Guest: Valenti, Thomas
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THE OPEN MIND
HOST: Richard D. Heffner
GUEST: Thomas Valenti
TITLE: From WINDOWS ON THE WORLD to WINDOWS OF HOPE
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And today I’m going to try in a sense to make up for all those years when I very much wanted to, but somehow never did, ask my good friend Joe Baum to join me here to talk about the great restaurants he had created during his celebrated career as America’s première restaurateur, to talk about food itself and about Joe’s unique ability, always to use it to make life better and brighter for the fortunate ones who came his way.
To be honest, I always knew that the Baum presence here would have been big box office for The Open Mind. But I also realized how unique, how personalized and how largely indecipherable to everyone else our own shorthand mode of conversation must have become over the years. And so I kept putting off my invitation to Joe until of course, it was too late and the world of good food, good drink, good taste could only mourn both Joe’s genius and his passing.
But then 911 occurred and along with the thousands of other innocent lives cruelly wiped out that September morning by fanatical terrorists, we heard more and more about Joe Baum’s early creation, the incomparable Windows on the World restaurant at the very top of the World Trade Center, where scores of food preparers and waiters and bus boys and dishwashers and other restaurant workers lost their lives, leaving scores of destitute families behind.
So from Windows on the World, we went to Windows of Hope, thanks to a considerable extent to another genius in the restaurant world, one I vowed not to let get away from The Open Mind this time.
Tom Valenti owns and is the Executive Chef of “Ouest” the outstanding new restaurant that has become the culinary joy of the West Side in Manhattan. I know. I live there.
But it isn’t his wonderful dishes alone, or even the philosophy of food and drink that informs his work as a Chef and restaurateur that make my guest so interesting and impressive.
It’s the time he’s spent since 9/11 creating and building and supporting Windows of Hop a fund, as New York magazine reported recently he and others in the food industry established to aid the families of food service workers. Mostly from Windows on the World, killed in the World Trade Center.
Indeed, the story in New York, in explaining his own connection to the victims and their survivors quotes my guest as saying, “These are the people who get us through our days. They always showed up for work, they were never late, and once a year they bring their families around for Christmas. Those are the people out their now” Valenti adds, holding his voice in check, then tears well up before he turns his head to discretely wipe his eyes.
Obviously Windows of Hope holds much meaning for my guest and I guess that’s where I’d like to begin today, Mr. Valenti. What is that meaning.
VALENTI: Well, you know, we have a tendency to spend many hours in our restaurants and as a result, the time that we spend with our employees and our work mates is often much longer than we spend with our real families, so …
HEFFNER: These people were, in a sense, then equivalent to your family.
VALENTI: Extended family, indeed.
HEFFNER: And what’s happening with the Fund?
VALENTI: Well …
HEFFNER: Where is it now, what is it doing?
VALENTI: Well the fund is currently being held by JP Morgan/Chase. We have partnered with Community Service Society of New York, which is a social service that has been around for about a hundred and fifty-five years. They are also recipients of The New York Times Neediest fund. So we’re taking their lead … our lead from them in terms of how to structure the fund for immediate mid and long-terms needs. And we’re doing distributions, we’ve made a commitment to five years of health insurance for the entire group. In the group there is represented about 250 people plus …
HEFFNER: And many of them are children?
VALENTI: We have a number of children, some where in the 160 people range. But it’s still even … though time has gone by, still to determine exactly how many – there were families here and families overseas as well.
HEFFNER: It’s not an easy process, is it to take in money and know how to give it out in a constructive manner.
VALENTI: Well, it’s, you know, without being too paternalistic or too dictatorial, it is difficult. It is difficult. And especially in a circumstance like this that none of us have really ever experienced before. We want to be very mindful that there are a number of issues. There are many different levels of need within our group. And we also want to be thorough in our analysis of where they’re getting money from other sources. Will we, in fact, impede their ability to get money from other sources, if we give to them too much, too soon, for example.
HEFFNER: Is that still a consideration?
VALENTI: it is a consideration. I think that, for our group particularly, I think that the Federal grants which I’ve been boning up on, you know, to make a determination whether they are going to be recipients of that or not. It has a lot of impact on how and when we distribute funds.
HEFFNER: This, then is a matter of the, the division of opinion about the use of this money, whether it is … it goes to, in large part, to the people who were there and lost their lives. The civilians, the people who were there almost incidentally. Or the firemen and the policemen and the Port Authority people; the heroes …
HEFFNER: … who helped rescue those who weren’t rescued.
