Ouest Side Story

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.)

From there, Valenti drifted into a job in Greenwich, Connecticut, at a branch restaurant of famed French chef Guy Savoy, which led to a stint at the Paris mother ship. “It was frightening not speaking the language,” Valenti remembers, even though Savoy put him up until he got his bearings and found a tiny apartment. “If you didn’t close the door, you walked right into the shower. You couldn’t get up the stairs if you’d had a big meal.”

At the Charles de Gaulle airport, on the way home after fifteen months, Valenti ran into Daniel Johnnes, now the sommelier at Montrachet but then just a cocky aspiring cook. Johnnes introduced Valenti to another friend on the same flight back to New York, Alfred Portale, who’d just come from his own year of training with Michel Guerard. The three Americans compared notes. Not long after, Portale invited Valenti to be his sous-chef at Gotham Bar and Grill.

“I left nothing up to anyone’s individual interpretation,” Portale remembers of the difficulty he and Valenti had in taking labor-intensive French food and remaking it for a New York kitchen. “There were no squiggles, there were no free-forms. It was all very precise.” It had to be. Portale, a former jewelry designer, shocked customers by literally raising food on the plate in architectural designs that soon transformed American eating.

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.”

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.

“Tom 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.

Ouest Side Story