The passing of Frank Pellegrino got me thinking about all the incredible men and women who give their lives to the hospitality industry. It's not about the food or the drinks being poured, it's the shine they share, the ear they lend, the smile or hug that makes you feel special. We all want to feel special and Frank made eveyone who walked in the door whether it was your first time or you were a table regular feel the the most special person in New York City. He will be greatly missed.
A few years ago, I wrote this story about Elaine Kaufman. If feels appropriate to share today in honor of all the Frankie's and Elaine's....special humans...who shared their shine and helped so many, without even knowing half of all the little stories.
From The Cocktail Party: Eat, Drink, Play & Recover
Some people come into your life as blessings other as lessons, it’s the rare and most treasured ones that do both, for me it was Elaine Kaufman.
I met Elaine fifteen years ago, when my cousin Brian asked my husband and I to meet him uptown for dinner.
My only knowledge of Elaine’s came from my childhood on Long Island, where one is expected to worship at the alter of Billy Joel. There’s a lyric in his song “Big Shot” that goes: “They were all impressed with your Halston dress and the people that you knew at Elaine's."
So, that’s where we were heading, except that we didn’t know anyone, and I was wearing Target NOT Halston.
After a $17.00 cab ride, my anti-Billy Joel/pro-Bruce Springstein (New Jersey) husband and I arrived at Elaine's. I don't know if it was the glowing yellow sign flashing her name, the 70-year old bartender, the ex-cops drinking Makers, the smell of fried chicken cutlets waiting to get Parmesans"d" or the playwright Edward Albee sitting in the corner that got me, but one thing I knew for sure: I was in Elaine's house and I didn't want to leave.
We sat at a round table in the back and as Ryan and Brian perused the menu and debated white over red, I could not stop looking around and taking it all in. I instantly knew that "things" happened her. Good, bad, wild...the energy was intese and entralling.
"Does Elaine still come here? ” I ask my cousin, who was a regular."
Yes, every night,” he promised.
“Just wait, you’ll see her.”
I ordered. I waited. Brian and I grew up with a grandmother who also went by one name, a woman who had the same powerful charisma, a woman who also made people wait.
The first course came. I was still waiting. Second course came, the food was good but not enough to make you come back again. When the waiter came over and asked for our dessert order, I felt let down. This wasn’t the night; she wasn’t here. And then, as if a director yelled “Action!” Elaine came in through the front door.
Immediately, I saw people all around me who were pretending not to be fazed by her presence, pretending not to notice that a shift in energy had occurred in the room.
“Be cool, don’t stare,” I told myself. But I couldn’t help myself. Like the others, I was drawn to her, although she was really doing nothing at all. It seemed like the world was just rotating around her....but why?
I watched her smile at Frank the waiter who she had known since he was just a kid, when he was a boy who walked in and asked for job without knowing that thirty years later he would end up being one of her most trusted confidantes and protectors.
She made her way to HER table and sat, at first alone and then, occasionally, with others. I watched the whole restaurant try to plot as to how they would get to talk to her, or better yet–be invited to sit at HER table.
That first night, I was only able to get a smile in on our way out the door. So it became my mission to get to know Elaine better. Obsession? You could say so. We began to go to Elaine’s regularly. I was besotted. I ordered the same dish every time; tortellini with peas and prosciutto.
While all my peers wanted to go to the hottest spots downtown, Elaine’s was the only place I wanted to be.
Week by week, a smile, a wave, one night even a hello and then one night (months later), our time had come.
We were heading out and I glanced over to her to say goodbye. For the first time, she made direct eye contact with me.
"Sit down" she ordered.
I sat down. The questions began.
“Who are you two?”
While Ryan began telling her our life story, I could not stop looking at her hands. She caught me.
“What? My ring?”
Ryan looked down and blurted out “No way!”
Elaine was wearing a huge diamond studded Yankees World Series ring—you couldn’t miss it.
“George [Steinbrenner] gave it to me.”
She took it off and handed it to Ryan.
But it was not her ring I was staring at; it was her hands.
Elaine had the same hands as my grandmother. My grandmother Lucille was a piano teacher and I was forced to stare at her hands for hours on end while she patiently tried to teach me Hot Cross Buns. It was amazing to me how much her hands reminded me of my grandmothers. Hands I had not seen in twenty five years. Hands that told stories of hard work, sacrafice, glamour and sadness.
“Your husband says you work with celebrities?”
I just nodded yes. I was mute. She began to speak:
“Never give them anything for free. They’ll ask you. You have to pay your bills and if you let one get away with it, they’ll all think they can. “If they can’t pay you, make them promise to you when they can. They will have ups and down like you...don’t forget that."
"Now get up. I’m leaving."
She gestured to Frank and he escorted her out. Elaine was SO COOL! I was even more hooked. I wanted to come back every week just to be in her presence, to learn from her, to watch her hold court, I dreamt that maybe one day, she would take me under her wing, tell me all her stories, teach me the ropes. I wanted her to be my “Tuesdays with Morrie.”
As time passed, we got a touch closer; we talked about bringing back her famous Oscar night party. We were starting to make plans; she was beginning to like me. I’d tell her about a new client or cool party we did, and she would smile with approval. I think my excitement reminded her of her early days. I once asked her if I could write a story about her and try to get it published. She looked at me and said, "Sure, that would be very good for YOU."
My greatest lesson from elaine kaufman
My greatest lesson from Elaine would not be about food, or table settings or celeb politics. Elaine shared with me a side that very few people got to see. So many stories were written about how tough she was, how she was crass, how she didn’t like women and preferred the company of men. But that was not my experience. I’m not sure how many people saw the tender and caring side of Elaine, but I did and it felt like an amazing gift, a blessing in fact...better and more special than the advice of one businesswoman to another.
Here’s what happened:
One night...late, maybe 1:30 or 2 a.m., I was telling her a tale about a glittery new client with whom I was excited to be working, when mid-sentence she interrupted me, leaned in and asked me this question.
“You have kids?”
I answered that we did not. I started to tell her our weary tale of 11 years of infertility, but how I was "totally fine" with it because our lives were "so much fun."
She looked at me straight in the eyes, paused and then with only a grandmother’s sincerity, she grabbed my hand and said, “HAVE THEM."
Two weeks later, Elaine died. At 81 years old, Elaine left this world with no children or husband but SO many people felt the loss of her, people loved her as their own.
I went to Elaine’s by myself the night she died, on my way picking up a bouquet of white roses. It was mobbed, people waiting outside to go through those doors under that yellow sign. She would have loved the crowd. Inside, people shared stories, drinks, tears and hugs.
Elaine taught me so much. But on the night she died, I realized that family comes in many forms, and that in my heart, though not my mother, grandmother, sister or aunt, she would forever be a cherished member of mine.
Tortellini with Peas and Prosciutto
Package of fresh cheese tortellini
Package frozen peas
1/2 teaspoon butter
1/2 onion, minced
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons Pecorino Romano, freshly grated
2 ounces prosciutto
Salt and pepper to taste
Bring water to boil, add tortellini. Add peas during last minute of cooking. Drain pasta and peas; set aside.
While pasta cooks, melt butter in a pan. Add onions and prosciutto; sauté until brown. Slowly add half and half to pan. Cook until mixture becomes thick.
Add sauce and grated cheese to tortellini. Season with fresh black pepper and Pecorino and serve.
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