What’s a Nice Jewish Boy Like You Doing in the Kitchen?” by Clive Berkman”
My father was a straight-laced chemical engineer, my mother an actress. Their relationship was like vinaigrette. On the first night of their honeymoon, my mother cooked a rump roast, which she burnt to a crisp. My father glared at it and pronounced, Maureen, you’d better learn how to cook.”
She took his criticism as a challenge, and became one of the best cooks I’ve ever known. She started a catering business and taught cooking classes. As a young boy, I was fascinated by my mother’s cooking and would sit and watch her for hours, captivated by the aromas of the kitchen. Growing up in a South African Jewish home, I loved everything that had to do with food.
Our family was selectively kosher at home, and our Jewish roots and traditions were important to us. We celebrated the festivals, attended synagogue whenever we could, and I was bar mitzvah at thirteen.
I’m the oldest child in the family. Eight years after I was born, my brother Antony came along, and Patricia followed two years later. My father’s family emigrated from Germany; my mother’s ancestry is Lithuanian. My father’s mother was one of the strongest women I’ve ever known. When I was older, I realized that my father never felt that he could measure up to his mother’s expectations. As a result, he communicated the same unrealistic demands to my mother and us children.
My father was exceptionally bright. He expected me to be as good a student as he had been, and when my grades came in as C’s and D’s, he expressed his displeasure in no uncertain terms! My talents and personality reflect my mother’s flare for creativity rather than my father’s engineering skills.
The Surprise Chef
My father expected me to go to college and warned me that if I didn’t make good grades in high school, he would send me to the army. I couldn’t imagine he was serious, but after six months of pitifully low grades, I got home one day to find that my bag was packed and sitting in my father’s car. In the freezing cold of mid-winter, I “joined” the 4th South African Infantry in Middleburg.
I learned that I was one of seventeen Jewish young men in our company. The law required the army to provide a kosher chef for Jewish soldiers, but the captain couldn’t find one. I don’t know why, but I volunteered. Perhaps it was because the routine and drudgery of the army bored me to death.
The butcher for Middleburg was a rabbi. He brought meat every Friday morning and often stayed to talk with me about what it means to be Jewish. The rabbi and his wife invited all seventeen of us to town every Friday evening for Shabbat services at the synagogue and dinner at their house. For the rabbi, kosher cooking was an expression of God’s unique place and purpose for the Jewish people.
The Taste of a New Direction
Nine months as a chef in the army gave me confidence that I could make a living in the hotel and restaurant business. When I was mustered out of the army at the age of eighteen, I flew to London and enrolled in Cassio College.
I devoured every subject in hotel and restaurant management. To gain experience, I worked in little restaurants all over London. The owners paid me next to nothing, but the experience was incredibly valuable. During a break after my first year in school, I traveled to Germany and France to visit the vineyards. Walking in the vineyards that summer, watching the winemakers at work, and sampling their wines opened a whole new world for me.
After I graduated, my high school sweetheart, Lynn, invited me to go to New York with her. My parents were already there, and I thought Lynn was the girl of my dreams. With stars in my eyes, I moved to New York. After only a month in the city, though, she decided she didn’t like New York or me, so she moved to Los Angeles.
Learning the Business
I wasn’t crazy about New York, so on impulse I decided to move to Miami. I got a job as an assistant maitre d’ at the new Bonaventure Country Club. I enjoyed being on my own and working hard, but I wanted a more significant role in restaurant management.
A friend who worked at the restaurant went with me to a local diner one night after work. As we sat in a booth eating a late-night breakfast, I told my friend that I wanted a new job. The man in the next booth peered over at me and said, “Here’s my card. Call me tomorrow. I may have something for you.”
He connected me with Victor Broceaux. Victor is from the Basque region bordering Spain and France. He was opening a new restaurant, Reflections on the Bay, in the Miami Marina. We hit it off at once. Victor was a small man, but tough as nails. I worked closely with Victor; he was my mentor, and I knew the high standards he set for the restaurant. When our manager and chef didn’t perform the way they should, I told Victor. To say the least, I was never a favorite at our restaurant.
I moved on from Reflections to work with Walt Larson of the Club Corporation of America. CCA has some of the highest service standards in the industry. Victor taught me how to make great food; Walt taught me how to give guests exemplary service.
One day in 1982 I was at Menu Men in Miami having our menus printed. The owner, who had become a friend of mine, answered the phone and, after a few minutes of conversation, he turned to me and said, “The man on the phone, Harry, is looking for someone to be the general manager in one of the top restaurants in Houston, and I think you’re the guy.”
