A Top Chef Returns to Tony’s Famed Kitchen, a Bittersweet Moment in the Absence of the Man Himself

A Top Chef Returns to Tony’s Famed Kitchen, a Bittersweet Moment in the Absence of the Man Himself

Kate McLean, Tony Vallone and Donna Vallone were judges at the Corks and Forks event in 2019.

SOME UNDERSTAND THE controlled chaos of a restaurant. Some are curious about what that life looks like — what it takes for a team to execute at a high level — and what it was like to work alongside and learn from one of the best restaurateurs of this era. Tony Vallone, who died a little more than a year ago, for whom I worked several years a while back.

Some haven’t spent time on the other side of the wall that separates a kitchen from a dining room. Haven’t been behind a bar or an apron or ever had a trash bag break open on you mid-swing.

Or maybe you have a little bit of experience — you remember applying and then that very same day getting called back for an interview and maybe even starting that night. Your first restaurant job could have also been your last restaurant job. Did you seek out the industry because you liked to eat or because you needed to eat?

It takes a few weeks to become acclimated to working 12-plus hours on your feet. But like a good masquerade ball, at the end of the night, inhibitions get thrown across the room, and — what’s this — through the beaded curtain into another room of the party we go. And you think, hey, I’m into this.

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

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

I want to rip around the corner and ask Butcher if the Halibut is here yet. I want Scott Banks to tell me the tale of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. I can’t wait to turn in inventory to Lauri. The people I worked alongside for nearly eight years — getting them back — my heart thumps at the thought of it.

Oh, and the lunch and dinner services — I want so bad to be back in the eye of the storm where I feel the most peaceful. I didn’t ever think I’d get those again! I didn’t dream it until I began to dream it.

We lost Tony on September 10, 2020, and those first weeks felt like laying in a sterile hospital room, the drip-drip of adrenaline, tired but unable to sleep. I’m not being dramatic, the reality of him not being with us anymore was the worst.

I never thought I wouldn’t be able to talk to him again. Kind of thought I’d go first — expire at the top of my game, dressed in a Brazilian, jumping off a cliff in Hawaii. Or maybe I was pushed! Yes. I would have been ready and waiting, eager to catch him on the other side. Tony would have arrived in the early afternoon, his leather jacket slung over his arm, the sky a light shade of rainbow sherbet.

I always wished I had better words for Donna. “It just sucks,” she laughs and says. “It really does. It just sucks.”

Donna runs Tony’s now. She is there every service, watching what goes out of the kitchen, touching every table, making the calls, just like he did. Having watched him do business and now watch her do business — I see the link, they are very much still linked. I trust her instincts as I did his. I have much to learn from her, too.

Her charisma, her resilience, yes, but what makes Tony’s so magical is the way Donna and Tony make you feel. Whether you’re a first-timer or have a standing Saturday night reservation.

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

It wasn’t the things Tony said that I learned from the most, though he taught me much with words. I watched him. He was cool in every situation, reacting just as easily as if he were walking from one room into the next. He gave me a safe space to grow, to always return to, no matter what was on my mind.

For Tony and team, we poured our lives into stacking a list and crossing it down just to build it back high again. We always looked for ways to be better. Business done at the table, whether we were dining out or on table 47, was conducted in a direct manner. Why would we bubble-wrap things? There just wasn’t time or energy. And he and I would go hard in the paint drinking those bitter Italian bullets. He enjoyed a full clip every day; I was more like his half-clip sidekick.

We fed off each other — flexed back and forth, attached by a common joint. When he was frustrated, I would move mountains to make it right. And when I was at that point and it was written all over my face, he would provide the gentle gesture to let me know that all was well. We just never became accustomed to “well.” We much preferred excellent.

“Hello!” Donna would say back then when she entered the kitchen, greeting us each day as she’d brave the kitchen floors in her signature high heels. She would walk to the kitchen office where she’d change into her Plaza Hotel slippers and her husband’s old Italian button up to go and bake cakes in the pastry kitchen.

She sits in his chair now. She brings the kitchen donuts on Fridays.

I order two doppios whenever I miss Tony — which has been a lot lately. Doppios because most places don’t know how to pull a ristretto, which was his favorite. I write a “T” on his and recite the end to my favorite of his salutes, Crepi il Lupo, Signore. I promise to never take this beautiful gift for granted.

As he would tell us over and over: You are only as good as your last meal. He felt the importance of that phrase more than anyone, because it was he who built the iconic sense of place that is Tony’s, the experience that can’t be duplicated.

Tony may be gone but he still whispers to all of us, especially Donna: No, yes, make that plate hotter, you’re doing great, I’m proud of you.

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

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