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.