A top chef returns to Tony’s famous kitchen, a bittersweet moment in the absence of the man himself

SOME UNDERSTAND THE controlled chaos of a restaurant. Some are curious to know what that life is like – what it takes for a team to perform at a high level – and what it was like to work alongside and learn from one of the best restorers in that time. Tony Vallone, who passed away a little over a year ago, for whom I worked a few years ago.

Some haven’t spent time on the other side of the wall that separates a kitchen from a dining room. You’ve never been behind a bar or an apron or had a trash bag open on you mid-swing.

Or maybe you have a bit of experience – you remember applying, then the same day being called back for an interview and maybe even starting that evening. Your first restaurant job could also have been your last restaurant job. Did you research the industry because you liked to eat or because you needed to eat?

It takes a few weeks to get used to working more than 12 hours standing. But like a good masquerade ball, at the end of the night, inhibitions are thrown across the room, and – what is it – through the beaded curtain into another room of the party where we lets go. And you think, hey, I’m in.

I’m a bit of a romantic when it comes to restaurant business – what can we do to amuse our dear guests. And after? There is always something. It’s the ideas around the corner that excite me the most.

Donna Vallone, Tony’s wife, called me on a Thursday to talk about Tony – could we discuss the possibility of me returning – and since that phone call I’ve blown my car speakers and I haven’t haven’t stopped smiling. I kneel to pray now. With all my heart, please God, I want to be back with them.

I want to run around the corner and ask Butcher if the halibut is already there. I want Scott Banks to tell me the story of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. I can’t wait to deliver the inventory to Lauri. The people I worked with for almost eight years – getting them back – my heart pounds at the thought.

Oh, and the lunch and dinner services – I so want to be back in the eye of the storm where I feel most peaceful. I never thought I would have one again! I didn’t dream it until I started dreaming it.

We lost Tony on September 10, 2020, and for those first few weeks I felt like I was lying in a sterile hospital room, adrenaline dripping, tired but unable to sleep. I’m not dramatic, the reality that he was no longer with us was the worst.

I never thought I couldn’t talk to him anymore. I thought I’d go first – exhale at the top of my game, dressed as a Brazilian, jumping off a cliff in Hawaii. Or maybe I was pushed! Yes. I would have been ready and waited, eager to catch up with him on the other side. Tony would have arrived in the early afternoon, his leather jacket slung over his shoulder, the sky slightly tinged with rainbow sherbet.

I always wished I had better words for Donna. “That sucks,” she laughs. “It really is. It just sucks.

Donna runs Tony’s now. She is present at every service, watching what comes out of the kitchen, touching every table, making calls, just like him. After watching her do business and now watching her do business – I see the connection, they are still very much connected. I trust his instincts as I did his. I also have a lot to learn from her.

His charisma, his resilience, yes, but what makes Tony so magical is the way Donna and Tony make you feel. Whether you are a first timer or have a permanent reservation for Saturday night.

Donna and Tony were inseparable. Best friends who married, raised a family and ran many successful restaurants, with the crown jewel being Tony’s. “She sweetens me up,” he once told me, as they both replayed their romance after a busy Saturday night shift. I had swirled a grippy Napa Cab as I watched him grab two Sweet-n-Lows from the sugar bowl, tear them apart as one, and sprinkle them both into his iced tea, swirling the mixture with a spoon. A glorified butler, he called himself. And the service was a pleasure you could see it in his eyes.

It wasn’t the things Tony said that taught me the most, although he taught me a lot in words. I’ve watched it. He was cool in all situations, reacting as easily as if walking from room to room. He gave me a safe space to grow, to always come back to, no matter what was on my mind.

For Tony and his team, we’ve spent our lives stacking a list and going through it just to rebuild it again. We have always looked for ways to be better. Business at the table, whether in the restaurant or at table 47, was done directly. Why would we bubble wrap? There was simply no time or energy. And he and I were going hard in the paint drinking those bitter Italian balls. He enjoyed a full clip each day; I was more like his half-clip sidekick.

We fed on each other – flexed back and forth, attached by a common joint. When he was frustrated, I moved mountains to fix things. And when I got to that point and it was written all over my face, he made a gentle gesture to let me know that everything was fine. We never got used to “good”. We much preferred the excellent.

“Hello!” Donna said back then when she walked into the kitchen, greeting us each day as she tackled the kitchen floors in her signature high heels. She walked to the kitchen office where she put on her Plaza Hotel slippers and her husband’s old Italian buttonhole to go bake cakes in the pastry kitchen.

She’s sitting in her chair now. She brings donuts from the kitchen on Fridays.

I order two doppios every time I miss Tony – which has been a lot lately. Doppios because most places can’t shoot a ristretto, which was his favorite. I write a “T” on his and recite the end of my favorite of his greetings, Crepi il Lupo, Signore. I promise never to take this beautiful gift for granted.

As he kept telling us: You’re only as good as your last meal. He felt the significance of that phrase more than anyone, because it was he who constructed Tony’s iconic sense of place, the experience that cannot be replicated.

Tony may be gone but he’s still whispering to all of us, especially Donna: No, yes, make that plate warmer, you’re doing just fine, I’m proud of you.

Kate McLean is the former executive chef of Tony’s, who is now back. In the years since her last stint at the famed restaurant, she has been a freelance podcaster and writer.

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