This story originally appeared in the Toronto Star a few months after 9/11. This is the 15th anniversary of that tragic event.
NEW YORK: Michael Lomonaco is a mensch.
I first noticed him at a sumptuous Italian buffet laid on by some of this city’s top chefs for a group of food writers gathered here almost 10 years ago.
Flashing his handsome, winning smile as he ladled creamy risotto on to diners’ plates, he stood out as a warm, articulate, down-to-earth man who also happens to be a chef of outstanding talent.
Our most recent encounter was a mid-afternoon interview three weeks ago at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square.
Seated in a back row of one of that hotel’s ballrooms lined with chairs, we chatted as Lisa Ling, co-host of ABC’s The View, practiced her gig as master of ceremonies for the 12th Annual James Beard Foundation Awards due to take place there a few hours later.
He requested we meet in this odd location as he had plans to watch a short video about September 11 scheduled to be screened during that evening’s ceremony.
Lomonaco, 47, came late to his calling as a chef.
“My first choice was to be an actor,” he explains over the booms and squeaks of technicians testing mikes. “I studied drama and worked in acting until I was 27.” Growing up in Brooklyn’s lively Italian community, a love of food had always been part of life and he had long had an interest in cooking.
He decided to take a two-year course near home at City University, where he is now a visiting prof, got his chef’s papers and has worked in restaurants ever since.
Lomonaco claims his first job at an “Old World Italian restaurant in Brooklyn,” was invaluable training. “I knew the food,” he recalls, “but not how to produce it for hundreds of diners a night.”
That soon became second nature. “Restaurant chefs must master organization, planning and timing,” he explains. “It’s what every good grandmother cook knows applied in a highly organized, well-timed production.”
By the late 1980s, Lomonaco had landed a job as sous-chef at the famous 21 Club in mid-town Manhattan. During nine years there, he worked his way up to executive chef and was responsible for injecting new energy into that dining institution.
“It was a power-broker place where politicians and the business community came to eat,” he notes, adding modestly, “Some people say I revitalized the restaurant. Certainly, I sought to lift a sagging food culture to more contemporary taste.”
During that period, Lomonaco hosted a popular TV show called Michael’s Place that aired on the Food Network for three years. He quickly became known as a star chef who relishes a challenge.
So when Windows on the World, the landmark dining spot on the 106th and 107th floors of the World Trade Centre, re-opened under new owners after closing for three years as a result of the 1993 bombing, he got a call.
“My mandate as chef/director at Windows was clear,” he explains. “It was to transform it from a restaurant with a view to a restaurant and a view.”
He overhauled a menu “that did not reflect the current state of gastronomy” by focusing on “pristine ingredients – in particular local organic produce from the Hudson Valley, the Greater New York area, Connecticut and Pennsylvania,” prepared with “precision and simplicity.”
Lomonaco cites his and owner David Emil’s mission statement: “From Windows on the World, you could see America and we wanted to reflect back the food traditions of America.”
With uncanny timing, this is the moment at which Lomonaco receives the sign that his video is about to begin. As the lights dim, he presses my arm and whispers, “Excuse me for a few minutes. I need to watch this.”
Complete with solemn music, the film shows how a group of Manhattan chefs and restaurateurs, with Lomonaco at the helm, banded together after 9/11. In the days following the disaster, they pooled their considerable resources to get food to firemen, police and other rescue workers.
Soon after, they established Windows of Hope, a charitable relief fund to assist victims’ families.
“I felt empty and very much alone,” says Lomonaco, looking pale and shaken as he sits around a table with his cohorts. “Our passionate business was all of a sudden infused with compassion,” he continues. “As an industry, we will never forget.”
The lights come back on and I see him brush a tear from his eye. He turns to me and resumes talking.
“We’ve raised $18 million (U.S.) for the families of victims who worked in the foodservice business,” he explains. There were 102 in all, 79 of whom worked at Windows.
That Lomonaco was not among them is a miracle.
That fateful day, he arrived at the World Trade Centre, as usual, at 8:15 a.m., but, on the way to the elevator, decided to purchase eyeglasses at an optometrist’s on the concourse level.
“It saved my life,” he says quietly. “They evacuated the building half-an-hour later. I saw it all unfold from the street.”
He knew all his colleagues who died to some degree. “More than 30 of them were from the kitchen,” he says sadly. “I was very close to my pastry chef Norberto who I’d worked with for 14 years,” a reference to Norberto Hernandez who was photographed jumping to his death.
But Lomonaco, who lives in Manhattan with his wife of 22 years Diane, is moving on.
Next month, he will open Noche, a Latin American restaurant/bar/nightclub on Broadway at 49th St. with his friend Emil – a plan that’s been in the works for two years and will mean jobs for some former Windows employees.
He finds strength in cooking. “Like my 79 friends who lost their lives,” he says, “it’s a privilege and what we love to do. I’m completely conscious of my blessing to be here and of continuing the work we were all doing together.”