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NY Chefs Cooked Up Good Will

In the days and weeks following Sept.11, New York's restaurant community rushed to Ground zero to work side by side with rescue workers.

Bobby Flay, resident chef on The Early Show, was among the city's many chefs who participated in the effort, which continues today with fund raising for families of restaurant workers killed in the attack.

"I was getting ready to go to work and I got a call from my assistant. He said, 'We ot a problem.' I said, 'What's the problem?' He said, 'Turn on the television.' I said, 'What channel?'. And he said, 'It doesn't matter.' I was numb," says Tom Valenti of Ouest.

Others shared that feeloing: "The enormity of the event," says Bill Yossis of Citarella. "I didn't know what to think. It was so sad and devastating,"

And soon, some began to look to help. "First, though, was total disbelief…First thought as a chef, call and see what I could do," says Joseph Fortunado of The Tonic.

Mnay ended up helping by doing what they do best - cooking. "We don't know how to save people. We don't know how to put out fires. We know how to feed people. So the plan of attack was how do we feed people in the most efficient, most effective way," says Don Pintabona of Tribeca Grill.

"The first day was just mayhem," says Fortunado. "We're carrying milk carts."

"We started getting some sort of dollies or supermarket carts. Anything we could, to get the food down there," recalls Drew Nieporent of Tribeca Grill.

"Just getting the food and walking it to the site, it wasn't sanitary, it wasn't efficient and we were plagued with problems, says Pintabona. "It became evident real quick that this wasn't the solution."

Pintabona noticed that the boats in the Hudson River were getting a lot closer to ground zero than he could by foot. So he called Spirit Cruise Lines and the ship, the Spirit of New York, became a place where rescue workers knew they could come for a hot meal.

"In the first 24-hour period, we served close to 25,000 meals. In the three weeks that we ran it, we estimated that we fed 350,000 people who ate 500,00 meals of food," says Pintabona.

"You could tell by just handing them something to eat that they were really appreciative. We were no heroes; we were just the cheerleaders, just helping out these guys that were down there," says Fortunado.

If the restaurant community is like a family, Windows on the World executive chef Michael Lomonaco lost most of his family on Sept. 11.

Says Lomonaco, "Beyond feeding the rescue workers and make that happen, there was a part of the community who were calling saying,'those people who were working at Windows that morning were just like the people I work with. What can we do to help them?' Windows of Hope grew out of the need to help those of us who worked in the restaurant business."

The Windows Of Hope foundation of which Valenti is a founder has raised more than $19 million in the past year for 125 restaurant community families that were affected by the attacks on the World Trade Center.

"They are paying for my daughter's full tuition," says Windows of Hope recipient Eloisa Rodriguez.

Rodriguez's 4 year-old daughter, Genesis, begins pre-school this year. Windows of Hope will provide for her education through graduate school.

Her father, Azael Vasques was working as a cook on the 101st floor of Tower One.

"They are also helping me out. Even though we weren't married, they are helping me to go to school. They are paying for my tuition also," says Rodriguez.

"I'm very happy with what it's done for the families," says Lomonaco.

Nearly a year later, Lomonaco is running a new restaurant, Noche In Times Square.

"I wanted to work through and get this restaurant open. Contribute whatever I could to building this place really, in part as a tribute to my co-workers," says Lomonaco. "I wanted to see it through."

Sept. 11 is coming up. What are these restaurateurs going to be doing that day?

  • "I hope to spend some time with my wife, Diane," says Lomonaco. "I don't want to hide my head under a pillow. I want to be part of New York in that day."
  • "We would have closed out of respect for those who lost their lives, but I think symbolically we have to stay open. It's really important to stay open that day," says Nieporent of Tribeca Grill.
  • "Make it a family day and have dinner with a lot of new friends I met that day in the police department and fire department," says Pintabona.
  • "I think business as usual. Getting out of bed would be a good start. And where it takes me from there, we'll see," says Valenti.