by Elizabeth Fasolino
photographs by Sari Goodfriend | August 31, 2011 | Food & Drink
Michael Lomonaco in the kitchen
|Porter House New York, Michael Lomonaco’s steakhouse at the Time Warner Center|
|The bar at Porter House New York|
If Michael Lomonaco hadn’t stopped to get his reading glasses repaired at the optical shop on the concourse level of the World Trade Center a little after 8 o’clock in the morning on September 11, 2001, he would have been on the 106th floor, at Windows on the World, where he was the chef and director. “I was very tuned into my glasses being not quite right,” Lomonaco said, reflecting for what must be the millionth time on the smallest details of that terrible day. “It saved my life.”
This September, of course, marks the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It also marks the fifth anniversary of the opening of Porter House New York, Lomonaco’s steakhouse at the Time Warner Center, where he employs a handful of staff from Windows on the World who, like him, were not at work that day. For the chef, this current venture represents a way to keep what’s left of his Windows on the World team together and to reassert the resilience of the city he loves.
“I’ve spent all my career in New York,” Lomonaco said. “These days, I’m able to do what I do because it’s an honor and tribute to my friends lost on 9/11, because that’s what they were doing on that day.”
The Brooklyn-born Lomonaco spent the first eight years of his professional life in the theater, as an actor and a backstage technician. Like many in his profession, he ended up in the food service industry, though not as a waiter (he did have a brief stint as a bartender). He signed up for a restaurant and hospitality management course at City Tech, a branch of the CUNY system.
He grew up in a family where cooking and homegrown, homemade ingredients were valued. Preparing food felt like a natural outlet for his creativity as well as a way to reach out and connect to people. “I cook with a great deal of happiness and joy,” he says. “It’s a way of giving of myself to others, not only in the restaurant, but as part of being in a community.” It’s something that’s helped Lomonaco work through the grief and loss he felt after September 11.
He recounts his memories of that day 10 years ago with an efficiency and precision that hints at countless internal replays of the events. “There were 100 people in a private party,” he says. “There were 20 or 30 members at breakfast in the World Trade Center Club, plus 72 restaurant workers, one security guard and six men building a new wine cellar.”
Lomonaco’s Windows on the World was one of the top five highestgrossing restaurants in the world; its kitchens cooked day and night, and the elevators ferried guests and staff through miles of shafts that snaked through the center of the tower but still shuddered in the gusts of wind that blew off the Hudson. When the first plane hit Tower One, the North Tower, a few floors below Windows on the World, Lomonaco was underground in the concourse, but his thoughts were immediately with his staff more than a hundred stories above.
The dining room at Porter House New York
|Lomonaco sees his current ventures as a way to pay tribute to the victims of September 11 while keeping together the friends and coworkers from Windows on the World who survived the tragedy|
“I felt the impact, a rumble,” he said, “Everything shook. I didn’t know what that was, but—and I remember this thought so clearly—I knew it couldn’t be the subway.”
First responders directed those on the lower levels through the emergency exits with flashlights, and Lomonaco emerged at the corner of Liberty and Church Streets. He went in search of a pay phone, across the debris covering the sidewalks and streets. He wanted to call his wife, who could see the towers from her office. From a position next to the Century 21 Department Store he looked up and saw fire and smoke spreading across the reflective steel and glass walls of the tower. “I knew it was bad,” he says. “But it wasn’t until I heard and saw the second plane come that I knew what had happened. Then it was very obvious we were under attack.”
The following day, senior management and owners from Windows on the World gathered in Midtown to piece together what had happened, to grieve and to begin compiling a list for the New York Police Department of those who’d been in the restaurant. “It was the beginning of a dreadful period for New York,” he says. “But there were things that had to be done.”
“At first we thought everyone was missing,” Lomonaco says. “We had 450 people working at Windows. Remember all the LOST posters at Union Square? Everyone thought their loved ones would be found.”
Lomonaco and the surviving members of the Windows team took strength from the routine of aiding the families of the dead and by coordinating a relief effort to raise money for the families of lost restaurant and hospitality workers who had been employed in the towers.
There may not be much room for introspection in a crowded kitchen driven to produce almost every day of the year, but the pace seems to inspire creativity for some in much the same way contemplation and repose might for others. Lomonaco, along with chefs Tom Valenti (Ouest, Gotham Bar and Grill,) Waldy Malouf (Beacon) and David Emil, a financier and owner of Windows, teamed up to create Windows of Hope, a charity to aid the survivors of those who died. A month later, on October 11, they produced a “dine-out” in New York City; the charity went on to raise $23 million to pay for health insurance, emergency aid and education for victims’ families.
Windows of Hope’s mission is now complete (remaining funds will be distributed as scholarships to the recipient families), and Ground Zero has become a construction site. New buildings are finally taking shape where the towers fell. Farther uptown, Lomonaco isn’t precisely sure how he will mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11, but he says that it would be private and “spiritual.” He does, however, know what he’ll be doing this fall: opening his newest venue, a small-plates restaurant, wine bar and cocktail lounge on the fourth f loor at the Time Warner Center.
“After 9/11 the team from Windows stayed together,” Lomonaco says. “We were a community for months. It became my life. I stayed within that community for five years until 2006, when I came to the Time Warner Center to look around. Now we’re going to have our fifth anniversary. It’s a very happy moment for me, to be here cooking, in the restaurant business, doing what I love.” Porter House New York, 10 Columbus Circle, 4th Fl., 212-823-9500