Take a Trip Through Le Cirque, '21' Club, and Windows on the World With Michael Lomonaco
While I'm sitting in a booth at Porter House (10 Columbus Circle, chatting with Michael Lomonaco, a regular comes over and slaps him on the back. They talk for a second about the experience, and then the diner reveals that he's eaten at this restaurant 292 times since it opened -- a fact that a host here has tracked along with his preferences. "That," says the chef after the patron leaves, "is why I do this."
Lomonaco grew up in an Italian-American family in Brooklyn, and good food was always a part of the picture. He remembers helping his mom in the kitchen -- she would make tomato sauces from the produce she'd grown in the garden, can peaches for the winter, and grind meat for sausages. He pursued acting after high school, and he drove a cab to make ends meet. Cooking remained a hobby, and he decided to make a career change after a fateful night when he drove The Odeon's Patrick Clark home to Brooklyn. Clark told Lomonaco about the cooking program at the New York City College of Technology, and Lomonaco decided to enroll.
He worked his way through school at Monte's Venetian Room, then a mainstay of the Brooklyn dining scene, and post-graduation, a connection to the Maccionis helped land him a job at Le Cirque, where he worked under both Alain Sailhac and Daniel Boulud. "That cemented my skill development," he says. A year or so later, Sailhac and other Le Cirque staffers left to reopen '21' Club, and Lomonaco followed, eventually stepping into the executive chef role in 1989, where he remained until 1996. There, he says, he really found his voice, cooking "contemporary American food as we could define it, and that meant seasonality, freshness, and locality."
When '21' Club went to new owners, Lomonaco decided it was time to explore other opportunities. Windows on the World was preparing to reopen after the first World Trade Center bombing, and owners Joe Baum and David Emil were successful in bringing Lomonaco on board. "It was Joe Baum's dream that Windows should be this center for American cooking," says Lomonaco. "We were buying local ingredients, local fish, and greenmarket produce for Windows on the World. We were trying to really set the bar a little higher for ourselves. We did a vast volume every day, but we could do something really special." In 1999, he opened Wild Blue in the former Cellar in the Sky space, envisioning the concept as a reinvention of the American chophouse.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Lomonaco devoted himself to the Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund, an organization that worked to raise education, emergency, and healthcare funds for the families of the 102 food service workers -- 79 of them Windows on the World staffers -- that lost their lives in the terrorist attacks. "At that first fundraiser, we hoped we'd raise $1 million," he says. "We raised over $5 million in that one day." And over the next year, the fund grew to $22 million.
Lomonaco continued consulting, and he appeared on a litany of TV shows over the next five years, but he wasn't ready to put his name on a space until the deal at Porter House came along. In 2006, he jumped at the chance to open a contemporary steakhouse in the Time Warner Center across from Per Se and Masa, and he added Center Bar, a small Mediterranean tapas bar, soon after. He still cooks in his kitchen almost nightly, and he tries to touch every table in the dining room, too, which explains his relationship with that regular.
In this interview, the chef talks about lessons from Le Cirque and '21' Club, why Windows on the World was the center of American cooking, and why the industry is better than ever.
Talk to me about landing that job at Le Cirque. After graduation, I worked at some small restaurants and a private club. Then Alain Sailhac hired me -- even though I had a childhood connection to the Maccionis, it took a couple of months for them to get to my resume. When I got that call, I had just been hired at Union Square Cafe -- it was my second day. That was a hot new restaurant in 1997, and Ali Barker was the chef who hired me. He's still a friend today. I said, "Ali, what do I do?" And he said, "Go to Le Cirque." He'd worked at La Caravelle [a legendary French restaurant], and he understood. It was an incredible experience.
How so? A lot of people worked at Le Cirque in the '80s, and I was very fortunate to work there for both Alain and Daniel Boulud. I started as an entremetier, and I was promoted to poissonnier, so I was cooking fish every night, six nights a week. That really cemented my skill development and training, especially because I couldn't go to Europe. I was older getting into this -- I graduated when I was almost 30, and it was a new industry for Americans to get into. New York was the place I wanted to be, I could learn and get the skill development here, and I could be in the restaurant where I could understand great cooking and great hospitality. The keys to the restaurant business lie in an experience like that.
