Phoenix Rising: "Michael Lomonaco and the Porter House Restaurant in New York"
October 7, 2011
For most, being affable is a chore but I can't think of a moment when Michael's warm smile was forced in the slightest.
I've known Michael since 1996 and, obviously, we've both changed over the years but he wears his maturity with far more panache then most men; especially chefs. He doesn't scream to make a point. He doesn't throw pots and pans around his kitchen and he doesn't care if you know who he is. He lets his food speak for him. Yet the man is a great storyteller in his own inimitable way. He speaks vigorously but with the elegance and the seasoned cadence of Shakespearian performer.
Most "celebrity chefs" are far more conceited than our achievements would justify. Michael, in this case, is not one of us. He is humble, well-mannered, focused, aware and driven to do the right thing. This is who he is and this is how this man rolls.
In 2001 when the plane hit the first tower on 9-11 Michael was in the mall on the ground floor. His restaurant, Windows on the World, was on the top floor. On any other morning he would have been up there when the plane hit. But on September 11th, 2001, Michael happened to stop off for new lenses for his reading glasses on the way to work. He was lucky. He would make it out alive and without bodily injury.
But just how lucky? In an instant he would lose his restaurant and over 70 of his closest friends. I was able to reach him by phone. He was still shell-shocked, walking around the city covered in soot and trying to connect with his wife who, thank god, was far away from the epicenter on that hellish day. We think we can understand what survivors go through because we watch the news but only they can truly comprehend the depth of desperation that assails the human soul. How do you breathe again when you've lost so much and how do you close your eyes at night without seeing the horrors of what you've lived through? I mourn for those who died on that tragic day, but what about those who survived and are forced to cope, every day, with the aftermath of that tragedy?
Michael was treading in a sea of monetary uncertainty, about to drown in the midst of the financial crisis that had impacted his industry in a most catastrophic way.
When faced with horrifying challenges, some men cry. Some men run away. Some spend time, often a lot of it, feeling sorry for themselves or stomping their feet, yelling at the sky and looking for who is to blame. But there are those who hit the ground running and get things done. Maybe Michael needed to keep busy to forget what he had seen but I believe, again, this is how this man rolls.
Michael jumped in doing all he could to help, in spite of the fact that everyday life now seemed to take quite a toll on him. Within a month, he co-founded the Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund. Thousands of restaurants took part to provide support for the families of all restaurant and food service workers that were lost in the attacks.
He kept busy but it took Michael a while to find his center again; another restaurant in which to deploy his culinary skills; a place he could call home again. It took a while, but in 2006 he found a location for that would become Porter House New York. The previous chef had failed miserably. His food and sense of design had plagued the location with a bad name. No one wanted to get close to it in spite of its alluring location with a fantastic view of central park. Haunted by its reputation, many believed no restaurant would ever be successful again, at this location.
Michael went for it with the joyful abandonment of a man decades his junior. He was alive again. He felt his blood pumping through his veins with renewed enthusiasm and when the naysayers of the restaurant industry kept reminding him of all that could go wrong, all he could see was a bright, shining future ahead.
I remember joining Michael at the new location for a drink while he showed me the plans for the new restaurant. He was speaking a mile a minute. His face was lit with the kind of smile that truly comes from the inside. His vision was grand and his enthusiasm was infectious. We talked through the afternoon and into the evening in the poorly lit, vast dining room. Michael didn't miss a beat as he discussed menus, specialties, crystals, silverware, table linens, light fixtures... His hands whirled about in true Italian style, painting pictures in the air and punctuating his sentences.
At one point, he said to me, "Life is beautiful isn't it!"
What is optimism? What generates the vision of a brighter future at the darkest moments of our existence? What is reality? Is it what it is actually before us or is it what we force our brain to believe, when everything around us is crushing into an abyss of despair?
I never asked Michael these questions when I was there with him. He made me believe that everything was going to be OK again and it was true.
Michael had found his mojo again and whatever the challenges were, they did not shake his steadfast sense of purpose. He worked tirelessly to design the restaurant and assemble a team of professionals that work with an affable style, akin to his own; a team that precisely executes every dish in the menu. He was not just starting a new business. He was breathing life into it.
When Porter House New York opened to the public it was a smashing success!
After I last appeared on the TODAY show to promote my newest TV series I went to see Michael at his restaurant. We shared a bottle of wine while we talked about our first meeting in that very dining room when it was nothing but scattered with piles of red silk and broken tables. When I complimented the mind-boggling transformation, Michael modestly thanked his design architect and the dedication of his team but I knew better. There were bits of Michael's soul everywhere I looked.
I was accompanied by my good friend and photographic genius Ken Goodman. He captured a series of intimate moments between two middle-aged friends at the apex of their professional lives. It was for me on of those iconic moments that will forever make me smile and warm my heart. Michael is back! The light in his eyes is shining brightly and his smile points to a better future.
Yes, we should never forget the past, but life is gift that needs to be lived in full and we should always find a slice of light; a bit of optimism. We must believe that life is beautiful and we mustn't waste its precious gift.
When in doubt, go to Michael's Porter House Restaurant in New York. His food will sooth your soul and nourish your body and, if you have a chance to meet him, his smile will reassure even the most hardened amongst us that life can change for the better.
By the way, like every Italian boy he always has pasta on the menu for Sunday dinner. Bring your appetite and leave your worries at home. Sometimes all you need is a home cooked meal and a smile. Michael offers both with inimitable style!
Porter House New York
10 Columbus Circle, 4th Floor
New York, NY 10019
Reservation Phone 212-823-9500
Photographs by: Ken Goodman