The towers were there, shining. Growing up some 25 miles from New York City, I knew them as part of the landscape, two blocky, unimaginably tall sentries, two slabs flashing gold and bronze in the afternoon sun, ungainly anchors on the skyline. Every time we drove to the city, they were there, poised across the river.
And then, they were not there. I still remember that first reaction. They were so huge. How could they just be gone? In 2001, I’d been living in San Francisco for eleven years, getting back to New York once a year, if that, for business or family. On that day, I did what so many of us did: made panicked phone calls to everyone I knew back East, my mother who could have been in the city that morning, my brother-in-law who flew American every other week for work, my friends who lived downtown. I sat with my best friend, who lived in the same Valencia Street apartment building as I did, holding her young daughter on my lap. My friend held her 4-day-old son in her arms, and wondered what sort of a world she had brought him into. At Citysearch, where I’d just started as the restaurants editor a few days before, we sat numbly at our computers, wondering what we could possibly write about.
Windows on the World in the North Tower was gone. The longtime destination restaurant was famed for its views and its wine list, for being the place where, as former Gourmet editor and New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl wrote in New York magazine, New Yorkers who could handle the sky-high prices rode the elevator up to the 107th floor to order “like a Master of the Universe: oysters heaped with pearls of caviar, whole lobes of foie gras in Sauternes, burnished ducks and butter-braised lobsters.” During the 80s, my father frequently went there for wine tastings with some of the city’s best wine writers and sommeliers, coming home star-struck and high on Burgundy and Bordeaux.
When the tower went down, dozens of staff working the morning shift lost their lives, including Heather Ho, the restaurant’s new, and talented, 32-year-old pastry chef, a native of Hawaii who had been named a Chronicle Rising Star chef in 1999.
During my four-year stint as the restaurant critic for San Francisco magazine, I’d eaten her charming, witty versions of all-American desserts, like lemon icebox cake, while she was making a name for herself at Boulevard. The magazine named her the city’s best pastry chef in 2000. She’d left Boulevard at the end of May, 2001 to start her new job in New York. As Amy Machnak, who replaced Ho at Boulevard, told the LA Times a year later,
“My first day was her last day. She was testing recipes, playing around with a new dessert. I thought: ‘How strange that she is leaving and going to New York for this really great job, and she’s still testing recipes. But I look back at it now and I understand that she was just that creative. I don’t think her mind ever stopped.”
A month after the attacks, benefits at Boulevard and the now-closed Aqua (where Ho had also worked) raised over $40,000 for the newly created Heather Ho Memorial Scholarship at the Culinary Institute of America, where she had studied.
San Francisco’s chefs and restaurants weren’t right in the dust-choked disaster zone as their New York city counterparts were. They couldn’t struggle through blocked-off streets towards Ground Zero with pots of chili and hotel pans full of chicken to feed the firefighters, rescue workers, and volunteers working there day after day. But the restaurant industry is a tight-knit community. How many San Francisco chefs and line cooks, dishwashers, hosts, sommeliers and servers, had worked in New York City at some point in their careers, had friends and colleagues who were suddenly gone? Too many to count.
The flashy, crazy money of the first, late-90s dot-com boom–and the entitlement and ridiculous luxury that it precipitated– was already vanishing by the end of the summer of 2001. But things changed faster after that day in the September. Despite the excess that anyone who worked in a SoMa start-up at that time may remember (the Industry Standard’s weekly rooftop party, the splashy launch bashes, the sushi spreads and $1200 bottles of Screaming Eagle), it’s hard not to look back at those pre-9/11 years as having a certain innocence, a certain invincibility, however undeserved, that we shared with New York City during those boom years.
Now, when bad times hit, it’s the restaurants and chefs in the Bay Area who step up. Benefits held in San Francisco and beyond for victims of Katrina, of the tsunami, of the recent earthquake and subsequent devastation in Japan, and more have raised high-profile millions over the years. Smaller, more low-key but just as crucial fund-raisers happen every day, with chefs, food writers, bloggers, farmers, and restaurant owners spending their time and money to help out their communities. It’s easy to feel a little cynical about the sanctimonious patriotism and packaging of this 10-year anniversary of 9/11. But a few days ago, I went out to Crissy Field to celebrate the 10th birthday of that boy born just a few days before the towers came down. It’s his future we’re shaping now, his community we’re building. So today, on this day of remembrance, I’m going to cook and bring my chosen family here to eat together. And I’m going to thank everyone I know in the food industry, the most generous people I’ve ever met.