Father and son teams behind Long Island restaurants
For most guys, Father's Day is celebrated with a phone call, a corny card or a rare steak. For fathers and sons in the restaurant business, however, the holiday is observed the same way every day -- by working together, side by side.
Whether they're hashing out the challenges of cooking with local ingredients (Bill and Chris Holden of Market Bistro in Jericho), trying to put their franchise operation on the Long Island burger map (Howard and Jason Zeller of Jake's Wayback Burgers in East Northport), perfecting Neapolitan pizza (Michael and Jason Brunetti of Pizzetteria Brunetti in Westhampton Beach) or ensuring the legacy of an 89-year-old institution (Garrett, Ryan and Patrick Wellins of Silver's in Southampton), these father-son teams exhibit even more heart than they do elbow grease.
DAD Bill Holden, 55
SON Chris Holden, 27
There was never a time when Chris Holden didn't think about being in the food business. By the time he was 18, he was working in the dining room at West End Café in Carle Place, the restaurant his father opened in 1992. Bill Holden was not only a partner in West End, he was the executive chef. His observant son soon realized, "You have to learn to cook to really understand the restaurant business."
Bill was conflicted. "It's not that I didn't want him in the business," he recalled. "I just wanted him to feel free to do whatever he wanted. I tried to get him to go to college, but he wanted no part of it." Instead, Chris enrolled in a two-year program at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park on the Hudson River. After he graduated, he got a position at Daniel Boulud's DB Bistro Modern in Manhattan (to his father's great delight), but it was six months working on an organic farm in France that showed him his path. "I picked fruit, I cooked for the staff, I baked stuff that we sold at the market. I saw the connection between agriculture and cuisine, where our food comes from. When I got back to New York, I said to my dad, 'We gotta find some farms to work with. I want to see dirt on my carrots.' "
The result of Chris' raised consciousness was Market Bistro, which opened in November. The restaurant buys as much organic, local and seasonal products as it can, but Chris concedes that it's a balancing act. "We're not going to not have lettuce in the winter," he said, "but there are certain ingredients that absolutely highlight a time of year -- asparagus, fresh tomatoes -- that I think it's blasphemous to serve out of season."
While Chris is full-time at Market Bistro, Bill shuttles between the two restaurants, pitching in wherever he's needed. His own consciousness has been raised by his son. "I grew up on a farm upstate," he said, "but Chris relit my interest in local agriculture. At West End, I was settling into accepting certain things. We used to have butternut squash ravioli on the menu all year round. I was fearful of telling my customers, 'You know, you shouldn't be eating winter squash in July.' But now I say, 'It'll be back in October, and it will be better. For now, try the pea ravioli.' "
DAD Michael Brunetti, 59
SON Jason Brunetti, 41
The pies are fantastic, but much of the pleasure of eating at Pizzetteria Brunetti is witnessing -- or joining in -- the teasing, loving interplay between "Sonny" and "Pop." What most customers don't know, however, is that before they opened their jewel box of a pizzeria on Memorial Day 2010, Sonny and Pop had been estranged for 18 years.
"Our relationship was pretty rocky," said Jason. "I was running a Nissan dealership in Naples, Florida. He had a hair salon in Westhampton Beach -- and still does. We weren't talking much. It was the pizza that brought us back together."
Jason was born when Michael was only 19. "I've loved my son since I laid eyes on him," Michael said, "but I made some mistakes."
As he got older, Michael became increasingly determined to repair the relationship. Working together, he thought, might be the answer. "I knew Sonny didn't want to do anything involving hair," he recalled. "One day, I was reading this article in GQ about the renaissance of Neapolitan pizza. I called Sonny. Of course, at first he didn't want to do that either."
But the two got together for what Jason called a "come to Jesus meeting.'' At the time, he said, "I had a nice little life in Florida, but something was missing. I realized it was my father. And he felt the same. And you know, it wasn't a healing process. It happened overnight."
"Our love for each other made that reconciliation possible," Michael said. "God played a role in it too," Jason added.
So did pizza. Jason overcame his initial reluctance when he tried the pies at some of New York's new, artisanal pizzerias. "I ate at Motorino, Keste -- the pizzas were fantastic. Then I got it. Those pizzas gave me confidence to start something new."
