Tom Valenti stands at the edge of his kitchen in a spotless white chef's jacket and standard-issue black clogs, a maroon-and-tan Ouest baseball cap atop his rather unlikely shoulder-length curls. The brightly lit kitchen opens proscenium-like onto a double-height space that is now the softly lit main dining room of Ouest. Just nine months ago, the L-shaped room was a dry cleaner's on West 84th Street and a coffee shop on Broadway. Today it's the stage for Valenti's star turn -- in a neighborhood that has long been a culinary Bermuda Triangle.
Valenti saunters down a wood-paneled passageway and stops at one of the five curved red leather booths that line the corridor and give it a slightly Vegas-lounge feel. There he chats with some regular customers eager to trade fly-fishing tales. "My fishing season sort of came and went without me," Valenti says, readjusting his cap with a Rodney Dangerfield-ish tic. Then he delivers his punch line: "Now I'm seeking psychiatric help."
He's only half kidding. Since September 11, what would otherwise have been Valenti's spare time has been consumed by Windows of Hope, a fund established to aid the families of food-service workers, mostly from Windows on the World, killed in the World Trade Center. The emotional and physical demands of guiding a $15 million charity have taken their toll.
Despite the difficult timing, Ouest has become that rare bird -- a serious restaurant in a neighborhood that seemed, just last spring, unwilling to accept or support a star chef. Not only a local favorite, Ouest is now the see-and-be-seen joint for the Meisterburghers of Central Park West and the East Side. On any given night, you'll find some celebrity glowing from one of the main room's intimate circular booths. Bill Clinton has made it a hangout. David Halberstam ate there recently with Robert Caro; Bryant Gumbel dines often with his fiancée, Hilary Quinlan; Charlie Rose stops by with his belle, newly appointed city-planning commissioner Amanda Burden. ABC's Elizabeth Vargas eats there, as do state attorney general Eliot Spitzer; Time magazine's editor, Jim Kelly; and society bandleader Peter Duchin. Not to mention Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Bacon, Julie Andrews, and Steven Spielberg.
Part of what makes Ouest the signal restaurant of the moment is a paradox: We've been trained for decades to demand sophisticated culinary experiences, but we suddenly crave food that reassures as well. Valenti's distinctive talent is to blend the finest French technique with homey comfort food, to offer challenging flavors within familiar, atavistic dishes. "Tom knows how to make things taste good," says Alfred Portale, the chef at Gotham Bar and Grill and something like a professional older brother to Valenti. "He knows how to season very, very well. He knows how to capture flavors -- and his flavors are strong and clear. His food is sophisticated and accessible. But he's not doing meat loaf . . . or maybe he is."
Actually, he is doing meat loaf -- but only on Sunday nights. "Alex Witchel called one Sunday," Valenti says of the New York Times writer and wife of op-ed columnist Frank Rich. "She said, 'Frank and I are bringing Barbara Walters in tonight. Last time, you ran out of the meat loaf. Could you save us a couple of slices tonight?' "
Setting the city afire with meat loaf might not be many a 42-year-old chef's dream of how to seal his reputation. But that doesn't trouble Valenti. "I've never had three- or four-star aspirations," he admits. "I don't want to be wowed."
"I think he's more focused now than he ever has been in his life," says Beacon chef Waldy Malouf, his longtime friend and co-founder of Windows of Hope.
Many of Valenti's stories about his own life -- at least the ones that aren't about fishing -- seem to start with a girl. Which prompts Malouf to add: "And end with one." The story of Ouest does, too. Four years ago, Valenti met Abigail Wolcott, a former model who is now launching her own line of skin-care products. They grew tired of fighting the traffic through Manhattan on the journey from their Brooklyn apartment to their fishing cabin on six acres in the Catskills. They decided to look for a place on the Upper West Side, an area both assumed would be affordable even if it wasn't as cheap as their duplex in a Fort Greene brownstone.