VALENTI: Right. Well, you know, when we started structuring the Fund we were particularly mindful of the food and beverage industry people; many of whom do not have life insurance, 401(K) pension plan type of structure. When we started the Fund we really wanted to avail it to anyone. I think back at that time there were a number of people, I think we all were in a circumstance where we wanted to help, but we didn’t know quite what to do. You know, we couldn’t go to Ground Zero and dig, there were a number of volunteers already down there feeding. And you know, there were lines around the block of the blood banks. And we really wanted to have this opportunity being the night of October 11th when this was kicked off. A real opportunity for anyone who chose to go out to dinner that night, that they were, that they were participating and donating. We had some discussions early on about doing, you know, a grand, $500 a dollar a plate dinner, and it really was not in the spirit of the fund because we felt that if someone wanted to come in off the street and have a beer and a burger, that they should be allowed to do that.
And if it were a five dollar tab or a ten dollar tab, or a thousand dollar tab it still was in the spirits of this, you know grass roots type of “gone global” affair.
HEFFNER: Now you’ve started something. Do you see an end to it? Do you see a point down the road where you will not be as occupied as you are now? So much with the fund?
VALENTI: Yeah, I think that, I have no misgivings about my abilities. I’m a pretty good chef and I’m a good fly fisherman. This is somewhat new to me, I know that because of its circumstance it probably won’t be the type of fund that continues to solicit donations. I really don’t want to get into too much of a long-standing thing because it, it requires a lot more maintenance and administrative costs as a result.
HEFFNER: Now, what is this going to do in terms of your own restaurant, in terms of the restaurants of the colleagues who joined with you in this work. In terms of making certain that employees in the restaurant industry, in the food industry are protected better than they obviously had been.
VALENTI: Well, again, without soliciting funds or creating something aside from what our original mission statement was … is I think that we have an opportunity with Windows of Hope now that we have a mechanism in place.
If, God forbid, there is another circumstance, or a hurricane or a flood or a tornado, hopefully what Windows of Hope fund will be able to do is to kick back into gear, if, if it’s required.
HEFFNER: And in taking care of industry workers without a catastrophe?
VALENTI: You know, that, that becomes something that is decidedly different, perhaps.
HEFFNER: I know.
VALENTI: You know, we had set this up for one reason, and one reason only, which was for emergency care, health care and scholarships for the families of the victims. We’ve talked about it to some extent. And we’re not, we’re not really sure that that’s what we intend on doing.
HEFFNER: Is that because “we” are the bosses of the industry?
VALENTI: “We” being David Emil who is the owner of Windows on the World; Michael Lomonaco who is the Executive Chef of Windows on the World; and Waldy Malouf who is the Chef at Beacon restaurant … Beacon being the sister restaurant to Windows of the World.
You know we, we have a responsibility and we, we take it very, very seriously
HEFFNER: You know I talked about Joe Baum before … regretting that he had never sat where you’re sitting now. You say you do good restaurants, and you do. And “Ouest” is great and you’re a great fly fisherman …
HEFFNER: … how do you compare, if you … or how do you contrast, if you do … the more philosophical … no, I don’t mean more … the philosophical orientation that Joe Baum seemed to have about food. Do you, do you fit into that … Joe could talk and talk and talk and talk about good food, good drink, good atmosphere …
VALENTI: Yeah. Yeah.
HEFFNER: And you?
VALENTI: Well, Joe Baum was … as we both know quite a special fellow and he certainly stood head and shoulders, tenfold, above me. I think that all of us within this culinary group, this whole, this whole extended family in one way or another learned from him. He was, he was quite a guy.
HEFFNER: And, as far as philosophizing about food and drink … are we ever going to turn to Joe Valenti and hear him rhapsodize about his purpose. Indeed, let me ask you … you say you’re a great … a very good fly fisherman and I read in New York magazine that you are, indeed, and it’s something you love. And I bet you could go on at great length describing the beauties of fly fishing.
HEFFNER: What about the beauties of food?
VALENTI: Well, the beauties …
VALENTI: I mean, you know, it is so founded in family …
HEFFNER: What do you mean?
