The luminaries we lost

The restaurant industry will be poorer in 2020 because of the talents and characters who died in 2019. Here are some of the standouts who were lost.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Karen Barker, convention-smashing pastry chef of Magnolia Grill

Durham, N.C., was long viewed as a backwater restaurant town that New Yorkers and Los Angelinos were glad to fly over. Then word started spreading about an independent there called Magnolia Grill, a hot spot run by the husband and wife team of Ben and Karen Barker. They helped to put the city on the culinary map, especially after Karen bested a host of national luminaries to win the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2003. We were talking about Durham, right? 

Barker brought a whimsy and audacity to Magnolia Grill’s dessert menu. One of her signatures: Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Blackout Cake, a rich version inspired by the ultra-rich chocoholic’s delight she’d eaten while growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. A former underling recalled that Magnolia cycled through more than 30 types of cookies. Ben Barker nicknamed his wife The Noodge because she was always pushing the staff to experiment and think beyond convention.

She was also the founding pastry chef of Pizzeria Mercato, in Carrboro, N.C. The place was opened by her and Ben’s son, Gabe. 

Karen Barker died at age 61 of cancer. 

Joe Bartolotta, Milwaukee’s celebrated dining host 

When Milwaukee residents want a special night on the town, chances are they’ll be eating in a restaurant operated by The Bartolotta Restaurants, the multiconcept operation started by Joe and his younger brother Paul. Among the city’s gems are Harbor House, a white-tablecloth place with a spectacular lake view, and Bacchus, an upscale indulgence. More recently, the siblings shifted down market with casual concepts such as The Rumpus Room and Pizzeria Piccola. Paul oversaw the kitchen, while the dining room was Joe’s bastion. The latter was a protege of famed New York City restaurateur Tony May, and acquaintances said he’d learned to match his mentor’s charm. When Joe Bartolotta died unexpectedly at age 60, the group he co-founded assured staff and customers that its namesake had passed away with a smile on his face.

Peter Berlinski, WFF co-founder, longtime RB editor

While editing Restaurant Business in the late 1980s, Berlinski had an unusual idea for a cover story: Why not bring virtually all the industry’s top female executives together for a confab on why their ranks were so thin? The 14 participants found the freewheeling 1989 get-together so invigorating that they decided to start meeting regularly. Their group would be named the Women’s Foodservice Forum (WFF), and Berlinski would be hailed as the original righteous brother, as male supporters of the organization are called today. The WFF would become one of the industry’s largest trade associations. Today, a group that started with a 14-person confab regularly draws 3,000 attendees to its conventions. 

Berlinski would leave RB not long afterward to pursue a career as a freelance journalist. His focus shifted from restaurants to private labeling, but the WFF did not forget Berlinski’s foundational role. The group called him back onstage for one of its milestone anniversaries, reuniting the righteous brother with the association’s original members. 

By the time of his death at age 72 from undisclosed causes, Berlinski had retired.

Curtis Blake, the disruptor behind Friendly’s 

In 1935, near the height of the Great Depression, Blake and his older brother Prestley decided to challenge drugstore soda fountains’ dominance of what we know today as the treats market. The apothecary shops typically charged a dime for their cones. The Blakes cheekily offered nickel scoops at the parlor they opened in Springfield, Mass. They called it Friendly Ice Cream, a suggestion that customers could expect warmer service than what they’d get from druggists. Day One’s receipts: $27.60. That was enough to prompt the brothers to open more stores. They grew the chain to 500 locations before selling it to Hershey in 1979 for $164 million. Afterward, the Blake brothers would occasionally snag the limelight for criticizing some public figure or business—including subsequent owners of their brainchild, which is known today as Friendly’s. Curtis died at age 102 of unspecified causes. Prestley is still alive at age 104.

Leah Chase, New Orleans’ quiet fighter for equality

After Hurricane Katrina left New Orleans in ruins, locals cursed President George W. Bush for not reacting faster and more forcefully. Instead of chiming in, Chase invited the leader of the free world to dinner. She explained that vilifying the chief executive wasn’t going to help the city. Enticing him to visit for some of her famous crab soup would ensure Bush saw firsthand how the African-American community of Treme had been devastated.

