I still have — and use — a rolodex. With paper cards. It’s around 20 years old. I like its substance, solidity, it’s 3D-ness. I can trace family, friends, and colleagues over the years — their travels and journeys from job to job and home to home by the lines drawn through old addresses and phone numbers and the new ones that replaced them. But sometimes my rolodex makes me very sad. That’s when I pull out a card and throw it away. I have done this for people I no longer wish in my life. But more often I have had to do it because a person dies. This happened on Saturday when I learned that chef, restaurateur and friend Sergio Abramof passed away suddenly and unexpectedly last Friday night. I looked at his cell number written out in blue ink and it hit me — I could never call him again. He wouldn’t pick up anymore and give his endearing girlish giggle when I said something that amused him. No more conversations. No more turning to him as a source for an article I was writing, as I had done often in the past. No more. All the possibilities, his possibilities, gone. His birthday was Aug. 23. He was younger than me.
So I want to bring attention to him one last time. To say he was important and did things that mattered. To put his name in print. Sergio Abramof. He was born in Brazil. He graduated from Cleveland Heights High School — just like my three sons. He opened his first restaurant, Sergio’s in 1994. He had another restaurant, Sarava on Shaker Square. Both were popular and wonderful, like the man himself. Playing the drums gave him joy. So did his son, Julian. He hosted a Brazilian dance party one night that I will never forget. He was a good cook, a good guy, a smart businessman, and he tried to do the right thing when it came to his industry and his community. When our mutual friend Annie Chiu, chef/owner of Sun Luck Garden, hit a rough patch a couple of years ago, he organized a fundraiser. I helped, and his generosity was inspiring. We liked and respected each other.
As of this writing, no information has been made public about exactly what happened. It doesn’t really matter. The significant fact is that Sergio was here, with us, and now he’s not. I thought it might be appropriate for this public tribute and farewell to include an edited excerpt from my last interview with him and his mentor and former boss restaurateur Carl Quagliata in 2010 for Cleveland Magazine’s May Silver Spoons issue.
Sergio: I started in ’78. I’d worked for a very short time in a restaurant I really hated. It was my first restaurant experience. I asked my wife, who’s a native Clevelander, what’s the best place in Cleveland to learn to cook. She told me about Quagliata’s White House in Mentor. I went out there to talk to Carl [Quagliata] and asked for a job with no experience basically. He said I just opened this place in Beachwood [Giovanni’s] and I need a cook. Come in tomorrow. I showed up the next day and that was the real beginning of my career. I was there 14 years.
Carl: I hired Sergio because I needed someone in the kitchen. But when he started working I saw right away what kind of person he was. He had character. And the other things you need to succeed in this business: he wanted to please people, he enjoyed making them happy. It has to come from your heart.
Sergio: I know it sounds corny but that is probably the most important thing, and as good a manager, as good a trainer or a teacher as any of us are, those things are not teachable. You have to have a warm heart, the desire to take care of other people, to give hospitality.
Carl: Sergio had it all — the creativity, the mechanics, the managerial skills, the heart and the character. He was the best.
A public memorial service is scheduled for Monday, Sept. 3. 11 a.m. at Berkowitz-Kumin-Bookatz Chapel, 1985 S. Taylor Road, Cleveland Heights