Searching for Leo Burke: My Sundays in a Jewish Kitchen

When I was very young, my parents lived in a modest, one-bedroom apartment in Vegas.  I have grainy images in my head of a crib, a black and white TV and faded curtains blowing in the desert breeze.

The property managers of the complex were an older Jewish couple named Rose and Leo.  My dad, from time to time would give Leo a hand around the property in exchange for some help with the rent.

At some point, perhaps while painting over graffiti or replacing a sink, Leo inquired of my Dad as to why there was never any family around to visit us. Unlike our neighbors, we never had older, familiar beings dropping in on Sundays to share a meal.  Truth was, my parents kept us away from extended family. They had not had great childhoods, and didn’t want to expose us to what they felt were not good people. So it was just the 4 of us:  Mom, Dad, little brother Mark and me.  No grandparents, aunts or uncles around.

“Why don’t you let Rose and I be the kid’s grandparents?”, Leo offered.  My Dad thought about it and agreed.  Multi-generational influences was something my parents wanted for us…just not from their sides of the family.

So, every Sunday became the day that we would go to the Burke’s. Even after moving out of the apartment and into our home across town, we would venture over for breakfast with our adopted grandma and grandpa.

Instead of eating fluffy pancakes made with cheap Bisquick like Mom would make, we had crispy latkes: fried potato thins topped with applesauce or sour cream.

In place of breakfast sausages there was lox: cold smoked salmon served with capers.

A bowl of tzimmes:  chopped fruits and vegetables simmered with nutmeg and a little sugar.  Instead of hash browns, there was kugel, a baked potato and egg noodle casserole.

Muffins were replaced with apfelstrudel: warm pastry dough wrapped around a filling of apples, cinnamon and raisins.  Babka bread or challah with honey.  Rose would pour orange juice in a blender for 20 seconds to froth it up for us kids.

When I turned 13, Leo would no longer hug me, preferring instead to shake my hand.  You’re a man now David, he said, and while a bar mitzvah, seder meal or Hebrew school was not in my future, he wanted me to know that I was an adopted part of his tribe.

As we grew older, the visits to their house slowed in their frequency.  Teenage friends and desires took the place of my grandparents, which I’m sure happens to most at that age. Rose and Leo passed away not long after college ended for me and I moved away.

My last image of Rose is of her in a housecoat sitting in an armchair in her living room, laughing out loud.  She also make a blanket for me by hand with this label attached.  I still have the blanket to this day:


I wish I would have spent more time with them in later years.  I could use a hug from Rose, a smile from Leo and to steal a homemade raspberry linzer cookie.


PS:  Here’s a link to a great latke recipe


And On The Seventh Day…

Ah yes.  Sundays in the restaurant biz.  Not for the faint of heart.

Murphy’s classic axiom modified for This Restaurant Life states that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong….on a Sunday in any restaurant in America.  Some of the roughest shifts I’ve had have been on Sundays and for good reason.

First, the staff you encounter on Sundays in any restaurant are often the least experienced on the team.  You must understand that all of the veterans have paid their dues, and are off brunching, lunching and counting all of the money they made Friday and Saturday nights. The Sunday crew DOES NOT want to be there watching the “straights” (i.e. non-restaurant folks) come in, fresh from the beach, laughing and ordering bottomless Mimosas while they themselves are hung over from a night of drinking.

Next, a lot of the guests don’t even want to be there.  Dad would rather be home on his recliner watching football and Grandpa is falling asleep at the table.  The kids pull and chafe at their “church clothes” and can’t sit still while the only one that wants to be there is dear old Mom, who frantically put this event together…hopeful to make a memory before the kids start throwing chicken strips at each other.

Sunday is also the day you will run out of stuff, and surely just the stuff that the guest wants the most.  Haven’t sold a slice of cheesecake in a week?  I guarantee on a Sunday you will run out and for some reason…that very day…everyone and their mother wants cheesecake.  Never fails.

Of course, everyone’s Grandmother gets either sick or dies on a Sunday.  The highest incidents of sick day call outs are overwhelmingly on Sundays, and they almost always involve some fabrication of pain and suffering on behalf of a family member.