It was classic Chase. Some advocates of racial equality used demonstrations and marches to muster support for their cause. Chase relied on smarts, determination and world-famous Creole cooking. Born into a family of 10 to 13 children—the records are sketchy—amid the Jim Crow era, she refused to let race or gender hold her back. African-Americans weren’t welcome at many of New Orleans’ celebrated restaurants. Chase slipped in through the back door, landing a job at age 18 in one of the landmark establishments. She discovered a passion and aptitude for cooking. Taking what she’d learned from New Orleans’ white haunts, she and her jazz musician husband opened a sandwich shop called Dooky Chase to serve the black population of Treme. The menu would evolve into a selection of fine Creole cuisine, providing the community with a dining spot that could go okra to okra with any of the city’s famed white establishments. 

Dooky Chase became a point of pride for its community and host city, along with a powerful force for change. When white college students came south in the mid-1960s to register voters and push for civil rights, Chase didn’t hesitate to feed them. Local authorities objected to the visits but didn’t dare interfere with the business because of the backlash it would evoke.

Chase died at age 96 in the heart of her community. Today, her chef’s whites are featured in Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

Lina Fat, Sacramento’s restaurant grande dame

Fat’s culinary career did not start well. As a young woman who’d migrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong, she couldn’t cook rice without burning it. She also showed little aptitude for the teamwork a smooth-running restaurant requires. Her first job was working as the receptionist of her husband’s dental practice. Fat quit after two months because her boss and husband, Frank Fat, thought he could give her orders.

That independent thinking proved to be a huge business asset to Lina. Frank and his family had decided to give the restaurant business a try. They came up with a concept called China Camp, themed after the mining camps that Asian immigrants had manned during California’s various gold rushes. They wanted to feature familiar Chinese fare. Lina Fat argued that grilled meats would be more consistent with the theme and would give the place a marketable distinction. Fine, the rest of the clan said. Then you do the cooking.

Thus was created one of Sacramento’s most influential and successful chef-proprietors. The Fat family would parlay China Camp into the Fat Family Restaurant Group, with Lina Fat as executive corporate chef. The multiconcept operation remains one of Sacramento’s most respected and popular operations.

Fat proved as adept with a P&L as she was with grilling tongs. The local Chamber of Commerce named her Businesswoman of the Year in 2000. 

She died from heart failure in late November at age 81.

Paul Flanders, the rocker-turned-CFO for Carrols Corp. 

Financial types aren’t known for their rock-and-roll mindset.  A point of pride for Flanders was being an original member of Nik and the Nice Guys, the ensemble that claims to be North America’s No. 1 party band. That’s not the only way he blurred the stereotype. Seasoned restaurant CFOs are often heavily recruited because of their specialized experience. Flanders, despite his sterling professional reputation, spent 22 years with Carrols, helping to grow the onetime sister of Tastee Freez into Burger King’s largest franchisee. Carrols is unique not only for its size—more than 1,000 BK and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen units generating sales in excess of $1 billion annually—but also for being publicly owned. That status carries its own challenges for a CFO. “He will be sorely missed by us all,” Carrols CEO Dan Accordino said of Flanders, who was 62 at the time of his death.

Bob Kinkead, godfather of D.C.’s fine-dining scene

The newcomers who’ve transformed Washington, D.C., into one of the nation’s most celebrated dining destinations may not have had the heady experience of knowing Bob Kinkead, whose influential Kinkead’s closed in 2013. But they’re likely benefitting from the upheaval he helped to foster, in part by proving that stodgy Washingtonians would welcome an alternative to classic French and Italian options. His American brasserie, as he called it, enticed the city’s deep-pocketed politicians, lobbyists and diplomats to forgo the clubby charm of Old Ebbitt Grill or The Occidental for the fresh experience of a potato-crusted grouper or the other seafood riffs he’d brought with him from New England. He also was a formative influence on many of the city’s modern culinary stars, from Ris Lacoste to Tracy O’Grady, David Collier and Logan Cox. He died in mid-December at age 67 from undisclosed causes after a lifetime of dealing with diabetes and other health issues.

