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Q & A with Michael Lomonaco

Michael_Formal_1.jpgLocal and seasonal ingredients are no longer the exception to the rule, they practically are the rule when it comes to chefs sourcing of ingredents.  But this wasn’t always the case and Michael Lomonaco was a chef far ahead of his time, diligently employing localism at nearly every turn of his career. 

After training under Daniel Boulud at Le Cirque, he delivered refined American cuisine at numerous New York institutions, including the 21 Club and Windows of the World.   In late 2006, he re-emerged on the dining scene with Porter House NY, housed in the Time Warner Center.   Here, he honors the soul of American cooking and does admirable justice to a bevvy of classics, including a jumbo lump crabcake, veal porterhouse chop, as well as butter-poached lobster with leeks, sugar snap peas and truffled mashed potatoes. 

Married for 28 years to my high school sweetheart.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
An actor.

What was your first job in food?
I was a cook at Lampi’s Venetian Room in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. We’re talking red sauce, Frank Sinatra, right by the Gowanus Canal. I was there for two years.

What did you learn from Daniel Boulud while working together at Le Cirque?
An enormous amount, and I still learn from him. More than anything, I learned about seasonality, and cooking through the ingredients first. At the time, he was one of the very few practitioners of seasonality and ingredients.

Other than Le Cirque, you seem to have focused most of your attention and career on American cuisine. What was it like to work at such New York fixtures as the 21 Club and Windows of the World?
What was interesting was that I worked for so many years at so few restaurants. For instance I worked at 21 Club for 9 years, of which two I was the executive chef. It was such a perfect time for regional American cooking, and a perfect place to get my bones going in that because the restaurant had its own American history. I brought it to a place where it was recognized for its authenticity.  With Windows of the World, it was a challenge to work there because it had a rough opening. However, they liked my ingredient driven American cooking, and I was able to turn the restaurant around for the better. In that time I also worked with a lot of small farmers.

How is Porterhouse different from other steakhouses in the city?
Well first of all, it has a GREAT location. It’s centrally located at the Time Warner Center, and it even goes so far as to have a following from the residential area of the Upper West Side. But as far as how it’s truly different, it’s…very straightforward. We showcase dry-aged prime beef, organic ingredients that are local whenever possible, and 600 labels of wine to compliment the dishes. We also serve a lot of fish, because I felt that Porterhouse needed to be a great American grill, first and foremost. Not only that, it’s comfortable, and we’re very welcoming to our guests.

Do you have any partnerships with local farmers?
All of our beef is American beef, but we get it from wholesalers because there really is no local prime beef around here. Some of it actually comes from Brandt Farms in California. We do get local produce from the greenmarkets when it’s in season, like corn and asparagus, strawberries in June, et cetera.  

Tell us a little about your televised hosting experiences on “Epicurious” on the Travel Channel as well as “Michael’s Place” on the Food Network…

us a little about your televised hosting experiences on “Epicurious” on
the Travel Channel as well as “Michael’s Place” on the Food Network.

The Food Network was still in its early days and I was invited to do a show; it was a wonderful opportunity. “Michael’s Place” was a very personally driven show for me. It was all about broad cooking and styles, the kind of cooking I’d do on my days off. We did that show for 150 episodes over three years. With “Epicurious” it was essentially a television version of the website. So much traveling was involved, hence why it was on the travel channel. As host for eight years, I got to cook, and fish, you name it, alongside the locals. It was completely engrossing. Then, there was a studio cooking part of the show that brought you back into your own home.

Which do you prefer to cook with – surf or turf? Which do you prefer to eat?
I do love them both, but you know I really do love cooking and eating fish. Slow roasting, sautéing; I like to use straightforward techniques to bring out the real flavor. I also love game, which we usually feature more in the fall and winter here. Great cuts of meat are always a must. Two of our most delicious cuts, hanger and skirt steak, are so, so flavorful and not that expensive. It makes us more accessible when we don’t rely on only two cuts of meat for our dishes, and a lot more economically and environmentally responsible as well. .

Porterhouse has been praised by both Zagat and Michelin Guides, and was named one of Esquire Magazine’s “Best Restaurants of 2007.” Do you find any pressure to stay on top of your game?
The pressure is what we put on ourselves. Even though it’s really nice to receive that kind of attention, it’s what the customers think that we take very seriously; it’s all about the diner’s experience. We’re here to give people enjoyment, and every day is an opportunity to make it better.

How did the events of 9/11 affect your subsequent restaurant ventures?
It had a deep personal impact on me, but I kept working. It was a really tough time for restaurants in the city, and I was trying to put my life back together. I was at the time the host for “Epicurious,” and was traveling constantly. I also wrote cookbooks, did lots of consulting for restaurants and creating menus, all the while opening a restaurant called Noche for 2002.

Then there was the Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund which donated money to the families of restaurant workers that died in the September 11th attacks. To me, this was the most important thing, and had an immense impact on myself and the families. This fund is paying for the education of 150 children, and will probably last for another 15 or 16 years. It’s very rewarding. At Porterhouse, I still use some of the same workers; my own chef de cuisine is the same one from Windows of the World.

In the beginning, you were the executive chef of 21 Club. How has your work there influenced your work at Porterhouse?
It was an iconic restaurant, and a place that provided hospitality. It used to be way too clubby, but after turning it around, it helped me to understand what it means to take people into your care for the evening. It’s not about my ego, or the restaurant’s, but what the people want to eat, and how we can graciously serve food that has a level of comfort to meet their expectations.

What is your favorite dish on the menu at Porterhouse?
Probably the short rib raviolo appetizer. The pasta’s made fresh, and filled with red wine-braised short ribs, with seared spinach, a porcini mushroom cream sauce, and parmesan. Of course I like the beef, but it I had to choose one, that would be it. I love it.

What is your least favorite (and yes, you must pick one)?
It’s kind of impossible to answer. I mean, we have a lot of salads, chopped vegetables…a plain old green salad is something you sort of need to have, though it pales in comparison to all of the other dishes.

Which culinary trends do you embrace?
Seasonal cooking, locally sourced ingredients. Dan Barber – I’m a big fan of Dan’s and what he does. We need more restaurants like Blue Hill Stone Barns in the city.

Which culinary trends do you wish would just die already?
None really. I love that there’s an avant garde school of cooking out there, and that people are experimenting with food and flavor. Like wd-50 – Wylie Dufresne puts a lot of soul into his cooking, and really cares about the pleasure he gives to the guest. The attention these new chefs are getting is certainly worth it.

Any new projects on the horizon? Spill the beans…
My partners are the developers of the Time Warner Center, the center of activity in Manhattan, and that goes to its restaurant collection as well. They’re a very exciting group of people. At the moment, a small restaurant in Los Angeles, Phoenix or Boston is on the drawing board, and it’s something that I personally get excited about.


Address: 10 Columbus Circle, 4th Floor
Phone: (212) 823-9500

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