Wednesday, June 19, 2019
8 a.m. Morning in Midtown
After decades of success, including his own Food Network series and celebrated stints at legendary New York restaurants Le Cirque, ‘21’ Club and Windows on the World (he was the storied World Trade Center venue's last executive chef), you might think Michael Lomonaco, 64, would be ready to relax.
But between his Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner Porter House Bar and Grill and his recently opened Hudson Yards Grill, he has no intention of slowing down. “I’m having the time of my life,” he says.
Lomonaco is in both restaurants nearly every day, often bouncing back and forth. It’s a lot to manage but it doesn’t impact his hands-on approach. “It just means the day is longer.”
Today starts at Porter House, Lomonaco’s steak house in Midtown Manhattan’s Time Warner Center. “I love it here,” he says. “We’re a neighborhood restaurant ... we have a real mix of people.”
He arrives dressed in his white chef’s coat (“I’m never not in whites”) shortly after most of the kitchen staff to make sure everything’s off to a smooth start.
10 a.m. Wine Tasting: Chardonnay … for Rib Eye?
As Lomonaco finishes his early check-ins with the kitchen, out in the dining room, wine director Adam Petronzio is preparing for four back-to-back tastings with importers and winemakers, a fairly typical morning.
The goal is to fill any holes on the 715-label list, but also to ensure there’s always a flow of new selections, something that’s particularly important for a restaurant that has been open since 2006, with many loyal regulars. “That’s what keeps the restaurant going,” Petronzio says. “I have to change it up for them, otherwise they’re going to get bored.”
He welcomes his first visitor, Steve Pellegrini from distributor Verity Wine Partners, and they settle into a dining-room table. “All right, so what do we got first?” Petronzio asks.
Pellegrini pulls the bottles from his bag and pours wine No. 1: Alma Fria Campbell Ranch Chardonnay 2015. As he talks winemaking techniques and availability (just 95 cases), Petronzio takes a sip and shares his impressions with a nod—“very Sonoma coast, very classic for the style”—before jotting a brief note.
Though Porter House’s meat-centric menu often calls for bold reds like Napa Cabernet and Bordeaux, Petronzio makes sure a strong collection of white wines is there for guests who want them. “If you come in, you’re a king,” he says. “So if you want to have a great Sonoma Coast Chardonnay with your rib eye, we’re more than happy to find you the best example.”
Lomonaco joins the group a few minutes in. A longtime wine lover and certified sommelier, the chef is particularly engaged, adding thoughtful insights into how the selections could complement certain menu items. “I’ve always felt very strongly attached to wine,” he says. “Wine is an important factor to a meal to me, and I like to be able to convey that to others.”
Still, attending these sessions is atypical for the chef, who doesn’t spit when he tastes. “I’m Sicilian; my people stomped on grapes for too long to throw wine away,” he says. It is, however, “counter to [his] work ethic” to drink during the day. Instead, he’ll try a few of the highlights with Petronzio at the back-of-house bar, especially when they’re adding new selections or planning a paired dinner, and he often participates in tastings during pre-shift lineup.
Petronzio follows a similar routine of tasting, discussion and note-jotting for a series of 10-minute meetings that run like clockwork. After the last tasting, Petronzio shifts gears to prepare for lunch service and Lomonaco returns to the kitchen for a quick bite before a get-together to discuss a leak in the floor.
11:15 a.m. Taking Care of Kitchen Business
Lomonaco likes to take part in family meal—the staff's chow-and-chat session—and today’s is chili. “Actually, some of those wines would’ve been great with chili,” he notes.
Lomonaco wears multiple hats, so his morning activities could be anything from tasting daily specials to meeting with his truffle dealer. For today’s mission—strategizing a fix for the floor leak—a group of business partners, contractors and top restaurant staff gathers in the kitchen.
Lomonaco is huddled over the culprit, a cracked tile, with the rest of the team, questioning everything down to the materials of the seal. The scene captures Lomonaco’s beliefs about restaurant ownership, that collaboration is key and you have to be involved at every level. “This is all part of running the business,” he says.
