Windows of the World was an iconic restaurant of New York, known as the most profitable restaurant in the USA. For anyone interested in food and restaurant history “Windows”—as it was called by those who worked there—is an incredible case study. Raúl Ortega Ayala’s selection of the image of a buffet served at the restaurant is a beautiful invitation to dive into a piece of American food history that is hardly ever told.
I started my research into the dishes that appear in the photograph by reviewing archives of menus found online, mainly in auction houses. I then made a list of the dishes I recognized and looked for the common threads that repeated between those recipes. There were many visual cues in the image of the buffet that suggested it was from the 1980’s, so I began researching publications by iconic the American food authors of the time for recipe inspiration, including Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, James Beard, and Julia Child. Though a ten year span is a considerable amount of time and looking to recipes from Berkeley, California when re-creating a New York City restaurant’s dishes may seem sacrilegious to food historians, I felt it was important to realize dishes that would be palatable to today’s tastes, while also staying honest to the aesthetic and techniques of that era.
The world is still in many ways digesting the events of September 11, 2001, 16 years later. In the spirit of Ortega Ayala’s piece, I updated the recipes to reflect other horrors that the world is digesting today by adding Aleppo peppers. These peppers are disappearing, a direct and concrete result of the ongoing conflict in Syria which is preventing their cultivation.
The beauty about food is the simplicity with which it communicates. My research is inspired as much by flavor and technique, as it is by the stories of the people participating in the food chain. Woven into the dishes I prepared and presented for Melting Pots (a fiction based on facts) is the story of Fekkak Mamdouh, a 45-year-old Moroccan man who was a headwaiter and beloved union leader at Windows on the World. Mamdouh coauthored The Accidental American and was one of the founders of Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) that was established to provide support for the displaced workers, including undocumented immigrants, who survived 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.
The personal accounts of the people who were part of the Windows family are for me the most moving part of this project. My research as a food historian and chef is motivated by my desire to preserve and share the stories of the people of who lived them through the most accurate historical recreation of their recipes possible.