Special Sauce: Author Tom Roston on Post-9/11 New York as Victim and Survivor
Part two of my at times emotionally overwhelming interview with Tom Roston, author of The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World: The Twin Towers, Windows on the World, and the Rebirth of New York, focused on the employees of Windows on the World who were in the North Tower’s iconic restaurant on September 11, 2001, all of whom tragically died that day.
According to Roston, “there were immigrants from, I think it was over 25 nations…. People from Bangladesh, Egypt, Nigeria, Ecuador, Peru, and Mexico.” For many of these employees, getting a job at the prestigious institution was a watershed moment in their lives. “It was like, basically, you made it. This is going to be your ticket to whatever it was, or maybe this is just the answer and you don’t need to fight anymore, and then it was gone.”
As Roston and I discussed, those employees who weren’t in the restaurant that morning didn’t escape completely unscathed, and each was profoundly impacted in their own way. These survivors ranged from servers to a sous chef to the executive chef, Michael Lomonaco, who happened to be in an appointment in the retail concourse of the building at the time of the attack and struggled with tremendous survivor’s guilt afterward. Apart from those who lost their lives, Roston said, “think about all these restaurant workers who were so irrevocably affected by this event…and they walk amongst us. There was no victim compensation fund for these people. They live with it. They live with it every day, the fact that their best friend died and they didn’t die.”
In a way, the effect of 9/11 on the Windows staff was a microcosm of its effect on all of New York. “There are different layers of victim. The victim spectrum is very long and wide, and everyone felt it,” Roston said. “I think it’s interesting to think…about the city of New York, and how it was a victim.”
Asked if a place with the spirit of Windows on the World could ever exist in New York again, Roston stressed the restaurant’s connection to a different time in the city’s history. “There was a romanticism back then, in the ’70s, and there was a belief in certain things. Now, we’re much more sporadic. It’s about whether or not you can put it on Instagram, and attention spans are so fast and quick, but for me, I can see it all over the city, really. Not all of the city, but there are a lot of places where you can feel the spectacular spirit of the city.”
Our conversation was both wrenching and edifying, just like Roston’s book. This episode of Special Sauce is not an easy listen, but it is an essential one.
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Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce, we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.
Tom Roston: If we’re talking about the waiters and the cooks and those guys, they had found an answer to their dreams by working up at Windows on the World. This is going to be your ticket to whatever it was, or maybe this is just the answer and you don’t need to fight anymore, and then it was gone.
EL: This week, we are back with writer, editor, and reporter Tom Roston, author of The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World: The Twin Towers, Windows on the World, and the Rebirth of New York. It’s hard for us all to talk about that horrible day. That’s etched in our minds forever, but I want to touch upon one of the most important subplots in your book, which was the role that immigrants played in Windows on the World, which is shockingly timely given the discussions we’re all having. Talk about the role that immigrants played in that restaurant.
TR: Well, they had a staff of over 400 people and in the banquet business you’ve got to have a lot of waiters coming and going. There were immigrants from I think it was over 25 nations and there were so many languages being spoken there. People from Bangladesh, Egypt, Nigeria, Ecuador, Peru, and Mexico. The list goes on and on and on. They found a haven there because there was basically a chain of people who kept on coming in because they knew each other and they were making good money. They were making really, really good money—
EL: It was like a vertical village where everyone had a gig.
TR: Yes, well put, exactly. It was and it was where everyone wanted to go. Everyone who was working in the City of New York, from 76 up on, it was one of the best restaurants to work at because everyone knew how much money was going through that place.
EL: Interesting. Now, let’s get to that actual day. What was actually going on at the restaurant on September 11th?
TR: As we know, the Windows hit early in the morning. Every morning the restaurant, the club was open for breakfast, so the club was open—
EL: The club, which was separate from the restaurant, which required… there were dues people paid to become a member of the club and usually the only people who could go to breakfast, right?
EL: The public couldn’t go to breakfast, right?