As lunch service picks up, Lomonaco maneuvers through the bustling kitchen to touch base with each station. He greets everyone by name along the way, like the pastry chef he’s worked with for more than 15 years and executive chef Michael Ammirati, whom he’s known since they cooked together at Windows on the World. “We can kind of read each other’s minds a little bit,” Lomonaco says of his longtime team members. “That’s a big thing.”
He throws a light jacket over his chef’s coat, slings his bag over his shoulder and calls an Uber downtown.
12:15 p.m. On to Hudson Yards
In the car, Lomonaco describes Hudson Yards Grill, which opened in March, as being “like an American brasserie: big and welcoming and fast-paced.” With the eclectic menu of salads, steaks, sushi and more, he hopes to accommodate a range of budgets and tastes.
Though the concept is totally new, Lomonaco has applied the same ownership approach from the beginning. He spent nearly two years collaborating with designers and architects, trained chefs on the line and even helped format the menu layout.
The restaurant’s vision of accessibility is also reflected through the wine list, assembled by co-owner Himmel Hospitality Group’s beverage director Brahm Callahan and managed day-to-day by beverage director John Marshall. The 75 labels comprise a mix of Old and New World, with benchmarks alongside esoteric picks and dozens of options under $100.
The Uber arrives and Lomonaco assures the driver he’ll tip. “I used to drive a cab, so I have to.” He steps out into the Hudson Yards complex and peers up at the massive centerpiece, a 150-foot-tall structure of connecting staircases called "Vessel."
“This is very exciting for me—I grew up in Brooklyn,” he says. “To see this part of the city be not only reinvented, but invented ... There’s a neighborhood growing up around us.”
Lomonaco takes the elevator upstairs and quickly reviews the menu hung by the door before heading inside. “I’m just checking for accuracy,” he says.
1 p.m. The Fun Part
Calls of “Hello, chef!” welcome Lomonaco as he strolls through the warm-toned space filled with colorful art and enters the kitchen. “In all the years, this is the first kitchen that was built for me,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to have an open kitchen.”
He drops off his things in the back office, then gets to work on the line. It’s where you’ll usually find him during service. He hops from station to station, checking everything from an avocado’s ripeness to ensuring the basil is being added to the tomato sauce at the right time.
“I think my most favorite times are when I’m in the kitchen,” Lomonaco says. “I love to cook, and when I get the chance to cook, I do. The food is the fun part.” And Lomonaco is meticulously involved in the fun part. “I taste everything,” he says, grabbing a piece of bacon from a pan before inspecting a container of pickles. “I like full sours, so I was just making sure.”
Meat purveyor Pat LaFrieda even makes a special burger blend exclusively for Lomonaco’s restaurants—and that’s a hard rule. “When we first opened [Hudson Yards Grill], they wouldn’t sell it to us here,” the chef laughs. “The guys in the warehouse didn’t realize it was me.”
3 p.m. Inspiration for a New Dish
Following a 2:00 p.m. meeting with his accountant to review budgets for the next few months, Lomonaco resumes service in the kitchen, sometimes emerging to greet guests at their tables. The ritual is just as important here, where’s he’s meeting new people, as it is at Porter House, where he’s more often welcoming familiar faces. “[It’s] not only to cook for them what we think they want to eat or how they want to eat it, but to help them have a good experience,” he says.
At one point, a woman shares that she’d love a grilled cheese with bacon, and Lomonaco instantly decides to add one to the menu. Everything he does in the restaurant, he does with a big smile, and he happily shares the secret to his unwavering passion and energy.
“What do I say to you every day?” he asks chef de cuisine Brian Mottola as he passes by. “A lot,” Mottola cracks.
“No, but what is the one thing?”
“You’ve gotta have fun.”
5 p.m. Wrapping Up and Winding Down
Once lunch service slows, Lomonaco returns to Porter House for the dinner shift. Here, he’s mostly interested in overseeing the final dishes, occasionally adding garnishes and cleaning plates, nudging his team. “Even though they make the same dishes day in and day out, there’s always a little coaching,” he says. “It’s just part of the process.”
Lomonaco heads home around 9 p.m. Sometimes he’ll have a glass of wine or go out with friends after work, but usually not on weeknights; he needs the time to recharge. “I’ve been working 35 years for this,” he says. “But every day is a fresh start. You’ve got to do it every day.”
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