A few days later I flew to Houston to meet with Harry and see the restaurant, Charley’s 517. Charley’s was, indeed, a very fine restaurant in the theater district in downtown Houston. The interview went well, and though I was only 25, I got the job.
The president of the company that owned Charley’s had a passion to build the restaurant’s wine list to be one of the best in the world. We excavated the ground under the restaurant to build a wine cellar and, in only three years, we had 20,000 bottles of the finest wines in the world. I traveled to all the great vineyards of France and America to find the best wines and the finest vintages. We won Wine Spectator magazine’s Grand Award, the top wine award in the world, every year from 1985 through 1997. The prestigious award established Charley’s as one of the premier restaurants in Houston.
We knew we could overcome any problem at Charley’s except a bad first impression. I inspected our wait staff, our valets and every detail of presentation of the restaurant and would bark orders until they did it right.
A few times, when a table wasn’t set perfectly before we opened for the evening, I growled my disapproval and yanked the tablecloth, sending knives, forks, spoons, salt, pepper, napkins, and the vase of flowers flying! I’m not proud of the volcano of anger that erupted from time to time, outward signs of a deep hurt that had never been healed.
Houston, We Have a Problem
In 1986 the company decided to sell Charley’s. The president of the company was as emotionally invested in Charley’s as I was, so he asked me if I’d like to be his partner to buy the restaurant. Within one week, I got married twice—to Charley’s and to my girlfriend, Darcee.
I was totally devoted to the restaurant business, but I was also devoted to my marriage with Darcee. When our son, Ian, was born a year later, I was the happiest father in the world. Darcee was a terrific mother, but a few days after Ian’s first birthday, she announced she was leaving me. I was shocked and devastated. The hurt made me more defensive, and I was determined to do two things: never put my heart in anyone’s hands again, and pour my entire life into the restaurant business where I felt most comfortable and confident.
At Charley’s we created “performances” that entertained people with the finest foods and wines. We hosted vintner dinners showcasing the wines of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, taught cooking and wine classes, and donated dinners to charities. We catered an election night dinner for George and Barbara Bush and served dignitaries from all walks of life.
Then one morning in 1995, Charley’s caught on fire! Everything I had worked for and treasured was going up in smoke. A local television news crew asked me for an interview. They placed me so that the smoke billowed up behind me, and they asked me how I felt about the fire. The news that night showed me distraught with tears running down my cheeks, saying, “It meant the world to me. It was my whole life.”
Rebuilding and reopening the restaurant took three long months. I felt shaken by the daunting realization that the things I held onto tightly could vanish in an instant.
Filling the Empty Place
In 1997 we changed the name of the restaurant to Clive’s, and we changed the concept from formal, traditional, white tablecloth to trendy grill. The following year was the best we’d ever had. Yet I still felt a gnawing emptiness.
I had worked with Carlos St. Mary on ad placements for the restaurant for about three years. One day in 1999, I went to his office for a marketing meeting. After the meeting, Carlos decided it was time to say something about my anger and my need to control every situation: “Hey, Clive, if I can use one of your Jewish words, I’d say that you don’t have any shalom in your life.”
I tried to blow him off, but Carlos persisted, “You have everything anyone could want. Your name is on the front of one of the finest restaurants in town, you travel the world, and you have financial success. But you don’t have any peace.”
Carlos’s honesty and kindness hit a nerve. I lowered my guard and admitted, “Yeah, I have a lot of things, but not what I really want. I want a wonderful marriage, but I’m divorced. I want a nice little restaurant that isn’t a strain, but Clive’s drains me. You’re right, Carlos. I don’t have any peace.”
Carlos said, “Clive, I’ve got an answer for you.”
“What?” I asked.
“A relationship with Jesus Christ,” he said without flinching.
His words were like putting a match to a stick of dynamite. I barked, “Absolutely not! There’s no way. You’re crazy.”
“Why not?” he asked calmly.
“Carlos, in case you’ve forgotten, I’m Jewish.”
He smiled and without missing a beat said, “So was Jesus.” He let that sink in for a second, and then he asked, “Do you believe in God?”
“Yeah,” I responded a bit defensively. “I believe there’s a Creator.”
“Then open your heart to him.” With that, Carlos shook my hand and walked away.
Later that day, I phoned Carlos and said, “Buy me a Bible.”
He laughed, “Clive, you don’t have a Bible?”
“No,” I tried to explain. “I’m Jewish. What would I need with a Bible? The rabbi would read to us in synagogue.”