How did you get from there to '21' Club? About a year after I started at Le Cirque, Alain Sailhac went to do the reopening of '21' -- it had been closed. Anne Rosenzweig was the partner and a great chef. So a few of us wound up at '21.' I was hired to be the daytime saucier, which was a sous chef-kind of position. I spent a period of time with Geoffrey [Zakarian], Alain, and Anne, and a year and a half later, Geoffrey and I went to work with Warner LeRoy at Maxwell's Plum. Warner was trying to reinvent it, but it only lasted four or five months, and then he closed it -- that was the end of Maxwell's.
In 1989, Ken Aretsky, who was Anne's partner and the managing partner of '21,' asked me to be executive chef. I served as the executive chef from 1989 until 1996, and I'm really proud of the time I spent there -- that's where I learned to express my own feelings as a chef. That had a lot to do with modern American cooking and traditional regional American cooking. Ingredients were becoming much more available -- there was a lot of stuff happening in the Hudson Valley, and it became this new source of ingredients that could make local, regional food something viable. We had a source for local meats in Vermont, and people in Pennsylvania were growing produce for us in their own little hothouse. It was a new age for farmers. Now, it's so much more developed, but then, people were just finding their way out of big industrial farming into more local, seasonal, and organic farming.
What drew you to American cooking? I was really drawn to French cooking. I was a Francophile. As a chef, my French training at Le Cirque was so important. Today, we cook differently. Diners are so much more sophisticated -- they're so much more experienced, so widely traveled, and their palates are so developed; it's really exciting to be a chef now.
Tell me a little bit about your experience at Windows on the World. Working in big iconic New York restaurants was something that just sort of happened; it was not my game plan. But I'm a native New Yorker, and there was something really exciting about working at Le Cirque, 21, and then Windows. In 1997, Joe Baum and David Emil were trying to relaunch the food program. So I went to help with relaunch, and it was about trying to find a great American story to tell in the kitchen. We wanted to work with great ingredients, treat them with respect, and try not to imprint too much manipulation on them. We wanted to keep it fresh and wholesome. I think we achieved what we set out to do. We were working with the greenmarket at Windows. In fact, 9/11 was a greenmarket day, and one of my last images is of them setting up the stands downstairs and then breaking down and getting out of there. But eight months of the year, the bulk of our produce was from the greenmarket.
In 1999, we took the Cellar in the Sky space and opened Wild Blue, a 50-seat chophouse that served prime beef, family-style meats and fish, and produce at the top of the world looking out over the Statue of Liberty. I was serving this chophouse fare before my contemporaries started to open steakhouses, and the idea was to reinvent a chophouse. It was a really successful little restaurant, a jewel box. People who lived downtown would come to Wild Blue. It was a great experience.
In all, 450 people worked at Windows. You got to know so many people, because it moved 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It was nonstop. But people were proud of being there, and it was an incredible place to be. Just incredible.
And then 9/11 happened. We lost 79 people in 9/11. In the early days, we were just trying to figure out who was missing. That alone took months. A group of us decided to try to organize a fundraiser, and that turned into Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund. A lot of industry people came out to help, and so did writers and PR people. Our intention was to raise money for the food service workers' families. We lost 79, but other businesses in the building had restaurant workers, so in total, that meant 102 people -- and 250 family members left with this incredible void. So we decided to raise emergency funds, healthcare funds, and funds earmarked for education.
There was such an outpouring of support. We had a fundraiser for Windows of Hope on October 11. Everyone in the business got behind it. People weren't going out -- people were afraid to leave their homes. They'd stay away from streets, restaurants, and theaters. But when we held that fundraiser, there was such an outpouring of support for it. The Discovery Channel, Travel Channel, and Food Network all ran public service ads. President Clinton and the Yankees did all these things to help this little charity. It was unbelievable.
So the fundraiser was held in New York and across the country and the world, in places like Japan and Switzerland. At that first fundraiser, we hoped we'd raise $1 million. We raised over $5 million in that one day. After a year, we'd raised more than $22 million. At the end of the day, the goal we set out to meet was met beyond our expectations and greatest hopes. We were able to provide emergency aid for a number of years. The fund provided health insurance for the first five years for all the group members' families. For the last seven years, the funds have been earmarked for education. Some of the spouses went to ESL or trade school. But predominantly, it's gone to the 150 children who lost a parent that day. The fund has done a really good job helping those kids go to college and grad school.
Porter House via Facebook
What drove you to open more restaurants after that? We were in the middle of opening Noche when 9/11 happened, and we ended up trying to employ people who worked with us at Windows. Noche opened in 2002 in Times Square, and it probably employed about 100 people, nearly half of whom had been at Windows. After that, I really focused on consulting, and then I did some other restaurant consulting with David Emile. (Joe Baum had passed away in 1998.)
