. Lots of people are scared that it’ll taste bad. Unless you’re in pastry, where precision is important, it’s going to be fine.

What are some of the meatballs you’ll find in the book that you can’t get at the restaurant?

We have about 50 meatballs that we rotate at the restaurant. There are always four staples, and then it’s that fifth meatball slot that we rotate. Most that we serve in the restaurant you’ll find in the book. There might be some in the restaurant that aren’t in the book because we wrote it a while ago. But some [meatballs in the book] that are super are the Fightin’ Irish Balls, the Steak ‘n’ Bacon Cheddar Balls, and the Reuben Balls.

What are the most popular types of meatballs ordered at the Meatball Shop?

Statistically, the beef meatballs with tomato sauce in a bowl is the most popular dish. Just classic, naked meatballs of beef with tomato sauce. For a meatball veteran, the chicken meatballs with Parmesan cream sauce over mashed potatoes is incredibly delicious. Or the spicy pork meatballs over polenta. The steak ‘n’ bacon meatballs on a hero is a hangover helper. Me, personally, I’m really healthy, and the food at the Meatball Shop is really healthy. It’s all-natural and there’s nothing in there that’ll kill you. I kind of err on the healthier side. I have a kitchen-sink salad with vegetarian meatballs and pesto sauce.

Have there been any meatball flops?

One that we did early on — the salmon meatballs. Some people loved it; some didn’t love it. When we get three people saying they aren’t stoked with it, we’ll take it off.

You opened an outpost in Brooklyn this summer. What, if anything, is the biggest difference between the two spots?

There are a few differences. When you walk into the shop on Bedford, you’ll know instantly that you’re in the Meatball Shop. One thing you’ll notice is that [the Meatball Shop on] Bedford is double the size of [the one on] Stanton Street. Another difference is that we have a full liquor license with a full cocktail program that we put a lot of energy into. It’s similar to the slider grid in that you choose your mix-in and alcohol. But the energy and service are the same, and lots of fun. We’ve been in restaurants for the longest time and just wanted to create a place where we could hang out with our friends.

Any indication for when the next location will open?

We are definitely getting ready to open our West Village location. It’s at 64 Greenwich Avenue at Perry Street. We’ll open sometime in November. The West Village is a different demographic for us, so we’re hoping to serve younger families.

Check back in tomorrow, when Michael tells us where he’s eating when he’s not chowing down on meatballs.