For a such a passionate fan of great cuisine and the people who are responsible for creating it, somehow the concept of watching cooking shows on television has just never appealed to me. Perhaps you could say I’m TV-chef challenged, because honestly, watching some of those shows falls just a few remote-clicks away from my all-time favorite, C-Span, when I desperately need a cure for insomnia. With all due respect to some of the very talented restaurant-trained chefs who look terrific on TV, you still can’t smell the food, tasting it is out of the question, and unless you have a photographic memory or can take dictation at 200 words a minute, forget about ever duplicating that fab dish you just saw on your 25-inch screen.
But perhaps there is hope for me in Chef-TV land. If Anthony Bourdain ever gets tired of traveling around foreign lands talking to the camera about local customs and food, he’d be a terribly entertaining TV chef. He’s funny and intelligent and he can also cook, but since his humor is perhaps a bit too extreme for the Food Network or PBS, my hope is that the R-rated HBO network will step in and make him an offer. I could also name a half-dozen chef’s I’ve met who would be entertaining enough on the tube to give even a tough TV-chef critic like myself reason to tune in. But what if you could find a chef who created one of New York’s most successful family relief funds, who has been at the top of the Manhattan culinary class for nearly 20 years, is as knowledgeable about food as anyone on the planet, and who not only looks like George Carlin but is nearly as funny? It sounds like TV-chef heaven.
Tom Valenti is someone that is universally admired in his profession, and not just for his cooking talent and his incredible string of successful restaurants. His upper-west side restaurant Ouest runs perfectly without him for days at a time, a tribute to his coaching and team-building skills, and to the respect that his staff have for him. This success has provided him with the freedom to regularly escape the stress of Manhattan for the solitude and beauty of his riverside cottage in the Catskills. Tom Valenti is someone who cooks to live, a star chef whose heart begins beating as he crosses the George Washington Bridge at the onset of a spring or early summer weekend - especially if the flies are hatching on the Beaverkill or Delaware rivers that are his second home.
Watching Valenti working in Ouest’s kitchen, where he usually starts his day at 8 in the morning, he seems a natural at everything he does. He slices and chops with the careful precision of an artist, yet he’s playful and cracks jokes while directing his staff with the ease of someone who has done it a million times. He’s clearly perfected his craft and can enjoy himself with his staff, and seems more like a cool homeroom teacher than the chef/owner of an acclaimed Manhattan restaurant.
Valenti loved to cook at an early age, and when he graduated high school, he found one of his first significant cooking jobs the old fashioned way – his girlfriend talked him into it. “In the late 70’s, I was dating a girl who had just graduated from Ithica College. She was from Westchester, and when she left she wanted me to come live there. She found an ad in the newspaper for a private chef in Westchester County, called on my behalf, and stuck the phone in my face. I spoke to the guy, went on to interview with him, and we hit if off.”
Valenti got the job, and he began cooking for his new boss and his wife, who were extremely knowledgeable about food and wine, five days a week. He was allowed to be creative and basically cook whatever he wanted, with one caveat; he wasn’t allowed to repeat any dish for 200 days. “So if I made pasta fazool in May,” explained Valenti, “I couldn’t make it again until September. So I’d wake up in the middle of the night with cold sweats: ‘What am I going to make now!’ But it gave me a great platform to just screw up, and experiment.” The job ended two years later when the couple divorced, and as Tom likes to tell his friends, “no one sued for custody of the chef.” His next job was in a small restaurant in Nyack in 1980, L’arc De Provence, where he would experience his first taste of a New York restaurant review.
“I remember the one review that I got when I was there. Boy did they set me up! They came in, they took my picture – this was back when we had these big chef hats - and I’m smiling; so here’s my picture in this local newspaper, and the title read “L’arc’s no Lark,” and they proceeded to trash us. They eviscerated the restaurant, and me not knowing about this, I was like, ‘oh you mean people actually write about food? And they put it in the paper? Ok, whatever.’ I hadn’t a clue. That was quite a lesson.”
Valenti recovered from the Nyack review and eventually got his first break by beginning a long working relationship with Guy Savoy, first in the U.S., then in Paris. When Savoy asked Valenti to come back to the States and help open a restaurant in Greenwich, he worked mainly in the kitchen, but he was also asked to spend some time at the front of the house. Here, he had to adjust his personality a bit. Whereas in the kitchen his taste buds and his sense of humor were an asset, he found that on the carpeted side of the restaurant he had to bite his tongue on occasion.
