Michael Lomonaco thought he’d take the elevator up to his office but he really needed to get his glasses repaired so, a little after 8 on a sunny September morning, he went down to the optical shop in the lobby. It was a fateful decision for the noted American chef/director at the time, restaurateur and TV personality.
The day, of course, was September 11, and he would go on to lose 79 of his employees on the 106th floor at Windows on the World. But overcoming the sadness of the loss, Lomonaco went on to open Porter House New York in 2006 and he’s been writing cookbooks and traveling around the country to host Epicurious on the Discovery Channel, among other things, ever since.
How has the industry changed since you began your career?
The industry has expanded in a really fantastic way. The ideas and concepts even 20 years ago of dining are dust. You had tablecloth restaurants and then everything else after that, back then. There was a breakdown – where you expected to find good food and where you didn’t. Today the possibilities of dining and eating well has just expanded into so many directions. Another big change is that chefs have come into their own as entrepreneurs and business people, they’ve been given the tools to create these empires of restaurants around the world. That’s one of the great things we’ve all worked for, to earn that level of respect that has come with many years of people before us. The growth in the food industry in the last 10 years has been greater than in the 30 or 40 years before that.
Why do you think things have changed so much?
The media has been an integral part of the food industry but I also think that it’s what people want as more and more generations have grown up going to restaurants. It’s now really become mainstream. Whether dining out at a barbecue joint or a French bistro, eating out has become part of our lifestyle. And in so many ways, great food has become more affordable – sort of a democratization of food. The barrier to food is no longer the $35 entree. People’s expectations of what a great meal is have changed.
What makes your restaurant different?
Here at Porter House New York, we have an extensive wine list, over 700 labels, and we have a very big menu that focuses first on dry-aged prime beef. It’s natural beef – hormone- and antibiotic-free. The restaurant opened with the idea of serving great wines from all over the world with great steaks, in a comfortable environment. It’s not an inexpensive restaurant, mainly because the product that we use is from the top end and really a very expensive product.
But we’re in a special location. Our restaurant is on the 4th floor overlooking Central Park, and we have great food. We built the restaurant to be comfortable, with a real emphasis on hospitality and service. We wanted to beat the expectations of what people think they should get at a steakhouse. We’re part of the restaurant collection at the Time Warner Center, and the restaurant collection there was meant to have high-end restaurants and some in the middle, to be available to many people at different levels.
What is it like to operate a restaurant at the Time Warner Center?
My neighbors are Bar Masa and Per Se. That had an effect on me in terms of how hospitality and service are important to the overall experience of dining at some level, not at all restaurants and not in all dining situations, but here, in this location, with these neighbors, a through line that matters. We have a crossover of guests and diners who are regulars here. People come from all over the world to eat at Porter House. We’ve focused on the quality of the cooking, the precise cooking of the highest-quality ingredients and we’ve tried to serve it not in a stuffy atmosphere. Service and hospitality have always meant a lot to me.
Are you surprised at the growth of steakhouses and beef, in general, with all the focus on healthy eating?
Every time you turn around, you read something else. A bare few weeks ago we read that eating animal fat wasn’t as bad as we once thought it was, it was the quality of the animal fat that mattered. I’m not a scientist so I can’t speak to that, but essentially we felt that purchasing dry-aged beef that was hormone-free was an important way to make sure we were getting pure beef. Our steakhouse specializes in one or two or three cuts, two different cuts of rib eye, two of porterhouse, hangar steak, custom beef. We serve kind of nose-to-tail animal. That means we’re meat-centered – we get great lamb from Colorado, quite a bit of wild game from Scotland – we’re selling grouse and wood pigeon! It makes it interesting for us and changes it up for some of our regulars. We actually did it to go with our wine list. We have so many wines from all over the world, and wine is an important part of dining.
A vegetarian can dine very well here, too, from kale to local organic produce and greens. Because we’re a large restaurant (we seat 250,) we see a lot of large tables. And it’s not all steak. For people who will only eat seafood and fish, we focus on fresh lobster, not frozen, and our salmon comes from the Faroe Islands, a really beautiful piece of fish. We also have local seafood, like striped bass.
How do you work with suppliers?