TR: Exactly, exactly, and it was usually sort of a buffet style. It was very good, but what a great thing, what a club. You get to sit on top of the world and just have your lox n’ bagel and look out. A lot of people within the building and some of the businesses outside of the building would come there and they would have breakfast. There was breakfast being served, but there weren’t many people there. Maybe I would say maybe a couple dozen at the time, but also Windows had an amazing catering banquet business—
EL: Private dining was a huge revenue generator, right?
TR: Right. The restaurant was actually on 107 and 106, and on the 106th floor was where a lot of the catering was done. On that day, there was a conference, the Risk Waters Conference, which was a financial information technology company that was doing a three-day conference and it had people coming in and it had booths being set up and they were serving their bagels and—
TR: Coffee and all of that. People were getting ready to have a day of information and just innocently going about their day and doing what people in New York do is they’re movers and shakers, right?
EL: There were not only workers catering to those people, no pun intended, but there were actually, what, a hundred people at that thing?
TR: Right. There were 91 people actually in… there were 91 guests at the time that the planes hit. Most of them were at Risk Waters and then there were about a dozen up at the restaurant. We’ve all heard these miraculous stories of some people who were at the restaurant having breakfast who took the last elevator down before the planes hit. There was also a construction crew working on renovation. There were six guys there, and then there were 73 workers. Above where the planes hit in the restaurant area there were 73 workers, six construction guys, and 91 guests.
EL: Wow, and they all died?
TR: They all died. Everyone above the plane impact died. There was about 1500 people. No one got below the impact—
TR: Area from the North Tower.
EL: What was Michael LaMonica, the chef, doing that day? I have tremendous respect for Michael as a human being and as a cook and I know that September 11th for him is a moment that he doesn’t like to talk about. The fact that you did get to interview him and some of the most moving parts of the book was listening to Michael, but I remember running into him afterwards and he was so racked with survivor’s guilt.
TR: Oh yeah. What a burden, what a burden he has to carry. He was the top chef, it was his restaurant.
EL: Right, and so where was he?
TR: It was actually a primary day, so he had voted. He had come down from the Upper East Side where he lived and dropped his wife off at work, parked his car, and he just had this thought, “Well, you know what? I have an appointment at 12 to get my eyeglasses fixed. Maybe I’ll do it this morning before I go upstairs?” It was just like that.
EL: It was on the retail concourse?
TR: Yes, there’s a concourse below the building. There was a LensCrafters there and he just figured, “Okay, I’ll just do it before I go up. I’d rather not do it in the middle of the day.” He was downstairs in the concourse getting his glasses fixed when the planes hit, when one plane hit, when the first plane hit. When the first plane hit, he thought it was something from the train station. He just didn’t know. It was confusing. There was lights flickering, but eventually someone came out and said, “We have to go.” It was a relatively calm exit or maybe just sort of… people were walking, no one was running, according to Michael. They were just moving calmly out the door and he just saw this giant wreckage of what he actually thinks was the fuselage, but it was like the size of a car smoking, and then paper is raining down. He was outside just confused trying to figure out, what is going on?
TR: He looked across the street, there is a fire station there, actually. The firemen were looking up. It was total bedlam and he was so lucky. How do you live with that luck when so many people were not lucky?
EL: Right, who worked for and with him.
TR: Who were up there, and there’s so much confusion because in the restaurant business, people are always swapping out shifts. Someone says, “Can you work for me? I can’t do this.” That happened that day. There’s so many stories of people who either weren’t there even though it was their regular shift and so many people who were there despite it not being their regular shift.
EL: Or, in the case of the pastry chef Heather Ho-
TR: Right, oh yeah.
EL: She had already given notice, right?
TR: Yeah, yeah.
EL: She had taken another job or—
TR: No, she hadn’t taken another job yet but she wanted to leave. She had wanted to leave for a while and it just… Her story really, really is… it’s so sad because she was ready to go but she just felt an obligation to Michael and to the restaurant to stay on because she didn’t want to leave them in the lurch-
TR: And then she died that day.