VALENTI: … for me. Well, I think that from where my cooking interests first started was at a very young age. At my grandmother’s knee and she used to have a stool next to the stove that I would watch her perform her daily maneuvers. My grandfather’s garden was exemplary. His wine-making left a little bit to be desired, but that’s another story for another time. It’s really about the exchange, it’s about the exchange of, of giving. I mean I think that if a style were to be assessed on what I do, I think it’s, I think it’s distinctly more homier than it is intellectual.
HEFFNER: You said that, so I read somewhere that you, you said that. Now I wanted to ask you what you meant by that.
VALENTI: I think that the understanding of one’s taste memory has a lot to do with. I think that … let me give you an example. I love a hot fudge sundae.
HEFFNER: So do I.
HEFFNER: But you can eat them, I can’t.
VALENTI: Now, there might be someone out there who could make a very good tarragon flavored ice cream. And it might be fantastic. I don’t have an association with those flavors. I do have a memory of hot fudge sundaes. And I think that for me and my cooking there’s a through line with something that has a certain amount of familiarity.
HEFFNER: But in reading about “Ouest” I read about all kinds of people, high and low who come to the restaurant to enjoy it. Now this means that they must have different tribal memories.
VALENTI: Certainly. I would think so. But I think that, you know, along with that taste memory there’s also a practical application of combinations, and textures and textural contrasts. Things like that. You know, it’s not all about remembering your mother’s spaghetti sauce, or your mother’s meat loaf, or your mother’s paprikash, whatever the case may be. But I think that within terms of what was traditional or classical cooking, and where we’ve gone from there in terms of, you know fabulous ethnic inclusions and cross-cultural type of cooking. I think there’s something about that more classically ensconced.
HEFFNER: Are you going to stay at that place? I don’t mean the location of “Ouest”, I mean stay at that place intellectually, if I may ask.
VALENTI: I think I have for quite some time. I don’t see a change. I think that age and dietary considerations certainly play into it …
HEFFNER: What do you mean?
VALENTI: … as much as anything.
HEFFNER: You age?
VALENTI: I think my age, I think that my … the way I cook for myself, the way I … my wife cooks for me. I think in terms of what makes me feel good. I mean there were, some years ago … not too many years ago when I could work until 11 o’clock, and then go out until three in the morning with my, my nere-do-well chef friends and eat and drink and pop up the next morning and have a “go” at the kitchen again. And I can’t do that any more. And I think that that has some influence and impact on how I cook.
HEFFNER: So that “Ouest” reflects a kind of hominess?
VALENTI: To some extent, it certainly does. I mean we … you know, we put a little show in there from time to time …
HEFFNER: Yes, indeed.
VALENTI: … you know, you have to. It’s theater. But I think at the base, at the base of it, I think that it’s really just straight up cooking.
HEFFNER: It’s so interesting you say, “it’s theater” because that’s what Joe said so many times to me. “It’s, it’s theater”, and I never had the opportunity to say, “what do you mean, Joe?”
HEFFNER: What do you mean, Joe?
VALENTI: It’s, it’s like so many other forms of entertainment. I think that people want to be comfortable. They want to be wowed. They want to be satisfied. And I think that, you know, again, with Joe Baum, I think he was the master of putting on the performance. I think he was just so attentive to so many details, that’s what made him, you know, among the best.
HEFFNER: You, you also are attentive to those details. And obviously right now … well this profile of you in New York magazine is so interesting because it relates you to 911 not just in terms of the fund, the foundation; not just in terms of the way you devoted yourself to taking care of the survivors in the restaurant business, but the degree to which “Ouest” itself reflects, oh, an interest in the rest of us, your customers, those who come to “Ouest” to have something “home-y” …
HEFFNER: Now that can’t last, can it? And what happens to “Ouest” when that cultural phenomenon is dissipated?
VALENTI: Well, I have, I have faith in the product. I think that, you know, my partner Godfrey Polistina and I have kind of a kindred spirit in terms of cooking style and more importantly, probably eating style. I think that there is always … inherent in the style there’s always been a through line for me. I think that my cooking style has not wavered much for, for many years now.
When we opened … “we” being Alison Price and I … opened a restaurant called “Alison” on Dominick Street in 1989, we were coming off the mid to late eighties style of cooking, which was very popular and quite frankly, very good, of a lot of things like quickly grilled chicken and fish that were, you know, draped over salads with, with goat cheese and things like that. And at that point I really wanted to find a different direction. I was looking more for a soul satisfaction and it really went into … back into real traditional technique. Things like braising, for example, which are low, long cooking processes that really … you know, they yank as much flavor out of whatever you’re cooking as, about as you’re going to get. So I think that … getting back to the question of, of what happens with “Ouest” … hopefully people will always respond to that style.
