It was June of 1980 and I had just graduated The Culinary Institute of America. Oh hell yea I was ready to take on the world with a knife and a saute pan and was scheduled for an interview on the 107th floor of One World Trade Center, the glorious Windows On The World Restaurant. I was so nervous going there I had butterflies fluttering in my stomach. I arrived at One WTC. Standing by the elevators the thought struck me that I was about to enter into a room the size of a broom closet and be transported up to the clouds. The butterflies became anxious and aggressive when the elevator opened and I got on. The second the broom closet began its lift off the butterflies began to migrate, some up into my throat and others downward. I thought it was either their migration or my excitement that kept popping the Hell out of my ears until it hit me I was flying upwards in a box higher than the Manhattan skyline and it was the rapid changing air pressure that caused my audio dilemma. When I stepped out into the foyer it took me about thirty seconds to get over the body rush I’d just had and with a weak voice I asked the concierge where Chef Henri Boubee’s office was.
The dude rushed me towards the kitchen and at first I believed he was simply enthusiastic to help me. How awesome is this? Consequently I would find out he was getting me away ASAP from the strict jacket and tie code at the entrance to the restaurant. Whatever, he walked so fast I was sure I would never find my way back in this corn maze of a complex 107th floor. A work of pure brilliance, the kitchen was in the center of this maze and the complete perimeter of the floor was used for some form of dining service. I reached a familiar feeling as I passed through a double door and spotted the familiar red tile flooring so many kitchens I had worked in had. Past three giant steam kettles on my right and a massive waiters station on my left I continued on to the Chef’s office.
In the scheme of things his office was rather small and unassuming. The chef himself was a tall thin European looking man. As small as the office was, and as friendly looking as the chef was I was intimidated beyond words. I couldn’t get the thought out of my head that I was in the WTC, talking with the chef of Windows On The World!!
The Chef asked me some summary culinary questions to test my basic knowledge and then some questions about me I assumed to get a psychological profile which frankly worried the shit out of me. Then he stood up, looked at me which I mistook for a thank you we’ll let you know, but to my surprise he said, “Come, I vill take zhoo on a tour”. With that the chef began power walking through the kitchen with me in tow trying to keep up while at the same time looking around the kitchen trying to absorb the culture. Over twenty dudes and dudettes in checked pants, white coats, and tall toque blanch chef hats checked me out like I was a new meat prisoner in a movie like Brubaker. The chef continued his power walk and I followed finding myself in a huge dining room. Holy shit! All windows with a view of the city that was mind blowing. We were above all the tall New York City buildings looking down. The Chef continued his pace and mumbled something about dining rooms A B and C, led me through the Brooklyn view mentioning something about a Cellar In The Sky, and we ended up in an Hors d’ oureve restaurant peeking down at The Statue Of Liberty. I was totally blown away, had gotten numerous head rushes and it was all I could do to keep my balance from the dizzying walk while looking outside of the top of the world. I would eventually develop “sea legs” like the chef had and learn that the buildings were designed to sway so they don’t snap. On a windy day all the sauces would make waves in unison.
At this point though, when we got back to the Chef’s office I had absolutely no idea how we got there. The Chef looked at me and asked, “So… Do you vant to work here?” I thought back to all the advice the school had given me, all the questions to ask about salary, hours, compensations, and how I should never commit but ask the interviewer to allow me time to think it over. Then I thought about who might be coming in to interview after me and my intuition, as naïve as it was, told me if I didn’t say yes the next person just may get my job. I said, “Yes Chef, I do. When can I start?” He dismissed me saying “Come in Monday at 3oclock and Ask for Ovidio, he’ll get you set up.”
So that was it. I had no idea what days or hours I would be working, no idea how much money I would be making, and for the first and only time in my life I accepted a major decision job on the spot. It turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.
