From 9/11 ruins, a restaurant's new spirit
NEW YORK — The spring rolls are made with Maine lobster and minted sweet potatoes. But there was another ingredient central to their preparation: tears - of grief, perseverance, and finally relief.
They trickled down Antonine Lindor's cheeks one afternoon this week before the tasty appetizer was served to a select few diners at Colors restaurant.
This new upscale eatery is a dream come true of the surviving staff of the renowned Windows on the World, the restaurant that once commanded a view of all New York before it was destroyed on 9/11. And Ms. Lindor, a single mother who works as a cleaner here just as she did at Windows, is filled with emotions as tender and complex as the flavors on the plates she helps clear away and wash. That's in part because she and the other 50 or so staff also own this elegant place.
"I never thought that what happened would ever have happened," she says of the restaurant's opening, her English halting with a gentle Creole lilt. "But God let this happen, which is why I now feel so very happy."
From the grief and fear that rose with the smoke from the rubble of the World Trade Center, the surviving Windows workers decided to build a better future. Seventy-three of their co-workers were killed. And the 350 that survived all lost their secure, good-paying union jobs. With the economy also in disarray, more than half were still unemployed more than a year after the attacks. Many found solace, and one another, at the Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC-NY), which was set up by a local union and foundations to help unemployed restaurant workers in the aftermath of the attacks.
There, former Windows workers like Lindor began to meet twice a week. It was like a family reunion and support group mixed into one. As they talked about the difficulty of finding a job, let alone one where they could make a decent wage and get a bit of respect, the idea of starting a worker-owned cooperative began to take shape. Such cooperatives are common in Italy and other European countries.
Lindor was working part time as a home health aide and house cleaner but still wasn't making enough to support her two boys. Her phone was even cut off. She thought the cooperative was a great idea, but not very realistic. Her opinion began to change, however, as she watched about 40 Windows workers start a catering business. She kept contact with them, but they didn't yet have a job for her.
By the summer of 2003, with the help of the ROC-NY and a $500,000 grant from an Italian food cooperative, the Windows workers dedicated themselves to creating their ideal restaurant. After more than two years of work, Colors was set to finally, formally open Thursday night. It is both a tribute to their 73 co-workers who were killed and an experiment designed to provide a model of elegance and equanimity. The workers are determined to earn a star or two for their service and cutting-edge international menu, which is inspired by favorite family recipes from the workers, who come from more than 22 countries (thus the name Colors and the massive map of the world that dominates the long, mahogany-lined dining room).
The kitchen and work areas are also ergonomically designed to protect the sous-chefs, runners, and dishwashers from the burns and injuries common in the high-pressure world of first-class kitchens. And the day-to-day operations are managed in a way that everyone has a say - from Lindor, whose job is to dust, scrub, and clean without being seen (if at all possible), to chef Raymond Mohan, who's charged with turning the employees' family fare into haute cuisine.
"It's a very idealistic thing we're doing. If we accomplish half of the goals we've set out for ourselves, I'll be happy," says Stefan Malivaganam, Colors general manager. "I want to set the expectations at a level we can accomplish."
Less than 48 hours before the formal opening, Mr. Malivaganam is worried about accomplishing some simple but vital things, such as making sure the half-constructed bar is completed, the wet-paint signs are down, and the piece of paper with "LADIES" taped to the restroom door is replaced with proper brass letters. Then of course, there's the challenge of getting the service just right, which was fine-tuned after every meal during this test-run week in advance of the formal opening.
"Remember, all appetizers should be cleared at the same time, all main courses should be cleared at the same time, but don't pick anything up until everyone is ready - except dessert, of course," headwaiter Magdi Labib instructs the staff in a predinner meeting. That is followed by a spirited discussion about whether the linen-clothed tables should be set with a full silver setting - salad fork, dinner fork, knife, teaspoon, and soup spoon - or simply the fork, knife, and teaspoon, with the other utensils brought as needed.
"Everybody's coming with their own ideas, so there are a couple of rough spots that still need to get sanded out," says Eric Nusbaum, a restaurant consultant who's offered his services at about a third of his normal rate. "But in the long run, that will actually be better and more positive because it will keep people active and more interested."
It is that determination that workers have a hand in ensuring the place runs smoothly that prompted Julee Resendez to come here as beverage director. She is one of about a dozen employee-owners who didn't work at Windows but at other elite, and often high-pressure, restaurants around the city.
"When I came for an interview, it was like they were speaking to my heart about all of the things that I wanted in a place to work," she says. "I felt like it was a big healing for myself."
But in the first few days of operation, it's also become clear that changing traditional employment rules and roles may be the biggest challenge of all.
"We had our first meeting yesterday since we opened, and there's going to be some growing pains. There's no doubt about it," says Malivaganam, the general manager. "It's about how you speak to people. It's not just about the message, it's about how the message is conveyed. And it's very, very important to have respect and consensus instead of a dictatorial approach."
Lindor smiles, shyly, and shakes her head when asked about her own ownership stake and ideas for the place. Like some others here, this is the first full-time job she's had since the attacks, and she's just grateful to be back among her Windows colleagues.
"Every day I thank God I survived 9/11, and every day I thank God that I am here," she says. "I'm very excited about everyone working together again, like a family."