The next day, Carlos called to tell me that he had a Bible for me. His office was near my home, and for several weeks I went to his office every day. He opened the Bible and read about the love of God and God’s plan for our lives. Carlos never tried to force anything on me, but he always left me with a question to think about.
The week before Memorial Day, I was at the restaurant, talking with two ladies who had served on the board of the Food and Wine Society with me. One of them looked at me and asked, “Clive, what’s going on with you? Something’s different. You seem more relaxed, maybe… at peace.”
I replied, “Well, I’m reading the Bible, and I’m trying to find out who Jesus is. That’s the only thing that’s different.”
Both ladies simultaneously blurted out, “But you’re Jewish!”
“Yeah, but I’m fascinated by this man Jesus,” I explained.
After they left, a third lady who had overheard our conversation asked, “Where do you go to church, Clive?”
“Church?” I asked, making a face of disgust. “Why would I go to church? Jews go to synagogue.”
She wasn’t deterred. “Don’t you want to go?”
“No, not really.”
She continued bravely, “If you ever want to go, I recommend Second Baptist. That’s where I go. I think you’d enjoy it.”
The very next night, the Morrises, a couple who often visited our restaurant, came in. Almost immediately, Mrs. Morris looked at me closely and asked, “Clive, are you in love?”
I laughed. “Why would you ask me a question like that?”
She smiled, “Because you have the look of someone who is in love, that’s why.”
I explained, “I’m trying to find out who Jesus is.”
She immediately asked, “Are you going to church?”
Here we go again! I replied, “No, I’m not going to church—and I have no intentions of ever going.”
She completely disregarded my defensiveness. “Let me recommend one to you,” she offered. “Second Baptist Church is wonderful. Have you heard of it?”
“Yes,” I told her. “I’ll think about it.”
The next night, Carlos took me to dinner with a man who was getting married a week or so later. As we talked, the man told me he had met his fianc?e at a Bible study at—you guessed it—Second Baptist Church!
Once, I could easily forget it. Twice, I was paying attention. But when someone told me about Second Baptist Church the third day in a row, I knew something very strange was going on.
The next day, May 30, 1999, I drove to the church. In his morning message, the pastor, Dr. Ed Young, talked about the Ten Commandments. He explained God’s greatness and purity, and he said that all of us fall far short of God’s expectations. He also explained the meaning of Passover, when the lamb was slain and its blood was put on the doorposts of the Israelites’ homes in Egypt so that the Angel of Death would pass over the house. Dr. Young was talking about my people, my heritage, my Torah and my God! He explained that what was written in the Torah foretold of the Messiah who would come to pay for the sins of the world as the ultimate Passover Lamb of God. At that moment, I connected the dots. I silently said to God, I want to take my first step toward you! Dr. Young gave an invitation to those who wanted to trust in Jesus, and I decided to do just that.
A Change of Heart
In December, I called my parents to tell them I planned to fly to New York during the Christmas holidays. I had told them about my new faith, and my father said sternly, “You’re still our son. You can come home, but Clive, don’t mention the name of Jesus or try to convert us.”
My father met me at the airport, but he didn’t recognize me until I was about ten feet away. He looked startled and said, “Oh, it’s you! I didn’t recognize you.” Soon after we got to my parents’ townhouse, I overheard my mother calling friends and telling them, “You’ve got to come over for dinner to see Clive. He’s different.” In the past, I had been an angry, demanding person because I felt that I couldn’t do enough to be accepted. When I found the Messiah (or more accurately, when he found me), he began to heal my hurts and fill my life with his peace. That’s what my family noticed.
A postscript on cooking and life…
While some people look down their noses at those who eat hamburgers instead of chateaubriand, that’s just culinary snobbery. We need to find what works, be creative, and enjoy wonderful dishes, from the simplest to the most complex, with our friends and family. This lesson applies to every area of life. When my son, Ian, was selecting a major in college, I told him to find something he loves to do, not what will make him the most money or propel him as a social climber. We need to find the things that make us happy, not the things that impress others.
This is also true of our relationship with God. Will we worry what others think, or will we follow the truth as revealed in the Scriptures, even if that leads us to Jesus?
People still ask me, “What’s a nice Jewish boy like you still doing in the kitchen?” I tell them that, in a sense, we’re all in the kitchen because it’s a symbol of life, full of joy and spills, glorious successes and burnt dishes, tender moments and unnerving chaos. They also ask me, “How can a nice Jewish boy like you believe in Jesus?” I tell them, if you get to know him like I do, you’ll never let him go. He holds the recipe for life.