Chef Tom Valenti has been operating his popular Upper West Side restaurant Ouest since spring 2001. Prior to that, he was chef of such fondly remembered places as Butterfield 81 and Cascabel, as well as the short-lived Ouest spinoff The West Branch. He first garnered mainstream attention in 1989 at Alison on Dominick Street, where his robust, rustic style caught on in a big way (his braised lamb shank became a citywide sensation and a defining signature dish). Tom was also Alfred Portale's first sous chef at Gotham Bar and Grill. In this interview, an outgrowth of our conversations for my forthcoming book on the American chefs of the 1970s and 1980s, we revisit some moments and restaurants from the past and check in on the state of affairs at Ouest. (Full disclosure: Tom and I wrote three cookbooks together.)
Andrew Friedman: You opened up here in May 2001, and at the time the Upper West Side was thought of as ...?
Tom Valenti: A culinary wasteland, perhaps?
That phrase comes up a lot.
It's been suggested in days gone by. The fact of the matter was that Good Enough To Eat was here. There was Sarabeth's. There was Barney Greengrass. But the fine-dining kind-of vibe was missing.
At that time the closest thing geographically to you would have been what? Something like Picholine?
Yeah, yeah. Lincoln Center. Also bear in mind prior to — I think it was prior to Ouest opening — Billy Telepan had Ansonia. And that, despite his undeniable talents, didn't stick.
What do you consider it now? Scott Bryan, who's now right around the corner at The Milling Room, recently said it still kind of is thought of that way, that there's a handful of serious restaurants up here: Ouest, John Fraser at Dovetail, Bill Telepan, Scott himself. But, he still feels like it's kind of like that.
It is kind of like that.
Do you have any insight into why?
There are a number of factors. I think that obviously real estate and rent prices are a factor. And that equates to size. You know, the size of the restaurant for fine dining, you need X amount of seats to really make a go of it. That could be one factor.
Another factor here I think is the residential demographic. There's big, beautiful prewar apartments up here that were occupied for many, many years and decades by an older group and they have since passed on to that classic six in the sky. And you see a lot more young professional couples with children. So I think that the dining landscape has become more diverse partly because of that.
You were one of the first chefs I associated with the term "destination restaurant." The first time I ever heard the term was in relation to Alison on Dominick Street. I feel like that's kind of when it came into vogue. Does that seem right?
I think obviously before that it was Chanterelle when David and Karen [Waltuck] were down on Grand Street. That was the destination restaurant.
When you opened up here, or even when you were at Butterfield 81, I would also have applied that term in a way. There were people who would go out of their way to come up here, check it out, regardless of where they lived. Thirteen or so years in, what's your clientele like here now? Has this settled into more of a neighborhood place? Do you still have regulars who come here from all over the city? What's your sense of who's here?
We have people who make the pilgrimage from the East Side still regularly. Obviously the neighborhood has embraced us as their kind of go-to joint. But that has changed. I think that the concentration of restaurants in general, the diversity of those restaurants citywide, the attention that those restaurants get — you have a Betony or what have you. So I think that we don't get as much of the Midtown tourist trade.
Ouest's lifespan coincides with the huge shift in media that's happened. One thing I've heard a lot, because I've been talking to a lot of people who operated as far back as the 1970s and 1980s, is that the sense of loyalty that restaurants used to enjoy over the long term has really been diminished by the dynamic of there being five hot new things every month, or sometimes every week.
There's 150 million fucking restaurants in New York. And it really is about visibility. It's about a reminder that places exist.
I couldn't agree more. Look at it this way: I think that we have all sat on the couch on any given early evening and said, "Honey, where do you want to go to dinner?" And it's like, "I don't know. I can't think of anything." There's 150 million fucking restaurants in New York. And it really is about visibility. It's about a reminder that places exist. If you asked me my top ten restaurants in New York right now, I would have trouble answering you not because there are not ten favorite restaurants, but it takes me a while to remember Gotham and La Bernardin and Craft and Peasant, and ... It used to be that New York Magazine, the New York Times, would sit on your coffee table for days, weeks. And now you go online, and it's a great source of information but for a lot of applications it's very fleeting.
More generally, I hear from a lot of chefs a concern about the number of restaurants in town right now. Wylie Dufresne recently said to me that there were too many restaurants in the city.
There are too many restaurants and every restaurant suffers as a result of too many restaurants.
Is that something chefs talk about?
Sure. You know, if you take Ouest as an example, when it opened in 2001 you could walk up and down Broadway and people would stop. They would look and they would come in. There's a Chipotle on the corner there now. I've got to tell you, the food's good. You get in and out for ten bucks.
You consider places like that competition at this point?
Yes, I do.
Because the quality has come up in fast casual places, or what Danny Meyer has now renamed "fine casual" in his IPO?
Yes. It's all competition. Look how you and I eat. When we go out to eat, do we always go to a fine dining restaurant?
No. I had sushi at a neighborhood place in Brooklyn last night. It was terrific.
Exactly. I'll give you an example. There's one restaurant in New York City right now that I'm dying to go to: La Grenouille.
Because it's the last one.
You've eaten there?
I haven't eaten there in years.
But your next big dinner, that's where you're going?
I want to. I want quenelles de brochete and sauce Nantua. I want, you know, a beautiful roast duck and ile flottante. I fucking want it, because I'm afraid I'll never get it again.
In terms of what's going on here, what are you excited about right now at Ouest? What jazzes you up when you're here?
I'll tell you. Here we sit in the dead of winter and it's not the perfect time to talk about it, but I live in the sticks now and I'm surrounded by farms. I live in New Jersey in Allamuchy State Park.