EL: She died and her associate pastry chef you talk about because Michael’s sous-chef who is still Michael’s sous-chef-
TR: Michael Ammirati-
EL: Michael Ammirati, when you talked to him, he talked about his survivor’s guilt about the associate pastry chef who had three children.
TR: He had multiple kids and it was going all around. One of the things I really wanted to focus on is that we know about the deaths and the families who tragically lost loved ones and the people who lost their lives, but think about all these restaurant workers who were so irrevocably affected by this event-
EL: Oh yeah.
TR: And they walk amongst us. There was no victim compensation fund for these people. They live with it. They live with it every day, the fact that their best friend died and they didn’t die.
EL: The aftermath chapter was beautifully put together and-
TR: Thank you.
EL: And must have been really hard. Tell us about what happened to the surviving staff.
TR: Well, what’s so interesting, I didn’t want to candy coat anything and through my reporting I found out that on September 12th, the day after, there was this interesting divide of where the staff went, that there were about a hundred people who went to the Union Hall because they were union workers, the kitchen workers, the waiters, and then there were about a hundred people that went to Beacon, which was a restaurant that was also owned by the owner of Windows, David Emil—
EL: Whose father was Joe Baum’s lawyer.
TR: Arthur Emil, and business partner. There’s nothing negative about it, but it’s just an interesting portrait of the city that you have these different people, they were like eight blocks away, but in different buildings trying to figure out what’s going on. You got the union guys and you’ve got more of the management people in another building. Again, as a writer, you can’t avoid thinking, “Wow, that’s kind of heavy”, but they did come together and they did help each other and Windows of Hope was a huge thing.
EL: Right, but they came together in part because they were trying to figure out who was still alive and who wasn’t, right?
TR: Yeah, but—
EL: You talk about this in the book. It’s like they’re checking Social Security numbers, but if you have undocumented immigrants, what’s the value of the Social Security number if there even is one?
EL: It must have been just terrifying for all of them, whether they were union or not union, and whether David Emil was going to give them a job or not give them a job, they were all shell-shocked and grieving.
TR: It was terrible, and the stories I heard from some of the people, I think of one of the waiters for Fekkak Mamdouh from Morocco, a Muslim who was very deeply impacted by the loss of his friends and yet soon after 9/11, he had to put an American Flag in his window reactively because he had become very afraid that people were going to start seeing him as a terrorist. He did feel this sense of alienation-
TR: And fear, his wife and he. You think about how awful that some of these people have to endure this tragedy and then this other layer of it just going on and on, but so many people had to deal with all these different awful elements of being at the center of what’s really—
EL: Right, and you know—
TR: One of the most worst things to happen to this country.
EL: I think you paint a very fair portrait of David Emil because a lot of people were mad at him because he sounded like in trying to console everybody that he was going to give them all jobs, but he didn’t have jobs for all of them. It got very complicated and very heated-
TR: It did.
EL: Very quickly.
TR: It did. He had started another restaurant. He was already working on another restaurant in—
EL: Called Noche.
TR: In Midtown. I think it was in the Times Square area and he couldn’t give everybody a job. I think that sounds kind of pretty rational, but it still doesn’t speak to the fact that people felt like they were missing out and that they weren’t being taken care of—
EL: Yeah, because they felt victimized because they were.
TR: Everyone was a victim there. There are different layers of victim. The victim spectrum is very long and wide and everyone felt it. I think it’s interesting to think a little bit also or to talk a little bit about the City of New York and how it was a victim, right?
EL: Yes, there was this event exactly a month later called Dine out, where 10% of the proceeds from restaurants went to various funds for the workers.
EL: You have a quote from Danny Meyer about how it sort of gave the city hope.
