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Ouest Side Story continued...

 

Reinventing the restaurant meal was no casual project, and Portale relied on Valenti for more than just his technique. "I was very intense in the kitchen," Portale admits. "Tom is a little more relaxed. I think it was a nice moderating influence for me because I used to get incredibly wound up during service."

Gotham became a perennial three-star destination and, perhaps more important, a proving ground for a generation of New York chefs. And if Gotham U. was great for cooks, it was also a training camp for the front of the house. Alison Becker worked there as a manager. Sunday nights at Gotham — when Becker ran the room and Valenti was in charge of the kitchen, cooking up special dishes for "family meal" — were soon dubbed the Sunday Night Supper Club. "Sunday nights felt so good," Becker says. "It was a show with understudies on. Tom liked my timing with the book. It was like a marriage. We just had a great feel for each other."

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A marriage they soon consummated by opening Alison on Dominick Street. "All of us were young and arrogant," Becker remembers. "We're talking a couple stock-market crashes ago. When we first opened, we tried to limit the menu to country French, Basque cooking. It was all very sumptuous, very sensual. People would just fall into the velvet banquettes with the candlelight — and the smell would drift up from the plate."

For five years, they drew diners from all over the city to a lonely windswept block just a loud honk from the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. Both partners received a great deal of press attention. And during that period, both went through the standard life changes. Becker got married; Valenti got married and divorced.

"When Tommy left," says a regretful Becker, who now lives in Sag Harbor and owns Alison by the Beach, "there was a lot of stuff going on in his life. We had an intense five years. I wish I'd told him to take a leave of absence."

Cooling off took some time. Valenti had a brief affair with the Zaccaro family, running the kitchen at Cascabel, then another whirlwind romance with Ken Aretsky's Butterfield 81. Through the wilderness years, Valenti kept occupied and kept up the traditions he'd learned in France and perfected with Portale.

"T
om is a regular guy," Portale says. "he's open, unpretentious. Some chefs are a little bit removed from the dishwashers and the cooks. Tom and I both came from fairly simple beginnings. We haven't forgotten our roots, so to speak."

So it makes sense that when the World Trade Center collapsed, obliterating Windows on the World and 73 employees, Valenti piped up with a way to help. And recruiting participants in the age of celebrity chefs was as simple as putting together a Live Aid-style benefit — in this case, of course, a meal. "I called Mario," Valenti says of the phone tree he started with his good friend Mario Batali. "I called Bobby. I called Charlie. No one said no," he remembers. "It was just so easy."

"Tom's gregarious and has a generous way about him," says Malouf, of Beacon — a restaurant also owned by Windows on the World proprietor David Emil. "The way he could call and talk to people and get them onboard, that's his unique talent." Windows of Hope eventually involved 4,500 restaurants, each of which took some or all of the profits from their October 11 take and donated it to Windows of Hope. More than a million people were involved that night, each diner sending a few dollars back to New York.

"It hasn't been that easy. There's been a lot of pressure on what to do with this money," Emil says. "Tom's been unbelievably selfless. He's been so focused on what would be good for these families."

"In a city that's often described as uncaring or cold, this gesture is dramatic," David Campbell observes from his position at the Community Service Society, the Windows of Hope partner which also works with the New York Times' Neediest Fund.

The fund has made a distribution of $10,000 to each of the 124 families, has invested in health insurance for them, and is planning to offer financial-planning services. "We have 112 children," Malouf says of the victims, not counting two still waiting to be born. "We want to offer money for education from preschool to college. I don't want to knock dishwashers; I need them. But if these kids want an education, it's worth investing our time and efforts into that."

This last point seems to touch Valenti most deeply. Few chefs, even celebrity chefs, would have been voted Most Likely to Succeed in high school. Valenti is no exception. Not college-educated himself, he has spent the past several months in an internal struggle over what to do with the remaining money: offer scholarships that the surviving children might never use or invest in early-childhood education that might make an immediate difference in their lives.

"These are the people who get us through our days," Valenti says, explaining his own connection to the victims and their survivors. "They always showed up for work; they were never late. And once a year, they'd bring their families around for Christmas.

"Those are the people out there now," Valenti adds, holding his voice in check. Then tears well up before he turns his head to discreetly wipe his eyes.

Scott Varricchio packs garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, and thyme onto a portobello mushroom one morning last week as David Bowie, on the CD of the Concert for New York City, launches into "Heroes" over Ouest's stereo system. "Tom's cooking requires a lot of extra prep," he says. "But it's worth it."

At the bar, Valenti is doing a quick telephone interview with a Philadelphia radio station to promote his book. "I want my food to satisfy a craving, not an intellect," he says, winding up the conversation.

Valenti admits that September 11 hasn't hurt his restaurant. To the contrary, with reasonable prices and affluent neighbors sticking close to home, he's booked every weekend for eight weeks down the line. If this keeps up, he's going to miss this year's fishing season, too.

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From the March 4, 2002 issue of New York Magazine.