“One day at lunch there were two women sitting at a table, and one of the women was smoking a cigarette. The food came and she just kept smoking away. Then the first thing she did was to grab the saltshaker and do this (shaking motion). She put her cigarette out, took a bite, then she called me over and said, ‘This food is too salty.’ And I felt like smacking her! But you only say “Yes ma’am,” and you take it away. You can’t say, ‘you crack-ho, you should have tasted the food first.’ But, it was one of those lessons of restraint, like in my later years where I learned to give the customer what they want. I had many tantrums as a chef in the back of the house for many years saying, ‘I refuse to do that, I am not going to serve it with the sauce, I am not going to substitute it with this,’ because that’s my creative thing. Well bullshit, basically what it comes down to is; if you want that customer to pay for what they consumed so you can pay your staff, you’d better shut up and give them what they want. That was the last thing that I took away from working in the front of the house. When I opened here (at Ouest), we had all these composed dishes, but we also had a simple grill section. You can get a simply grilled piece of chicken or a simply grilled steak, or you can order a side of sautéed spinach or green beans or whatever you want. So, that was a very valuable lesson.”
Valenti took all the lessons he learned from working for Savoy and applied them in his first high-profile chef job, at Gotham Bar and Grill under new executive chef Alfred Portale. He met Portale in a chance encounter at Charles de Gaulle airport when he his friend Daniel Johannes introduced them. They sat beside each other on the plane, and after several more chance encounters back in New York, “I convinced him to hire me as his first sous chef at The Gotham,” Valenti says about Portale. After some wonderful press, including a glowing article from Gael Green and a three-star review from Bryan Miller of the New York Times, the phones started ringing at Gotham, and they haven’t really stopped.
“Alfred and I started together when Gotham was not doing well, and he revived the place. The restaurant was doing maybe 50 or 60 covers when we started there and through his hard work he got a lot of attention from the New York press. When we found out that we got 3 stars, I remember him walking down the stairs of the kitchen with his eyes wide open and his head slightly shaking like, ‘okay well we’re like a dog chasing a car, now we have got the car, what do we do with it?’
By the time he left Gotham Bar and Grill in 1987, Valenti was ready to run his own high-profile kitchen, and he got his chance with Alison on Dominick. The reviews and awards soon began to roll in; Esquires’s “Best New Restaurant in New York City” in 1989; Food and Wine magazine’s “Ten Best New Chefs” in 1990, among others. Yet in the midst of all this success, he was always planning for his future, and he soon found it in the foothills of the Catskills in 1991.
“I saw the property, found out how many acres it was on and how much riverfront there was, and brought it, despite the ranting of many locals who said you really shouldn’t buy the property because the house was off-kilter. It was built on piers and what happened was, they built the house and they never poured footings - it’s the Catskills! So over the years the house started to pitch forward toward the river, because of all the seepage and natural springs. But I figured that for the price, if I can save the cabin, fine, and if not I’ll just knock it down. So I found a builder who came down and put hydraulic jacks under the house and lifted it up, poured footings, rebuilt the piers, and they set the house back down again and that was it. Then we put a big deck on it.”
Valenti apparently had an equally adept eye for selecting country properties as he did for selecting new restaurants to hone his culinary skills. After Ruth Reichl became a big fan of Valenti in the 1990’s (calling him “A clairvoyant in the kitchen” for his ability to repeatedly create dishes that people craved), his success at restaurants like Cascabel and Butterfield 81 finally led him to the restaurant that he now calls home, Ouest on the upper west side. The converted dry cleaner and coffee shop that Valenti opened in the spring of 2001 became an instant destination for those who craved his slow-cooked style of delicious, working-the-stove-all-weekend dishes.
But in September of that year, all of this spare time was diverted from trips to his summer cottage to an organization he began with some friends in order to help the families affected by the collapse of the Twin Towers. The charity was not only for the families of the Windows of the World restaurant workers who were in the building at the time of the terrorist attack, but the families of ALL food workers affected within the two buildings. The organization, called Windows of Hope, became well-known not only for providing instant financial relief to the families who needed it quickly, but it also became a model for other non-profit groups that would soon follow. And it all started with a phone call.
“I called Mario and I called Bobby, and I called Alfred and I called Charlie and I called Daniel – you know I literally was rubbing the skin off of my ears by day 2 or 3. So, to relieve myself, when I called Terrance I said do me a favor, call Brad at the River Café, call this one and call that one and tell them to call 3 people that they know. And make sure that those three people that they know tell three friends and so on and so on. It got to a point that after a couple of days, I was still making phone calls - I mean morning, noon, and night.”
Ultimately they raised over $23 million, and because it was an emergency situation they decided to start distributing money almost immediately, without really knowing how much money was coming in. “In the month or so that followed, when we were getting donation money through the mail, there was the Anthrax scare. So, we had piles and bags of checks that we couldn’t process because nobody wanted to open the envelopes. When that scare went away, and we resumed and made an initial distribution, all of a sudden the money really started rolling in. so, we made another distribution and then another. We ended up distributing roughly $12 or $13 million within 18 months. The money was given to the families for whatever they needed. Rent, fix the roof, books for the kids, whatever. The other two parts of the mission statement was that we committed to - and have fulfilled - five years of health insurance for every family member.” Money was also allotted to family members for educational purposes, but not only for the children - also for newly widowed parents who might need English as a second language training, secretarial school, or whatever training they needed to care for their families. Recently, after Hurricane Katrina, Bill Shore from “Share Our Strength” called Valenti asking for help in setting up a national dine-out similar to the one that Windows of Hope had done so successfully four years prior, on October 11, 2001. The result was the successful “Restaurants for Relief”, and Share Our Strength is planning their second annual national fund-raising event this coming August 29th.