TR: Well, it gave them a reason to go out again and it gave New Yorkers to act human again and feel like we can laugh and celebrate, whereas for a good month people were just shell-shocked and didn’t want to smile, didn’t want to laugh because it didn’t seem appropriate, but isn’t it incredible that a restaurant or a restaurant initiative is what really brought the city forward?
EL: Oh yeah, and restaurateurs and chefs, if you remember, they were feeding all of the—
TR: Oh yeah.
EL: Workers, including some of the greatest chefs in the city and Drew Nieporent, another prominent New York City restaurateur and David Bouley and all these chefs and Tom Valenti was very involved who is another great New York chef/restaurateur. So many amazing things happened afterwards.
TR: Just talking to you about it, it just makes me think about, why did these guys get into the restaurant business? It’s because they’re nurturers. They like to bring people in. They like to take care of people, and I think that’s how they reacted after 9/11.
EL: For all of the survivors, their story was not a linear one.
TR: If we’re talking about the waiters and the cooks and those guys, they had found an answer to their dreams by working up at Windows on the World. This was they had made it. You think about-
EL: This was the American Dream.
TR: I don’t know what it is, like what is kind of comparable to your listeners, whether it’s getting partner at a law firm, depending a professor—
EL: I don’t know if we have any lawyers listening. I don’t know, maybe we do.
TR: Getting a job at Windows was the best. It was like basically you made it. This is going to be your ticket to whatever it was or maybe this is just the answer and you don’t need to fight anymore, and then it was gone.
EL: Then, you also tell the story about Michael going to some event memorializing what happened and they asked him if he wanted to write anything.
TR: When they actually put up One World Trade Center, the new building that took its place, it took so long to get that up, Michael LaMonica knew some of the people at the Port Authority and some of the people that put the building up and they invited him to go to the top and he went to the antenna that now makes it 1776 feet high. It was not quite up yet. I think it was like on its side, and with a black sharpie he wrote, “W-O-W, WOW Family”, it was just a signoff. To me, that’s very moving. Equally moving and incredible is the idea that I found that there’s a waiter, a back waiter at the current One World Trade Center who used to work at Windows on the World.
TR: This guy, Mohammad Quddus, an immigrant from Bangladesh, his former colleagues and friends thinks he is nuts for going up there because a lot of people don’t go near big buildings anymore because they’ve been so traumatized, but Mohammad dealt with the tragedy… First, he actually avoided Manhattan for a long time, but when that building went up, he just felt like it was his calling to go back there. He is a back waiter at One World Trade Center with the restaurant up there. It’s called ONE Dine and this is his way of coping. This is his moving on and I just—
EL: Everyone took different paths.
EL: Then, what’s also interesting, which you talk about in the book, is that a bunch of the workers got together and tried to form a sort of collective restaurant called Colors, right?
TR: That’s right, that’s right. A lot of the workers formed actually an activist group that advocates for workers, so it’s not a union itself but it advocates for union workers. It’s called ROC United. It’s been very instrumental in the push for the upping of the minimum wage. One of the things they did was create a restaurant called Colors.
EL: On Lafayette Street.
TR: It was on Lafayette—
EL: Then, they moved it.
TR: Then, they moved it downtown, a little bit more downtown and it’s had an up-and-down life. Again, I’m not going to candy coat things. I think they’ve had ups and downs, but I think they… in fact I know that they just renovated it. They’ve gotten new—
EL: I didn’t even know it was still open.
TR: Well, it’s been kind of a private catering thing—
EL: Got it.
TR: It’s also kind of related to the union, so I think that they train people and then they have private events, but I think they’re ready for an expansion and they’re going to have events there soon.
EL: Wow, cool. Will there ever be another restaurant like Windows on the World in New York again that’s sort of symbolically meant so much to so many people, both the people who worked there and the people who went there? Will there ever be a restaurant like that in the city again?
TR: I think I would say no, but with qualifications. I think that was from a certain time in the city’s history. There was a romanticism back then in the ’70s and there was a belief in certain things. Now, we’re much more sporadic. It’s about whether or not you can put it on Instagram and attention spans are so fast and quick, but for me, I can see it all over the city, really. Not all of the city, but there are a lot of places where you can feel the spectacular spirit of the city. One place I went was Danny Meyer’s Manhatta. Have you been there?