I was looking for a home, but it's not easy to find a home that you can really call home. I don't really like to move around a lot, and trying to find the right location was tough. Finding the right partners was even tougher. I found the right partners in 2006 when Ken Himmel asked me if I would come look at this space and see if we could do a modern steakhouse here. He wanted it to be a one-off -- not part of a chain -- and it fit the restaurant collection: Thomas Keller is across the hall, Masa is across the hall, and Jean Georges had V here for about a year and a half.
I'm able to do a lot of things under the guise of the steakhouse, more than the old school steakhouses that focus on two or three cuts of beef. I source great ingredients, treat those ingredients with love and precision cooking, and highlight ingredients that are from around the country or locally sourced. It's so much in keeping with '21' and Wild Blue. In fact, Wild Blue was kind of a precursor to this. It's a restaurant style that speaks of informality, conviviality, and hospitality -- I love those things.
Talk to me about your food philosophy. Throughout my life, food has been a really important facet. I grew up with great cooking. My mother was a terrific cook. I was fortunate in that regard, and I learned a lot about ingredients from her. I learned from a very early age to respect ingredients and seasonality. Great cooking begins with ingredients.
If I have really done my job right in selecting the farmers to work with, the next thing I have to do is treat those ingredients with respect. I've also focused on simplicity, which allows the ingredients to really shine through. But you can't have this conversation and not talk about cooking technique. I'm a traditionalist. I like fire, heat, grills, roasting, and braising -- all very traditional cooking techniques. I haven't spent much time incorporating modern gastronomical techniques into my food; I've stayed focused on my cooking, which is primal in its origins. I like to travel and see the modern practitioners, particularly in France and Italy, but when I come home to my own home cooking, my own restaurant is really about maintaining some of the traditions that I was schooled in and practicing them to my best ability.
How has the industry changed over your time in it? We're in this fantastic period -- it's like a golden age. There was a golden age in the '80s: That was the generation of Alice Waters and Larry Forgione. But this is more exciting that I've ever seen before. There are people who are doing new and exciting things all over the city, in all of the boroughs. There's so much great cooking, and so much personal cooking, and that's a new thing -- injecting personality, a real personal vision, into cooking. In the 90s, everyone was predicting that dining would become a new form of entertainment. Dining would take its place next to music, theater, and television. Now, dining has become the real destination. It's a dialogue of how people share their lives together. It's so exciting to see young people out in restaurants, trying new things.
Any pressing issues that the industry needs to deal with? One of the hardest things is finding qualified staff. There's a shortage of people who want to cook, and there are so many more places where people can work. Everyone is experiencing staff shortages at every level. Congress has to get this immigration bill done so more people are welcome to be here -- restaurants are not just entry-level work. They're life's work for chefs and front-of-house service people who become sommeliers, master bartenders, and captains.
Paying a living wage is something our mayor has talked about. We pay a living wage; it's really important to us. But it's very hard to do: Restaurant economics don't get easier for anyone; the economic picture is tough between fixed cost, rent, and wages -- that's the price of doing business. Restaurant people rise to the challenge and figure out ways to do it. I think that's been the catalyst in getting people out to Brooklyn and Queens -- they've left Manhattan for rents.
What are your goals? I'm always trying to keep learning and not shut myself off. I try to really stay in tune with where the restaurants go, where food goes, and what people are interested in. The goal is to stay relevant and interesting -- I love what I do, and I've been really lucky to do what I do. Being in the kitchen every day makes me happy. Being in my kitchen, having some part in what's happening, makes me happy.
What part of your story do you wish got more attention? What gets missed is how many people it takes to make it happen. There are 135 people here, and it takes a lot of energy every day. We have a wine director, a real staff, and a real team of dedicated professionals working as hard as they could in any restaurant. There's nothing simple about it, but they try to make it look easy. I don't get the chance to give them the credit that's due. We're open nearly every day, and they come in dedicated and ready to go.
And Michael Ammirati is the unsung hero of my kitchen. Michael and I have been cooking together since '21.' He was the executive chef of Windows on the World, he opened Noche with me, and he came here to do this with me in 2006. He's my best friend, a great guy, and we really understand each other. We've had this collaboration all these years. In so many restaurants, the chef has someone just like that, and they're the ones doing the hard work, interpreting the mission and what we're trying to do. I owe him a great debt.
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