What they got instead was a scary education in the cost of real estate above Lincoln Center. After too many afternoons spent looking at overpriced apartments on an empty belly, Valenti had an epiphany: "I said, 'If real estate is this high,' " he recalls, " 'why isn't there a better restaurant?' "
Tom and Abigail had stumbled onto the West Side's secret. "It's a totally different area now," says Bill Telepan, currently the chef at JUdson Grill, who in 1996 opened Ansonia on upper Broadway to a slew of good reviews -- and empty seats. "If we had opened in 1998, I think we'd still be in business," he says. "You didn't have guys like me living on 86th Street then. We used to live on 76th and West End -- the Upper West Side ended at 79th Street. Now you have people spending a million dollars for apartments on 116th Street."
The other change, one that Telepan is experiencing as well, is a baby boom that keeps many new residents with refined culinary tastes close by when they go out. Ouest satisfies the itch for a night out without adding the stress of being far from home.
In the end, Tom and Abigail decided not to buy in the West Eighties or Nineties. Instead, they found more space for their money and a home for their five cats and Tom's collection of Arts and Crafts furniture much farther uptown at 157th and Riverside, where they have easy access to the George Washington Bridge. Because even when they don't go upstate, Tom likes to go out for a drive just to clear his head.
The apartment, a rambling three-bedroom with walls painted rich, deep grays, greens, and browns, like the restaurant 70 blocks south, has grounded Valenti and given him ballast. He built the kitchen himself; but he harbors no fantasies about cooking elaborate meals there. The wood-paneled dining room with its divided glass doors houses not a grand table -- "When am I going to cook for twelve at home?" he asks -- but a Mission-style pool table he found in an antiques store in Syracuse.
For all that, fly-fishing remains the organizing theme in his life. Surprisingly, for a chef, Valenti doesn't keep his catch. Nor does Abigail, herself an accomplished fly-caster who would just as soon leave the hooks off. In the end, it's about respite from the world. "I quickly go to zero," he says, "when I get into a stream with the water rushing around my legs."
"Cooking for me was always about getting up early and getting moving and organized," Valenti says. "I get to commune with my products, pay attention to the curing and the smoking, before my staff shows up and kicks me out." Much of the flavor in his densely but delicately layered dishes is added long before the final cooking is done during dinner service. That's the only way to create signature dishes like braised lamb shanks with a rich caramelized sweetness that hovers over the humble peasant protein, or silky gravlax resting on a chickpea pancake spiked with unctuous caviar and a spicy mustard oil.
Through his clever pairings, Valenti has elevated earthy, slow-cooked food to an art form, some secrets of which are revealed in his first cookbook, which appears this month from HarperCollins. "I should change the menu," Valenti says with the tone of a father indulging a long-wished-for child. "It's time. But some of the dishes are still getting press.
"I think that if you can capture something from someone's childhood," the chef says in describing the sense memory he aims to evoke with his food, "people really identify with that." Like some secret ingredient, the customer's own sepia-toned culinary touchstones seem to be an integral part of the experience. Take a menu standout like smoked sturgeon served with a poached egg and lardon. How many of his patrons tuck into that appetizer while thoughts of an idealized country breakfast flit subliminally across their palates?
Valenti's own culinary memories were first formed in Ithaca, New York, where he was raised by a single mother who sent him to his grandparents' house after school while she worked as a legal secretary. As his grandparents baby-sat, Valenti soaked up their traditions: a kitchen garden, secret sauce recipes, and homemade wine. It wasn't until years later, though, after a stint learning basic skills at Ithaca's sole purveyor of French cuisine, that he got his real training.
Moving to Westchester in 1980, Valenti stumbled upon an ad for a personal chef. At the interview, the guy asked, "Have you eaten at Lutèce?" Valenti had never heard of it. He asked, "Do you shop at Dean & Deluca?"
"I didn't know what he was talking about," Valenti remembers. "But we got to talking about food." And the next thing Valenti knew, he was cooking on the Westchester estate of a private investor with the bizarre proviso that he not repeat any dish for at least 200 meals. (And you thought Iron Chef was implausible.)