EL: No, I haven’t, but I’ve talked to Danny about it, but-
TR: It’s a great restaurant and I have to say when I… It’s on like the 65th floor. It’s downtown and when you get up to the top, it’s got these gorgeous, big windows and it’s jaw-dropping. You just see the city in front of you and it’s a thriving restaurant and the food is great. To me, that’s been the closest to… I’ve actually tried to see if I can try to reinvigorate or feel the feeling that I once felt when I was a kid at Windows and I felt that at Manhatta, and that thing in Hudson Yards, there’s a lot of controversy about Hudson Yards and there’s a lot of downsides. One of the downsides I have to say is… upsides is Jose Andres’ Mercado Little Spain—
EL: I just went the other night, man. I think I hit every station. Don’t tell my wife, okay, because you shouldn’t have paella, patatas, bravas, suckling pig, churros, frozen custard, I had a lot of things.
TR: Did you have the rum-soaked pineapple?
TR: See, you didn’t get everything. You got to go back—
EL: I got to go back.
TR: No, that is incredible, but also at the top of that 30 Hudson Yards, they’re building a restaurant. It’s not up yet. I think it’s going to be open next year. It’s going to be on the 101st floor. It’s going to be right above the outdoor terrace that they’re putting there and I’ve been up there. It’s not completed, but I’ve been up there and the views are astounding and to me and to a lot of people, it’s going to be poignant to be able to look down, you’re going to be able to see One World Trade Center from there.
TR: The city is still thriving, the city is still alive, and it’s got culture and it’s got iconic locations. Like you mentioned to be before, I do look at the past. I am nostalgic for so much of the city, but let’s not be fuddy duddies. Let’s appreciate what we’ve got. There are a lot of people like Danny Meyer, you asked for an example, who are putting life into their restaurants and into the city.
EL: I think New York will always be a place… the reason I came here, I needed to go to a place that was pregnant with possibility, and I think New York will always be a place that seems to be pregnant with possibility.
TR: Well, yeah. The book launch, the party is going to be at the bookstore Rizzoli, and I’m sure you know Rizzoli—
EL: I had my book launch there—
TR: Which one? That’s the thing, Rizzoli has changed—
EL: The one on 25th and Broadway.
TR: That’s where I’m going. Good. Hey, all right. As you know, Rizzoli used to be on 5th Avenue. It was like the most famous bookstore in the city, but then it moved in ’85 because of those damn real estate interests and then moved to 57th and became even more famous, and then it got moved again. Now, it’s on Broadway. The city keeps changing and it keeps evolving and it’s going to be all right.
EL: How did writing the book change you?
TR: I think it deepened my appreciation for the art. It deepened my appreciation for my connection to the city. I’m a New Yorker, I think like a New Yorker. I’m super proud of being a New Yorker, but I guess spending so much time writing this book and thinking about the meaning of the city from ’76 to 2001, which was an important part of my growing up when I grew up, it showed me how connected I am to the city and to everyone who is in it and how we’re all connected. How do we connect? Through food often, and how awesome because I used to write for Food Republic, so I’m aware of what you do, Ed, and I think there’s a kinship. As soon as you can talk your favorite bagel with somebody—
EL: For sure.
TR: Or a slice of pizza, it’s like you know them.
EL: It’s totally true. It’s totally true. Thank you so much for sharing your Special Sauce with us, Tom Roston. This has been awesome, and thank you for writing The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World: The Twin Towers, Windows on the World, and the Rebirth of New York. It’s incredibly poignant. For me, just reading it was in some ways difficult but also spiritual. Anyway, it’s a great accomplishment.
TR: Thanks so much, Ed. It’s been great talking to you about it.
EL: We’ll see you next time, Serious Eaters.
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