HEFFNER: It became so extraordinarily popular, so soon, of course, before September 11th that you obviously are responding to a, a visceral need. And maybe that’s what you mean by saying you don’t want to intellectualize …
VALENTI: Yeah. Yeah.
HEFFNER: About these things. And I must say that I just got a message scrumptiously that I obviously so identify you with Joe Baum that I called you “Joe” instead of Tom and you’re very gracious not to say, “hey”.
VALENTI: I will, I will … that’s a compliment I’ll take any day.
HEFFNER: What are the, what are the difference in cultures. I mean you, you worked in France, what are the differences between the French and the Americans as they reflect their history, their culture, their up-bringing.
VALENTI: Well, I think that in terms of French technique and tradition … there are arguably restaurants as good as there are in Paris here in New York. I think that as a nation France had adopted long, long, long before America a distinct style of cooking. And those roots could be traced back to Italy prior. But what’s wonderful about New York and it’s cooking is that we have these ethnic influences.
You know and it … my wife and I go out to eat and we quite often will seek out an ethnic restaurant just because it’s different and interesting. Training in France has always been top priority. And I think that as Americans we’re a little bit behind the curve as far as training goes. I mean these kids in France start when they’re young … 13, 14 years old. And it’s a very stringent, very strict training process in the kitchen.
HEFFNER: That’s not really possible for us, is it?
VALENTI: It’s not and I think that, you know, what gives French restaurants an advantage in terms of what style of food they do and what ingredients they use and truly how much they can charge, is that, you know, France has a government funded apprentice program …
HEFFNER: I didn’t know.
VALENTI: Consequently, what happens is, for example, when I worked at Savoy in Paris, many years ago … many years ago … the restaurant did about 50 dinners a night, or 55 dinners, but we had 13 or 14 or 15 cooks in the kitchen, you know. And there were only a handful that were actually being paid. And the balance of the work force was funded by the government.
So, what that means to us as chefs in a, in a practical world is the ratio of employees, if we were to try to do it here in America, the payroll would far outweigh what you could actually create for a profit based on those numbers of 13 or 14 cooks, versus the 55 dinners that you could do. You know, at “Ouest” for example we have eight people in the kitchen to do 300 dinners. So there’s quite a difference there.
HEFFNER: And you’re suggesting, you’re agreeing that that’s no likely to change in this country.
VALENTI: I don’t think any time soon. I think that we certainly have put our own stamp on things. I think that in the last 20 years the culinary world has, has changed dramatically in America, obviously for the better. The number of great restaurants and great chefs is astounding.
HEFFNER: Where, where do you look for the best food?
HEFFNER: In two minutes, so we can’t stick you too long with that.
VALENTI: The best food. The best food … I go to my friends restaurants, where I know I’ll always get the best food. Sourcing out the best food for the use of the restaurant? I have different sources, I try to support local farmers as much as I can, along with a great number of chef here in New York. But the top few? Mario Batali at Babbo; Terrance Brennan at Picholine; Alfred Portale at Gotham Bar and Grill and I could go … Charlie Palmer at Aureole. The list is, is too expansive. As is the talent.
HEFFNER: If I asked you about Chicago, San Francisco, LA, Denver, would you be able to come up with substantial lists?
VALENTI: You betcha. Substantial, perhaps not. But a few, a few of the places that would allow, you know, time allotments when, when traveling.
HEFFNER: So that when I know that my time is limited, my time is almost up … I should go and eat in France, in the US, in Italy … where?
VALENTI: Wherever. I think that every, every continent and nation and culture has, has its standouts.
HEFFNER: Obviously the answer is I’m going to come to “Ouest”, and Joe Valenti … see, there I did it again. Tom Valenti, thank you so much for joining me today; it’s a real pleasure.
VALENTI: Thank you, Richard.
HEFFNER: And I’m not going to put in a “plug” for “Ouest”, other than what I have done, but doggone it, you have mastered it, as Joe Baum did. And I appreciate that as his old friend. Thanks.
VALENTI: Thank you so much.
Heffner: Thank you. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.