I’ve always concentrated on trying to work with the best suppliers. It’s the key to success in the restaurant world. I have a great team, both in the front and the back of the house. Michael Amorati, our chef, has been with me since before Windows on the World. He works hard at purchasing and we’ve had the same suppliers for years – Pat LaFrieda, DeBragga, Blue Ribbon Fish. We always work with the best supplier because that’s what our guests expect. We’re paying more so we’re really looking for the best quality because that’s what we’re promising we’re going to deliver for our guests. In the recession of 2009, we did not lower the quality of our ingredients. To help people dine out more, we had prix fixe lunches and early dinners for theatergoers that helped to smooth out the real wrinkles at that hard time. We stayed with our ingredients, didn’t change the menu. It’s what we did to help people dine out more regularly
How do you build your team?
I don’t have restaurants in other cities so I’m here at Porter House all the time, though we do have a bar, Center Bar, in the atrium area, right outside our door on the 4th floor. It’s a cocktail lounge and we have handcrafted ingredients for our cocktails. But for me, in both the bar and the restaurant, it’s always been about building relationships with the people I work with every day. A number of our staff from both the front and back have been here since we opened in 2006. I’m very fortunate to have that continuity. We all work well together.
It comes from a sense of mutual respect. We find people who can understand what it is we’re doing differently than some of the old school steakhouses. We have a respect for traditions but we’re really trying to keep it fresh. Even if we’re doing some carving in the dining room, we want to make it fun for diners but also fun for us. It should be an experience we enjoy coming to every day.
I believe in being passionate about what I do, but it’s not about being emotional, not about being so demanding that it makes people miserable. This is something we all do together. No one could do this alone.
What drives you, what makes you go?
My passion has been New York, my love, my hometown. This is where I was born. This is where I am fortunate to spend my life and do my work. The great places that I’ve worked have been iconic New York experiences and that’s been part of the reward for me. Spending a couple years learning my craft at Le Cirque, being at the 21 Club for nearly a decade, most of that time as executive chef, it gave me the great opportunity to write a couple of cook books, do TV shows. I was really able to do things that interested me. Windows on the World was a great experience for me, 450 people worked for me there but it was still a family experience.
What I’ve embraced is the chance to do what I like to do and do it in New York and live a life that’s full and rich, a great family life. The industry has been very good to me; I haven’t looked to open restaurants in Vegas.
With the Bloomberg administration, we saw a lot of changes regarding food, including the banning of trans fats and smoking. What should the role be of city government in terms of allowing restaurants to do their thing?
I believe government intervention has been to the benefit of people’s health. There’s a factual need behind that impulse. When they first banned smoking in restaurants, the people who were the happiest were the bartenders, the weight staff, who work day in and day out and have to withstand that smoke. But it’s created a healthier environment for all of us.
The idea of legislating for health is probably one that feels very Big Brother-ish to so many of us but it can’t be a bad thing to get rid of trans fats. I could never eat a certain donut chain’s donuts and when they took out the trans fat, now I can! I do have to say, though, that it makes it tough for us running restaurants in New York. We have one of the toughest health departments in the country. The rules change and are modified all the time. But we’re protecting people’s health. There’s a reason chefs originally dressed in white, to show the cleanliness of the restaurant, that we were protecting the health of the public by being clean. It may be the health department rules; it might be keeping certain foods out of the kitchen people shouldn’t be eating. It’s our responsibility in the food industry to stay aware, to stay informed. We’re the protectors of public health. That’s our job.
How does a restaurant market successfully today?
Years ago you waited for the review in The New York Times. Now there’s social media. We work with a great agency, Bullfrog and Baum, and they keep us abreast and informed of what’s happening out there, what we should be aware of and involved with. You need an agency that watches your back but also tries to promote you. Twenty years ago you built a restaurant on a corner and put a sign up and that was your marketing. It’s too noisy a world today; you have to rise above it. Social media has become so important. We post photos on Twitter and Instagram, monitor Facebook. When we opened in 2006, it was hardly a topic. In the last five years, it’s become part of the marketing effort to reach as many people, to speak to as many potential guests as we can. The right public relations agency, the right fit, is the way to do it.
How has 9/11 changed your perspective of your experience?
I was just watching the dedication of the memorial and I’m very happy to see it open and available to people, to learn more about it. It’s very real to me. It doesn’t seem like 13 years have gone by. What will happen is, it begins to live in the universal consciousness of all of us. I spent three years at Windows, having been fortunate to survive that day.
What lies ahead?
Hudson Yards, one of the biggest developments ever conceived of in Manhattan, is coming. I look forward to that because, in four or more years, I hope to have a restaurant there. I’m looking for another iconic restaurant. I love being in New York and this makes it fun. On my horizon? Doing more TV, working on another book, a restaurant memoir with recipes, and hopefully, working on a restaurant at Hudson Yards.