For revered chef and Porter House New York managing partner Michael Lomonaco to step away from his kitchen for even one night, there must be something big cooking up. And in the world of epicurean events, it doesn’t get much bigger than the New York City Wine & Food Festival, a four-day (October 17 through 20) celebration that annually pulls culinary heavyweights such as Lomonaco away from their own restaurants to participate in a host of cook-offs, seminars and tastings. Lomonaco’s taking a break from Porter House and his new lounge Center Bar to participate in the NYCWFF’s hotly contested Blue Moon Burger Bash this year, so we’ll get going with the interview so the dedicated gourmand can get back to his stove.
You opened Center Bar last fall, and it’s a different concept. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Center Bar is a small-plates and cocktail lounge. Its real focus is on finely crafted cocktails, an extensive collection of wines — both by the glass and the bottle — and small plates of Mediterranean-influenced food. The small-plates prep kitchen and the cocktail bar are next to each other. It overlooks Columbus Circle, so it has a really magnificent view. It sits on a raised platform that looks out onto the circle. There’s a beautiful grand piano there as well, so we have music there five nights a week.
How did you come up with the idea for Center Bar?
You know, it’s a great location, a great spot. The idea of there being a cocktail lounge just seemed really appropriate to the area. It ties all of the restaurants that are here on the fourth floor [of the Time Warner Center] together — from Per Se to Masa, Bar Masa and [Porter House New York]. There was always kind of a void; the atrium floor was kind of quiet. This activates the floor beautifully. It’s at the top of the escalators. The idea of a cocktail lounge with food in atrium spaces like this really dates back to some of the great public spaces of New York. In Milan, Paris, Rome, there are great public spaces that are enclosed like this. It just works in this spot.
How do you feel about the New York City Wine & Food Festival moving to your neighborhood of Midtown West this year?
It’s fantastic. First of all, I think it’s a great location. It’s going to allow the festival to grow even more. I think what’s really terrific about it is that it makes it, in some ways, more centrally located for those involved and especially the festival-goers. There’s really some exciting space that’s going to be available for things like the Burger Bash this year. And the move also keeps it fresh.
What events are you most excited about for this year’s festival?
Last year, I did one of the dinners. I have to say, I always like seeing the smaller dinners. I think that those are also a great way to kind of see other people work and what’s going on. I’m going to try to get around to see one or two of them. I really enjoy the public tastings — the events that are based on a little bit of show-and-tell. I think those are kind of fun and a great way to meet the public.
What do you think are some of the best events for first-time festival-goers?
I think that immersion is always important. So, if you really want to get into something, get into the biggest events. They’ll give you an overview. The Burger Bash is really fun and boisterous; it’s a party-like atmosphere. It’s a terrific event for that reason — for people’s first time going to the festival. In order to get a real sense of how many people are really interested in participating, these big events will really blow your mind. You just can’t believe how many people are out there and want to be part of this. I love that aspect of it.
Tell us about the Burger Bash. Will you be battling to make the best burger?
That whole competitive atmosphere is great. We’re going to battle it out. We’re not ready to release the dish that we’re doing, though. It really is the most party-like atmosphere of all. Burger Bash is also where all these chefs get a chance to see each other — not just to look at their food or taste their food — and it’s a very social outing. You can’t help but have fun.
Who gets to decide the best burgers?
There’s a panel of judges. There’s also a people’s choice. People are voting as they go. It’s really a lot of fun. It’s huge. It’s so many people. It’s amazing.
How do you choose which festivals to attend?
There are festivals all over the country, but I don’t do a lot of them. I participate in New York City Wine & Food Festival, South Beach Wine & Food Festival and one or two others. It’s mostly because I believe in being here in New York in my restaurants. We opened Porter House almost seven years ago, and now Center Bar is almost a year old. We’re working on another concept, too. I tend to stick to my restaurants more than travel.
What makes you keep coming back to NYCWFF?
I love the New York festival; it’s a good one. I think it’s a great fit and a really well-staged event, meaning the producers do a fantastic job not only for the public but the back-of-house organization is great, too. It really makes it a pleasure to participate because everything works. It’s a very well-oiled machine. I loved that, years ago, smaller cities had festivals. Chicago had Jazz Fest, and so did New Orleans. I always thought, “How come New York doesn’t have a festival?” And I think this is New York’s festival, and it’s perfect.
Photo Courtesy of Melisa Hom