We did have one young server recently who, having come into good fortune with last minute tickets for a local music festival, decided to call us and say that her grandmother has fallen ill and that she needed the day off to tend to her. Unfortunately for her, some of her teammates saw her frenzied and drunken postings from the event on Facebook and said something to one of the managers.  She was fired the following day.  Hell hath no fury than someone who had to stay late on a Sunday due to someone else calling out for their shift to go party.

If I owned a restaurant, it would definitely be closed on Sundays. Maybe some of us would get together for softball and a BBQ. Others could spend a solid day with their families or friends. Hopefully my business plan would allow such a thing.

I alluded to Murphy’s Law earlier, so let me tell you a story about My Worst Shift Ever.

It was Easter Sunday in Tulsa, OK.  I was the GM of a little place on the outskirts of town called The OuterUrban, a 150-seat suburban diner serving that ubiquitous fare known as American Mixed Grill.  For those not in the life, this is what we call the “catch-all” menu offerings of your local Chili’s, TGI Fridays, Cheesecake Factory,  In other words, not a lot of one type of cuisine, but a variety of foods thrown onto the menu in some inspired culinary “mash-up”:  a few burgers, some pastas, some salads, a plate of ribs and surely a chicken sandwich.

Something for everyone.

The reservation book was packed for Easter Sunday and this was to be the true first test of our little bistro. I arrived early that morning to make sure we were prepared for the crush of business that was sure to come after church let out.

Around 11:30am, we saw through the bay windows the first cars pulling in and emptying their contents of families, dressed to the nines and ready for a great meal.  We were ready.  Soon, the restaurant was full of guests, talking loudly and happily with family and friends.  The staff was hummingly along:  kitchen guys keeping up nicely while the service staff was chatting up regulars and new guests.

As I walked around the small dining room, shaking hands and kissing babies, I noticed a slight fog coming from between the two entry doors to the kitchen. Not to worry, I thought.  I figured the broiler/grill station was impacted with steaks and burgers and throwing off a little more grease than usual due to how busy we were.

As I continued to move about the space, jumping in to the bar to pour mimosas and Bloody Marys, I was concerned to see the haze in the dining room was increasing.  I ran back to the kitchen.

“What’s up in here?” I asked with no small amount of concern in my voice.

“I think the hood’s gone down, David!” replied Nate hysterically.

Ready to implode in 3…2…1…

In a commercial kitchen such as the one we had, there is a massive exhaust system that hangs over the grill, broiler and fryers in a way that sucks all of the heat and grease up and out of the top of the restaurant.  This exists not only to direct all of the grease that comes from cooking and frying 100’s of orders of food into a vent system that exhausts out of the top of the restaurant, but also to reduce the amount of heat present from so many cooking surfaces.  Without a vent system it would be almost impossible to work for any length of time in a busy kitchen.  Trust me…I’ve been there.

So, without anything to suck the greasy air out of the kitchen, it has to go somewhere.  And that somewhere was the dining room of The OuterUrban.

Soon, a haze started to settle above the tables.  You could see diners glancing towards the kitchen as a fresh cloud of greasy air would waft towards them every time a server pushed out of the exit doors with their orders.  Concerned looks soon took over as I stood by the bar, uncertain what to do; opening the back door of the kitchen wasn’t having the effect we thought it would. One guest, however, was absolutely certain what to do and that was to get in my face.

“What the hell is going on?!”  I didn’t want to remind him that he just left church service an hour prior…

“Sir, I’m not sure but I think there is something wrong with our kitchen exhaust system…”

“Do you realize you have people sitting here in their Easter clothes, all dressed up and this….this…mess is coming out of the kitchen getting all over them?!?”.

I do.

And I’m sorry.

In the end we had to buy a bunch of meals and say a bunch of sorrys.  We closed the OuterUrban for the rest of the day while we searched for someone to repair the vent hood.  On Easter Sunday. How many service guys do you think were available on Easter Sunday??

On the plus side, Sunday offers SIN or “Service Industry Nights” at most local watering holes.  Deep discounts on booze, maybe some free apps and the promise of big tips from fellow lifers to those unlucky enough to have to work that night.  Not to mention flirting with staff from other restaurants and commiserating over the insanity that we are all a part of.  I have fond Sunday night memories of a local dive in Tulsa called The Bull and Bear, a little place that we would take over until last call, snow racing by the windows while inside we would warm ourselves with shots of Rumpleminze and mugs of hot chocolate.  I guess there were worse ways to get over the craziness of working Sundays.