Each Thanksgiving, the NYC restaurant lets its staff compete for the ultimate prize: a spot on the menu.

By Nina Friend
November 27, 2019
Nina Friend

It’s two in the afternoon on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and lunch at Gramercy Tavern—Danny Meyer’s iconic American restaurant—is a steady hum of wagyu burgers and oysters on ice. Yet in a small, quiet room toward the back, eighteen pies cover a long wooden table. Behind the table, a panel of judges dissects each pie one by one.

Carla Hall, television personality and chef, says she’d want fish with the parsnip pie. Nicole Rucker, pie expert and author of Dappled: Baking Recipes for Fruit Lovers, questions the seasonality of a blueberry pie. Rose Levy Beranbaum, who has written eleven books on baking, flips over a slice of chocolate chess pie to determine whether the crust is baked through. This is an in-house pie competition at a New York City restaurant, but it feels like a baking show in real time. The mood is electric with a tinge of tension, and the stakes are potentially career-altering: the winning pie gets to be featured on Gramercy Tavern’s menu.

“We all work toward that in our industry,” said Miro Uskokovic, Gramercy Tavern’s pastry chef and the mastermind behind the contest. It all started seven years ago, when Uskokovic was looking for a way to bring holiday spirit to the restaurant’s staff in the midst of their busiest season. The first one came together quickly. There were only a few pies and there weren’t any outside judges. But there was something so special about everyone eating the leftovers together at family meal that Uskokovic decided to hold the contest again the next Thanksgiving.

“I felt like every year got a little bit bigger with more pies, more excitement, more judges,” Uskokovic said. In addition to Carla, Nicole, and Rose, this year’s judges included Michael Anthony, Gramercy Tavern’s Executive Chef and a 2002 Food & Wine Best New Chef; food writer Jordana Rothman; chef and food writer Jake Cohen, television personality Zac Young, and Rose Levy Beranbaum’s assistant, Woody Wolston.

Nina Friend

For the first time, Uskokovic opened this year’s contest to “the public,” or a select group of friends, regulars, and influences. Yet the event was still held behind closed doors—and Uskokovic wants it to stay that way.

While the fifteen or twenty audience members sipped on glasses of wine and snapped photos for Instagram, each contestant came into the room to present their pie. The judges asked questions, gave feedback, then rated each pie on a scale of one to ten. The room erupted in actual oohs and aahs whenever something controversial happened—like a judge making a snarky comment or bestowing the honor of a perfect score.

There were the traditionalist pies: caramel apple, sweet potato. There were the experimental pies: pumpkin flan, spicy s’mores. And then there were the pies that the judges couldn’t stop eating: peanut butter and jelly, chocolate Kahlua pudding. But there could only be one winner, and the grand prize went to a coconut and pandan pie with lemongrass whipped cream made by Lauren Tran, a pastry production cook.

Though there isn’t a formula for winning this contest, cream pies have historically gotten the highest marks. “Everybody always wants to make apple pie and pecan pie,” Uskokovic said, “but when you present banana cream or chocolate cream pie, everybody just goes bananas over it.”

For two weeks leading up to the pie-off, Uskokovic goes around the restaurant encouraging staff members to participate. Anyone who works at Gramercy Tavern can enter so long as they don’t have a hand in creating the menu. The trickiest part for Uskokovic is convincing people to actually do it. “They all feel like they can’t bake, and I’m like, please make it happen. If you can’t make a pie crust, make a cookie crust,” he said.

Everyone always assumes that the pastry team will win over the judges, but that isn’t true. The winter squash pie on the menu right now came from a server who won the competition last year. The 2014 winner, a buttermilk coconut pie, was made by one of the savory cooks.

Once all eighteen pies were tasted and rated, the audience members lined up to snag slices for themselves. And in true Union Square Hospitality Group fashion, Uskokovic was already thinking about how to improve the audience experience for next year, starting with asking contestants to make an additional pie.

“I felt bad that the audience had to sit down and watch judges eat pie,” he said. “Next year, everybody will get a chance to taste at the same time as the judges do.”

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