remembering sergio

I did not know Sergio well. Like many of you, I dined often at his restaurants and whenever I wanted to interview him for the blog, or had a question, he was more than happy to help.

It’s obviously hard whenever there is loss. You mourn, you’re angry, you question and reflect – and hopefully reflect with a big smile as you recall all the amazing memories and joy. There is no doubt his wife and children, his employees, colleagues and friends are doing this right now. As well as the greater community he did so much for, and loved him right back.For your loss, I am terribly sorry.

The Plain Dealer’s Joe Crea wrote a lovely tribute yesterday. I hope his family finds comfort in all those that Sergio had a positive affect on.

CLEVELAND, Ohio — He produced some of Cleveland’s most exciting flavors. He maintained two of the city’s consistently excellent restaurants. And he exuded mirthful hospitality that embraced the steady stream of customers crowding his dining rooms.

Nobody maintained an exuberant samba beat quite like Sergio Abramof.

Abramof was a singularly superb chef, host and raconteur. His sudden death from undisclosed causes last week stunned a city known for a burgeoning food scene that the Brazilian-born restaurateur championed throughout his career.

“He was part of the renaissance that elevated Cleveland — he deserves a lot of the credit for where we’re at today,” says veteran chef Paul Minnillo of Flour restaurant in Moreland Hills.

Minnillo described himself as “just devastated” over the loss.

“Sergio was one of the classiest guys in the business. He was THE consummate gentleman,” Minnillo added.

A gentleman who welcomed guests into his restaurants — Sergio’s in University Circle, which he opened in 1995, and Sergio’s Sarava, a bustling locus of Latin-inspired nightlife in Shaker Square — with a deft mix of warm enthusiasm and restraint. Guests doted on Abramof’s consistently well-executed fare, attention to often-minute details, and a zesty atmosphere of fun. The two businesses routinely appeared among the 100 eateries on The Plain Dealer’s “A-List.”

Tributes have been pouring in since Saturday, when word broke on about his death at age 56. Young chefs ardently recalled Abramof as a mentor who encouraged their early efforts at establishing themselves in a culinary career.

“He was one of the first chefs to embrace me into the community when I joined the profession,” teacher and frequent TV cook Stefanie Paganini posted on her Facebook page.

Chris Hodgson of Hodge’s and Dim and Den Sum food truck posted similar sentiments on Facebook.

“First time I met him, I was just starting out in Cleveland, [and] he said ‘just cook good food for good people.’ Thank you for all the inspiration and setting such a shining example for young chefs. You will be dearly missed,” Hodgson wrote.

Carl Quagliata, grand maestro of Northeast Ohio restaurateurs, is among those suffering a most poignant loss. He was the first owner of a prominent establishment to hire Abramof to lead a kitchen, at his landmark Giovanni’s.

“I made him kitchen manager when he was 21 or 22 years old,” Quagliata recalled during a phone conversation.

“He had no culinary training — well, he worked at the Saucy Crepe before he came to work for me — but he had special culinary ability,” Quagliata says. “And he never got mad or excited, but really got the job done. He was a tremendous manager and a tremendous man.”

Sun Luck Garden restaurant owner Annie Chiu worked for Abramof at Giovanni’s. She has boundless memories of his wicked sense of humor and the night he fulfilled his promise to help her when she opened her own restaurant. He sat with her on the floor, binding menus, then got up and mopped the floor for her.

“I just want people to remember him as a great boss, a great mentor and a great friend,” she says, calling him “one of my very closest friends, one of the first people I would call for anything.”

Abramof championed the importance of independently owned restaurants throughout much of his career. He was a founding member of Cleveland Originals, a group of owner-operated businesses, and later became president of Cleveland Independents, a locally based organization of more than 90 independent restaurants throughout Northeast Ohio. He also served as a board member of the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Cleveland, now Positively Cleveland.

Abramof’s wife, Susan, and son, Julian, helped run the two restaurants. So did an extensive team of employees, who find themselves wrenched by their leader’s sudden death.

“Honestly, it is difficult to get through each day after losing my boss, friend and mentor with whom I worked for 10½ years,” wrote Melissa Cory, director of operations for the restaurants, in an email. “Sergio was one in a million, and we are all grieving our great loss.”

Cory added that “we plan to continue Sergio’s dream for a long time to come,” referring to the restaurants’ reopening on Tuesday.

Given the finely tuned expertise of those operations, it’s safe to bet that the two Sergio’s locations will transition and operate smoothly. But with their guiding light extinguished, the city’s restaurant scene loses a sure luminescence, and a determined leader.

Samba on, Sergio.


One Comment

  1. BHallisy
    Posted September 15, 2012 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Nice tribute, Michelle. He certainly will be missed. Ironically, I’d called for reservations at Sarava the day he died…