Valenti opened his second restaurant in September of 2003, called Cesca’. A mere five minute walk from Ouest, Cesca’ instantly became the area’s hottest restaurant. But recently it was announced that Valenti would not be associated with that particular restaurant any more. “It was sad to see it end. Cesca’ was about my Italian heritage of cooking vs. my French training which is represented here at Ouest, and it was well received. I think the upper west side still could use a couple more good restaurants. It wasn’t terribly long after Cesca’ opened that my partners approached me about another project, Cesca’ in Atlantic City. I didn’t want to do it because I really was the only operating partner onsite at both restaurants. So I felt it was important to attend to the home fires as opposed to driving three and a half hours and taking time away from these babies, especially with Cesca’ being so young.”
Valenti resisted the idea of opening the Atlantic City outpost with his name on it, and eventually this project brought Valenti to a crossroads with his financial partners. Valenti offered to buy his partners out of both restaurants, but eventually he decided to keep Ouest and let Cesca’ go. Meanwhile, Cesca’ Atlantic City opened in February of 2005 and closed last November, after only nine months in operation.
One thing that Valenti has not resisted is the idea of publishing cookbooks. During the two years leading up to Cesca’ New York’s opening, he wrote and published two cookbooks, “Welcome to my Kitchen” in 2003 and “Tom Valenti’s Soups, Stews, & One-Pot Meals” in 2003. The follow-up book for Valenti, a diabetic, will be a healthful approach to cooking that is diabetic sensitive, which means that “anybody can cook from the book and everybody can eat from the book because not everybody has diabetes,” Valenti explains. “But, if you are going to have a dinner party and there happens to be one person there who is diabetic it’s not like everybody else is going to suffer.”
But work on the new book likely won’t begin until Valenti is sure the fish have stopped biting. But the time of year this drastic occasion occurs can be vastly different, depending on whom you ask. This summer’s heavy flooding that devastated many Catskill-area homes (but spared Valenti’s) has also made fishing more difficult for avid fly fishermen. But even when he is successful, he releases every wild trout he catches back into the river.
“I’ve got brown trout that are 2 feet long that are wild, and I’ve also caught brook trout that were this big (holding his hands apart), that were the most brilliant jewel-like things you could ever imagine seeing. The bigger fish have all been caught and released. So, it’s not that they are smart, but their intuitive sense of natural food is very strong. So, when they get hooked a couple of times, they become more aware. So, consequently the bigger ones are harder and harder to catch - yes their little fins come up and they go ‘Oh, who are you fooling!’”
When Valenti needs trout at his Manhattan restaurant, he’ll order them from a trout farm, his favorite being Edenbrook Fish Market in Monticello (845-791-4423).
“There are a lot of times when the fish aren’t feeding, so you sit on the bank and you learn about wild flowers, and you learn about trees. And you just breathe deeper than you do when you are in the city.”
Finally, we got to fish! Tom went into the water first, and I followed, carrying his “backup” pole he had graciously allowed me to use. It had been a while....ten years?.... since I had held a fly rod, so I found myself a secluded corner of peaceful water far enough away from Tom so I wouldn’t distract the fish he was hoping to start a relationship with. By the time I remembered how to pull line off the reel, letting the thick hollow string unwind long enough so I can begin the process of re-learning how to make a difficult fly cast, I looked to my right saw that Tom was already into it. He seemed to be toying with the underwater creatures, his line driving forward and then back again in repeated 50 to 60 foot-long curls of poetic motion. The fly’s feathers were being dried from being whipped around in the air, yearning to land yet never quite managing to reach the water. Finally Tom relented and let it down, and the fly seemed to float magically, half an inch above the bubbling water surface. If the cast is done correctly, and Tom’s cast is, the fly will move with the water and not with the line, creating the perfect imitation of a floating trout delicacy. I go back to my casting, realizing that my casts will never be that perfect.
Suddenly I heard movement, and I see that Tom has put down his pole on a small island and he’s busy turning over rocks in the shallow area of the river. When I came up alongside him he showed me the bottom of one, and explained that he was looking for fly hatches. If he found one, he’d try to match his fly to the color of the hatch that was happening at that particular moment. He finally found one - a miniscule white grub that, when he showed me I could barely see - and excitedly tells me the name of it while beginning to search for a matching white fly in his little fly box. While he stood in the water tying on the new offering, this temporary break in the action allowed me enough time to really look around me, and take in the landscape that Tom has chosen to surround himself with for the past 15 years. As I felt the cold water rushing around my feet and legs, I realized that the powerful vision of the Catskill Mountains makes it impossible to think about anything else.
I saw Tom wade downstream after a feeding fish, and decided to put my rod down and watch the show.