Fred Malek, a builder of Marriott’s restaurant empire

Service was part of Malek’s DNA, be it for his nation (he held several high-level White House posts after serving in the military) or for the thousands of consumers who treated themselves to a meal at one of Marriott Corp.’s restaurants before the lodging giant decided to concentrate on hotels. He joined the corporation in 1975, when its holdings included Roy Rogers, Big Boy, HMS Host and Marriott Food Services. He would quickly rise to president of Marriott Hotels. He left 13 years later to head the Republican National Convention of 1988, where George H.W. Bush became the party’s presidential nominee. Malek would head Bush’s unsuccessful run for a second term four years later. All told, he would work for four U.S. presidents. 

He also had a successful career in the finance business. Before much of the industry had even heard of a private-equity firm, Malek was helping one of the biggest, The Carlyle Group, gain a foothold in the foodservice business through the purchase of Chi-Chi’s.

More recently, he played a role in relocating the Montreal Expos baseball team to Washington, D.C., where they became the Nationals. This year, the team won the MLB championship by beating the Houston Astros in the World Series.

Malek died in March of undisclosed causes at age 82.

Gino Marchetti, NFL Hall of Famer-turned-fast-food pioneer

Regarded by many as the best defensive end ever to play professional football, Marchetti would find stardom again in his second career as restaurateur: the Gino of Gino’s Hamburgers, one of fast-food’s early powerhouse brands. While still playing for the Baltimore Colts, he and teammate Alan Ameche decided to give the restaurant business a try. He would plunge into Gino’s day-to-day operations after retiring from the NFL—still with the Colts—in 1964.

Marchetti and his partners parlayed the burger concept into a 359-unit chain known as a place where working-class families could get an affordable meal. Burgers were priced at 10 cents, and shakes cost 20 cents. Gino’s played to its customers’ value orientations with innovations such as Meal for Five, a bundled family meal priced at $1.75. Two decades would pass before bundled meals would become ever-present in the burger segment. 

The chain’s signature was the Gino Giant, a premium burger that predated the Big Mac, Jumbo Jack and the quick-service sector’s slew of other oversized sandwiches.

Marchetti’s group eventually sold Gino’s to Marriott Corp., which converted the restaurants to its Roy Rogers quick-service brand. He would remain a celebrity in Baltimore until his death at age 93 from pneumonia. The lore holds that Marchetti could enter any restaurant and bar in the city and never have to pay for anything.

Harry Morton, scion of the Morton’s restaurant family

The world knew Morton, 38 at the time of his death, as the high-profile former boyfriend of Lindsay Lohan. Many in the restaurant industry knew him either as Arnie Morton’s grandson or Peter Morton’s son, depending on their vintage. Arnie was the founder of Morton’s The Steakhouse, a co-founder of Chicago’s Playboy Club and one of the industry’s best-known figures of the 1970s and ’80s. Peter Morton would earn his own fame as founder of Hard Rock Cafe. 

Harry Morton would continue the family tradition by launching a full-service Mexican concept called Pink Taco. The venture emphasized tequila and other libations as much as its food. Because of Morton’s connections and frequent appearances on tattler-style websites like TMZ, the Las Vegas and Los Angeles outposts became known as celebrity hangouts, a reputation not wholly earned, but definitely a factor in the restaurants’ success. They may have also benefitted from controversy over the venture’s name, a slang term for female genitalia. 

Morton was found dead in his Beverly Hills home in late November. Because of his age and lifestyle, suspicions were aroused, but the Morton family subsequently revealed that he’d been suffering from a heart ailment and likely died from a coronary attack. 

Molly O’Neill, a restaurant critic who bit some hands

Before there was a Yelp or TripAdvisor, consumers would rely on professional restaurant reviews for guidance on where to eat. Among the most powerful of those influencers in the 1980s was O’Neill. She not only focused on the restaurants of New York City—then, as now, an incubator of new and noteworthy options—but also penned her opinions for the powerful New York Times. Yet her perch only partially explains why O’Neill was such an influential voice. A restaurant’s reputation and history meant less to her than the experience it provided at that point in time. She didn’t hesitate to downgrade places that were riding on past acclaim. Alan Stillman, proprietor of famed steakhouse Smith & Wollensky, once took out a full-page ad in O’Neill’s paper to suggest it not bite the hands of the restaurateurs who were feeding the Times so much advertising revenue. O’Neill also rocked readers’ sensibilities with her firebomb observations. Four decades ago, she triggered considerable controversy by declaring that salsa had supplanted ketchup as the all-American condiment. 