I met Ovidio, a Latin dude with a kind of lisp who showed me around. He and I became very close, and within days I became one of the group. To them I was a funny hippie dude who played his harmonica into the expediters mike on down time, and to me I had a new family. Donald, a good ole southern man who I swore would work barefoot if he could. He used to sell his grill mistakes to the wait staff. “C’mon now, take that steak and leave me 8 bucks. Hurry now, this aint no damn buffet now, lets go”. Benji, a chef from Jamaica who shared my love of Bob Marley and taught me so much about cooking, the most important thing was his constant yelling at me “Let it cook Mon!” I guess I was over-anxious and flipped my food too much. Victor, a sixty something old buffet chef who did spoons of coke in the walk in fridge and drank half the brandy that was supposed to go in the sauces. Steve “Stevo”, a pill popping saute cook who was so high by end of shift the fell asleep changing in the locker room. But Stevo would give you the shirt off his back. He stole my Adiddas sneakers once because he needed some shoes. They were like three sizes too big but I never called him on it, just bought myself a new pair because he never had any money but would do anything to he could to help any one of us. Speaking of shoes, one of the best sauciers in the city who taught me how to make a thirty pound butter hollandaise wore sandals everyday. We chipped in and got him some very expensive Nikes. He was almost brought to tears but the next day he came to work in those Nikes cut out to look like his sandals. Can’t argue with something that’s worked your whole life. There was Willie the vegetable cook, James who taught me the fastest way to cut up 60 portions of roasted duck in a half hour, John B who drank half a gallon of cheap cooking wine every night, Ralph, who grew up next door to the famous pastry chef Albert Cumin and learned so much he was the youngest pastry chef in the city, his assistant Carmen who was every bit as talented but overlooked because of her sex, and Herman, my Sous Chef, who busted my ass every single night. Herman was relentless and it took me nearly six months to realize the more he busted ass the more he liked you. Herman taught me more than anyone about the entire industry, beyond cooking to managing and admin. His stories of how he learnt his craft in Austria were terrifying and fascinating. There were so many more, other cooks, wait staff, utility people, ES friends, Miss Ann was in charge and we became friends instantly. She gave me extra chef coats on Fridays and Saturdays so I could change out of the sweat laden coats on those busy evenings. (Her assistant ran the illegal numbers for NY and Brooklyn for us). There were no barriers at Windows. Race, color, religion, orientation, we were all family and exchanged many cultural and ethnic practices with interest. I learned a lot about the world at Windows, giving a double meaning to the On The World part.
The family that worked at Windows were extremely tight because we had to be. Service was so fast and furious, on busy nights over one thousand dinners served, and the pressure was so intense that we had to have fun together just as intensely. It was by far the richest work experience I have ever had, I worked there for two years and had more real friends in those two years than I did through youth. I learned to appreciate other forms of lifestyles and customs. Even today I have friends who worked at Windows at different times than I did which made us instant friends who could exchange endless similar stories. It was more than a job it was a deep relationship.
Some 20 years later Maureen and I had our first little café not twenty minutes from the city. It was a breakfast, lunch, and dinner restaurant that was originally called News Café and catered to the working crowds. A strong breakfast and coffee accent with two TV sets that ran news channels through the day for our customers. We were attempting to upgrade it with a more modern ”Pan Global” cuisine and had been opened only a week. We kept the TV’s and morning crowd as they were so the two televisions were on the morning of 9/11.When the first tower was it was an arrow through the heart, when the second tower got hit it ripped it out. I was working stunned, a crowd had gathered knowing we had the TV’s and the café was packed yet silent and somber. I was in denial until the first tower crumbled. When that happened I broke down and cried. I didn’t see a tower crumbling, I saw a huge building full of people, full of stories, full of memeories that will never get told. Full of life. A profound relationship had ended in death. For the next week every time I looked over towards Manhattan Island there was a huge plume of black smoke that just hung over the city. The normally airplane busy sky was crying in eerie silence. My heart broke.
Sometimes it seems like an impossible task to pick up the pieces of such a devastating tragedy in our lives and every year we commemorate our pain and anguish with an anniversary. This is the fifteenth anniversary and for me personally I have not yet been able to sort it out completely because it will never make sense, never offer any closure, but I try very hard to be comforted by my many memories of not just working at Widows On The World, but the years of commuting through the Trade Center in the years I worked at various financial district kitchens. Thank you for indulging me in this bittersweet memory.
Live and Love in peace….