Yeah, it's a 12,000-acre preserve. The house is an 1840s barn that was from Waterloo Village which is across the road from me.
I've been really excited about going to my local farm stands out where I live and just bringing stuff in, from black-soil beets to you name it. It's such a beautiful area for growing. Stuff does really well. I have had the best corn, the best tomatoes that I've ever had anywhere from my back yard.
What about what's going on now, in the dead of winter?
Funny enough, I just put lamb shanks back on the menu a few weeks ago ... because people keep asking and they never have stopped asking.
How long had it been? Because I remember early in this restaurant's lifespan, it was on the menu and then you started doing it as a special once a week.
It really had everything to do with control. What do I mean by control? Well, we braise them obviously in advance during the day and then we would reheat them and serve them at night. And it got to a point where, it's a delicate piece of meat once it's been cooked, and reheating one is fine. Reheating twenty at a clip, when you're doing three hundred dinners, it was not working out so I had to bail on it.
What are you serving the shanks with now? What's the dish?
I'm doing it with a curried cauliflower stew, a little bit of the braising liquid. Simple, simple, simple.
What's new that you're excited about?
I say this with some trepidation because I fear that the prices are going to spike just like lamb shank [did], but lamb neck. I've used that in a number of different applications, because there's a muscle mass there. It's all meat that's close to the bone. It's delicious.
On a drastically different note, this is Classics Week on Eater. You and this restaurant have a connection to a beloved landmark restaurant that's tragically gone — Windows on the World, which of course was destroyed in the September 11 terrorist attack. You were instrumental in founding the Windows of Hope charity, which benefits foodservice workers murdered that day. I vividly remember walking by the morning after those attacks and you were sitting at the bar here sketching the image that was adapted into the Windows of Hope logo on the back of a napkin. How did that charity come about?
On September 11, 2001, I couldn't get to the restaurant. I lived on Riverside and 157th Street. There were no subways, and taxis were not willing to drive anywhere. So I couldn't get here. I found out because my assistant called and said, "We have a problem." And I said, "What, the walkin refrigerator break down?" He goes, "No. Turn on the TV." I said, "What channel?" He goes, "Doesn't matter." That's when I found out.
I thought to myself when I saw the towers go down: these families who just lost their dad or their mom, the wage earners, are going to need money.
And then it occurred to me. It was kind of like this delayed reaction where I was sitting dumbstruck like everybody else, watching this unfold. And all of a sudden, I was like, "Oh, my God. [Windows on the World chef] Michael Lomonaco [who was spared that day]." I was like, "Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God." Then I started thinking about former employees who were working there. And I just lost it, you know? But I couldn't get down here.
Then I thought to myself when I saw the towers go down: these families who just lost their dad or their mom, the wage earners, are going to need money. And this is no time to secure a venue and print invitations and send them out to try to do a fundraiser.
And so then I got to Ouest the next morning and walked in and it just hit me. I picked up the phone. I called Mario [Batali] and Bobby [Flay] first and I said, "I'm thinking about this thing, and I think it entails us not having to go anywhere because we don't have the time to pack food and chafing dishes." I said, "I have this idea. We'll just pick a night. We'll invite customers in and we'll clip them for money and start a fund." It was really that idea.
How did the first one work? Was it a portion of sales on a given night?
I asked everybody who owned a restaurant or was the chef of a restaurant, to provide ten percent of the evening's revenues. I was basically saying to forego your profits for the night, just one night, and we'll start it, you know? So the first day, first two days, was calling everybody I knew in New York until I finally called Brad Steelman at River Cafe and he said, "Yeah, I already heard about it." I think I'd reached saturation.
I was, like, well, shit, I know Charlie Trotter in Chicago. I know Todd English in Boston. I know Nancy Silverton in LA. So I just started calling other cities.
But then shit started happening. Ariane Daguin from D'Artagnan came through the door here and said, "What's going on?" And I said, "I'm doing this thing." And she said, "Well, I'm leaving for Paris tomorrow. I could tell them." And so then it went international.
We had the event here on October 11th, as everybody else did. And it was kind of a kickstart the heart thing; I remember Danny Meyer said something along the lines of that night kind of reignited New York in that it gave people license to go back out and have a good time and be in the company of their friends. (He said that to someone else who told me.)
How many families does the fund benefit?
We're talking about 267 individuals.
See, that's the common misperception. It was not for Windows on the World specifically. It was for the entire food and beverage related industry people from the complex.
We even reached out...there's another non for profit called Tepeyac on West 14th Street and we identified through them, like a delivery kid who was bicycling from a pizzeria who happened to be in the building. That kind of thing.
The second part of the mission statement is that we secured five years of health insurance for the entire group. That was the trickiest part of it because we tried to find one insurance company to umbrella the whole thing and none of them would touch it, so we had to do individual renewals annually.
And we were fortunate because, you know, my partner David Emil is a brilliant man. And fortunately he was working with Waldy Malouf and Sue Klein, who was the CFO for Night Sky which was Windows on the World as well. We were able to formulate something that I never would have been able to do, which is to make anticipatory, very, very, very conservative investments to offset the overshoot on the insurance.
The third part of the mission statement was we wanted to get every kid in this group through college.
What's the status on that?
Based on performance to date, I think our youngest girl is scheduled to graduate in 2021. And it looks like we're going to have just enough money to cover that...
But it was this industry. Bobby was doing an interview for I think it was the CBS morning show. He and I talked on camera about the event and he said to me, "Tom, we've been training for this our entire career." Which is true because we always do a lot of benefit stuff, so we were able to do one for our own.
Stay tuned for part two of their chat tomorrow, and check out more of Friedman's interviews on Toqueland.