After leaving the Times, O’Neill wrote books and taught writing. She was diagnosed with cancer several years ago and had her savings wiped out by a liver transplant. O’Neill was 66 when she was overwhelmed by related health problems

Louis Osteen, apostle for low country cuisine

Today, any list of top restaurant cities would have to include Charleston, S.C. The city should show its gratitude by erecting a plaque honoring Louis Osteen, one of the chefs who earned it that renown. In the 1980s, he was part of a local culinary mafia that showed there’s more to Southern cuisine than hush puppies, grits and meat-and-three platters. His restaurants ranged from the upscale Louis’s Charleston Grill to the grittier Fish Camp Bar in nearby Pawleys Island. Osteen died at age 77 from complications of liver cancer.

Gary “Gaz” Regan, a champion of mixology

Bartenders often march to their own drummer. Regan apparently chose Keith Moon to set the tempo of his life. He would become a leading proponent of high-craft mixology, from both sides of the bar. His foundational theory was that a bartender’s connection with customers was as important as what he poured into a patron’s glass. Regan would wear eyeliner, just on one lid, to remind drink makers to make eye contact with a patron. And that wasn’t even the most striking thing about his appearance. With his long beard and hair, barely contained under an Andy Capp-style coachman’s cap, he could have passed as an honorary member of ZZ Top, though he toned things down after a career-threatening bout with tongue cancer in 2003. He attributed the affliction to a youth of smoking and drinking. Gaz, as he referred to himself, brought a scholar’s knowledge and a rocker’s passion to the cocktail craft through his books, columns and appearances. He died at age 68 from pneumonia. 

Carl Ruiz, media star and celebrated Cuban chef

It was unclear where the colorful Cuban chef shone brightest, on the air or in the kitchen. He drew a huge following with his Sirius XM Radio program and frequent appearances on the Food Network. But he never completely shed his chef’s whites for the broadcast booth. His most recent restaurant, La Cubana in New York City, celebrated the cuisine, cocktails and culture of Cuba. He proved as adept with a knife and fork as he was with whisk and spatula; fans recall his rapturous accounts of trying all sorts of foods, from the latest fast-food LTO to a knockout fine-dining meal. He died at age 44 of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.

Joe Tortorice, founder and longtime compass for Jason’s Deli

Relying on the little they’d learned from their parents’ mixed entrepreneurial experiences, Tortorice and three acquaintances opened the first Jason’s in oil-rich Beaumont, Texas, in 1976. The prototype remains in business today, along with about 280 additional restaurants, all named in honor of Tortorice’s son (Jason’s is an amalgamation of the boy’s name, Jay, and “son”). The elder Tortorice would remain active in the business until his death at age 70 from cancer. His focus was on managing the business dynamics of the operation; partners and associates were responsible for the menu, operations and site selection. Along the way, Tortorice infused the organization with the philosophy of servant leadership, or giving back to customers and employees while generating a profit for stakeholders. 

"Tortorice was best known for his kindness, empathy and humility—a testament to the way he lived his life as a servant leader and his dedication to improving the lives of others," Jason's Deli said at the time of its longtime leader’s death

Andrea Zamperoni, the misfortunate chef of Cipriani Dolci 

As chef of an Italian restaurant tucked inside Manhattan’s Grand Central Station, Zamperoni fed thousands of New Yorkers. Yet many would not learn his name until they tuned in to the news and learned the 33-year-old talent had been found dead in a Queens motel, apparently the victim of a botched robbery attempt. Authorities said Zamperoni had been given fentanyl by a woman who assured him it was ecstasy. Accomplices were standing by to rob the chef when the drug took effect. But the dosage proved lethal. 

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