Jim Poris / December 2008
Food Arts presents the December 2008 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Michael Lomonaco, the pro chef's pro who for nearly 20 years has dressed American food in a jacket and tie and filtered it through a New York City lens. Lomonaco has been something of a savior of iconic big-city restaurants—weaning the "21" Club from panned Continental airs, riding into Windows on the World as the good sheriff after its 1996 relaunch opened to unfavorable reviews, and stepping into the Time Warner complex of restaurants with the quintessential chophouse Porter House after the previous occupant of its space vacated. He may have a Brooklyn accent that keeps him grounded as a guy from the 'hood, but make no mistake, Lomonaco's food has perfect 20/20 American vision. And he has a track record that shows the public is buying it.
"American food possesses straightforward honesty and boldness, with the nuances you'd expect of a varied cuisine," says Lomonaco. "This is the approach I've taken."
Lomonaco was not to the kitchen born but rather embraced the cook's life after a stint as an actor. It was, in fact, his membership in a traveling troupe staging Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar ("I was 20 years old and had the hair for it") that presented him the chance to sample the big American food pie. "The taste memory of foods stayed with me; not being a regional chef but a broad American chef was my goal."
Lomonaco learned his new lines quickly: cooking school in Brooklyn; line work at the original Le Cirque under Alain Sailhac and Daniel Boulud; saucier at the "21" Club; sous chef at Maxwell's Plum; and then back to "21" as executive chef, where at the dawn of the 1990s he reached nationwide for his larder. He brought the same approach to Windows on the World and its 60 seat restaurant-within-a-restaurant Wild Blue, reestablishing culinary credibility with locals as much as with view-struck tourists.
Of course, it must be mentioned how the early-to-work Lomonaco narrowly missed being consumed by the September 11, 2001, conflagration when he stopped to have his reading glasses rejiggered at a Lenscrafters in the concourse of the North Tower, the first of the World Trade Center twins to be struck. He never made it up to the restaurant on the 106th and 107th floors; 73 Windows on the World staff and six carpenters building a new wine cellar never made it down. Afterwards, Lomonaco spearheaded Windows of Hope, which raised more than $22 million to benefit families of the 102 foodservice workers who perished on 9/11.
Lomonaco has moved on, his perpetual optimism in tow. He wrote a second cookbook (Nightly Specials in 2004 following the 21 Cookbook in 1995), did the show Epicurious for the Travel Channel in the wake of Michael's Place for the Food Network in the late '90s, worked as a consulting chef, and then in 2006 wound up with Porter House.
"I'm very happy and settled," says Lomonaco, 53. "Hospitality, that welcome part, fits my personality. I've never approached cooking as an extension of my ego."
That saying about where nice guys finish...it's wrong.