Jason characterizes his father as "the idea guy. He wakes up at 3 a.m. and starts looking at recipes, writing in his journal and reading the Bible. (Michael is an ordained minister who volunteers at Rikers Island.) The restaurant's philosophy -- that everyone deserves to eat well and be treated well -- that's all him."
Michael has been impressed not only by his son's focus and hard work, but also "his ability to make and keep friends, the love he has for his family, his relationship with God. And I really think he's the best pizzaiolo in New York."
ON THE MENU Pizzetteria Brunetti (103 Main St., Westhampton Beach; 631-288-3003, pizzetteriabrunetti.com) consists of two marble counters and one Italian-made wood-burning oven that produces superb Neapolitan-style artisanal pies. Open for lunch and dinner.
DAD Garrett Wellins, 58
SONS Ryan Wellins, 2,5 and Patrick Wellins, 23
Silver's has been a family business since it was founded in 1923 by Garrett Wellins' maternal grandparents. His father, Dan, bought into his in-laws' tobacconist / newsstand in 1957, gradually transforming it into a proper restaurant. (Most of the charming old fixtures have been retained, along with Garrett's mother's oil paintings.)
Garrett started working alongside Dan when he was 8 and came aboard full-time when he was 17. "I worked with my father for over 40 years," Garrett said, "I loved him, but it was not an easy relationship. He came up in the Depression, fought in World War II. He could be a salty, impatient guy."
Before Garrett brought his own two sons into the business, he made a pledge. "I made up my mind that if I worked with them, it would be different," he said. "I would not repeat history."
So far, so good. Ryan, 25, is full-time at the restaurant, mostly waiting tables. Patrick, 23, is studying at Stony Brook but works in the kitchen part-time during the school year and full-time during the summer. "It's a good thing for the business that we're all here," said Patrick. One owner-operator wouldn't be able to keep his eye on everything, but with three of us here who really care, we are always improving the business."
In fact, all three Wellinses usually are on the scene since the restaurant is open only for lunch. "We have a limited staff," Ryan explained, "If we were open for dinner, we'd all have to work double shifts."
Garrett is proud to have imbued his sons with his own work ethic. "I love seeing them work for a common goal, seeing that they have skin in the game. For me, it's always been a family-farm mentality -- you make it work or you starve. And I see them giving 100 percent. There's no shirking."
Patrick and Ryan have both developed their food-assembly skills, but it's Garrett whose Midas touch has made Silver's borscht, lobster salad, crabcakes and BLTs such draws for celebrities summering in the Hamptons. "They're great fabricators," he said of his sons, "but not yet chefs."
DAD Howard Zeller, 57
SON Jason Zeller, 27
In 2010, Howard Zeller began shopping around for a burger franchise to buy. The recession was making his career as a jewelry salesman look less promising, and he was ready to do something different. "I'd always been a good eater," he said, "and, traveling around the country, I had tried In-N-Out, Burgerville, all the burger chains." He settled on Jake's Wayback Burgers because he liked the management and the product. Meanwhile, his eldest son, Jason, was in Arizona working for a trade magazine. "I knew my dad would need some help," he said, so he moved back home to Roslyn Heights.
Jake's is open seven days a week, and at least one Zeller is always on hand. Working together, the men have gained a new appreciation for one another. "I always knew Jason was a hard worker," Howard said. "When he was in high school, he organized a walkathon that raised $15,000 for five charities. But now I see him working day and night to get something right." (Jason's latest project: launching a computer-based loyalty program.)
Jason has realized that his father's cautiousness is rooted in a desire to carefully consider all possible outcomes before embarking on a new venture. "I understand his process more," he said.
Father's Day will be a busy one for the Zellers: They are giving away a Jake Burger (two patties with your choice of 11 toppings, a $4.99 value) to any and all dads. "No DNA tests required," Howard said. "You don't have to come in with your kids, just be at least 21."
ON THE MENU Jake's Wayback Burgers (1964 Jericho Tpke., East Northport; 631-864-5555, waybackburgers.com) serves a straight-up menu of burgers, fries, hot dogs and milk shakes, along with some daintier items -- such as salads, grilled chicken and veggie burgers -- at both lunch and dinner.