Four years ago tomorrow I woke up to terrible news. An airplane had crashed into the twin towers. It looked completely unfeasible and I left my girlfriend's house confused. When I got home I watched the news over and over like the day the Space Shuttle exploded but I still could not figure it out.
The next day I went to work knowing that I would not be able to reach my family living in lower Manhattan for some time to come. Having lived in London during the 1989 Northern California earthquake I knew that NY would shut down all outside lines to make room for emergency communication.
In 1996 I worked with Martin Howard and Waldy Malouf at The Hudson River Club in the twin towers. I knew that geography well. My education having been NYC public schools, many school trips were made to the roof and up the jet powered elevators of the those too high buildings often.
In the late afternoon of September 12 vague terrible information crept up into my numb consciousness. Heather Ho was the pastry chef of Windows On The World. Was this right? I asked Elizabeth (Falkner. I was working at Citizen Cake at the time.) She wasn't sure.
About ten days later my uncle called me to say that my father and stepmother were ok. I called and asked my dad to please walk over to Gramercy Tavern to speak with Claudia Fleming. I worked with Heather at GT and I knew that having just returned to NY Claudia might know where she was working.
A few days later my father called the internal phone line at CC crying. At the end of September I received in the mail the NY Times page showing the names and photos of those missing and dead. A bright photograph of Heather and a little bit about her graced the page.
When my mother read the news she called me and through tears said, "That could have been you. You and she shared such a similar trajectory."
Heather Ho was a piece of work. She was loud and spoke her thoughts without a care for how they might land. She knew that to be in this business you had to have shark's skin and if she offended she looked at the hurt person and said things like, "O come on!" Once at the bar across the street she told me that she was cooking just because. Because she didn't know what else to do. But she had a touch. She got pesky recipes to work that no one else could. And she couldn't explain what she had done! She moved like lighting. Whipped runners, captains, floor managers and back waiters into submission. And then she would slap them on the back in the sweaty defeated red locker rooms like we were all just in basic training together and wasn't it fun?
I will never forget my first week at Gramercy. Heather and Gina De Palma, (now the pastry chef at Babbo), flanked me as I leaned down into the i.c. drawers, learning how to quenelle by fire, screaming "FASTER! FASTER!" One night when I was training with Heather alone we had over 20 tickets on our board that were modified with a red "NOW" and after spinning like the Tasmanian Devil she looked dead at me and said, Where are we?!!!" Defeated, I replied pathetically, "I don't know." And then she kicked into overdrive and showed me how it was done.
We kept in touch and I ate her desserts at every restaurant she went. I ate her perfect lemon ice box cake a dozen times and was the happiest person alive the day Food & Wine printed her banana caramel bread pudding. Having grown up in Hawaii she had a sweet American palate. In her personality she carried a secret pocket of fierce quiet conviction and gave me supportive but unapologetic well chosen words when they were absolutely necessary.
When I learned that her death was definite I had trouble mourning her. I could see her and hear what she would have said. Sappy she wasn't. Nor would she stand for such ridiculousness.
In early October I traveled to NYC for a pre-planned Lydon family reunion. I did something else. I called Gina and Claudia and I told them what I had not the time to say to Heather. I thanked them for helping to shape who I was striving to be as a pastry chef. I thanked them for pushing me so hard (that kitchen was loud and brutal at times) and told them that GT had been a real turning point in my career. We told Heather stories and remembered her in the way that she would have been happy to have been a part of. We talked shit and we told it like it was.