Fathers Day

howardjohnsonFor more than 20 years, my dad, Howard Johnson, owned a very popular restaurant on the Upper Westside of Manhattan called the Cellar. The Cellar was a special place and at the time of its inception in 1973, there were very few, if any, black-owned restaurants outside of Harlem below 110th street. Ironically, my father bought the Cellar from another Black man, who owned it for a few years but decided to sell after having lost his appetite for the place. Despite its location in a multi-ethnic neighborhood, the clientele had become “too Black” for him.

In the early ’70s, my father was working for Paul Stewart a well-known men’s clothing store and hanging out at some of the popular watering holes of the day, Vic and Terry’s, Jocks and Teachers, among others. Those that knew my dad would be quick to agree he had great taste, and a certain social prowess, easily mixing in any group. This combination made him a natural for his new venture as a restaurateur.

To say my father was a risk taker would be accurate, both in his private life—he married my mother Phyllis Martha Notarangelo, an Italian woman, when interracial marriage was still illegal in most states—and in business, where he jumped head first into an industry that other than a fondness for Jack Daniels, he had no experience in.

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freddeanddukeWhen I think of my dad -- and if you know me, you know I always do think of him – it’s often Saturday morning and Duke is surrounded by his “crew” in his regular booth at Nate n’ Al’s. But next Sunday, Father’s Day, I’ll think of Duke as he was most Sundays – in his other regular booth at Matteo’s. What can I say, he liked to eat and he loved to schmooze.

I realize I write WAY too much about my dad. But, here is a story you haven’t heard. One night at Matty’s, as we called this trapped-in-a-time-warp, Rat Pack era, Italian bistro on Westwood Boulevard, my dad was eating in his regular red leather booth; first to the right as you walked into the “correct” (celebrity-filled) room.

I should mention that Sunday nights at Matteo’s was tradition among a certain show business crowd. It wasn’t unusual to see Sinatra dining with Steve & Eydie, or the Reagans, or even Clint Eastwood… but to me, Sunday at Matteo’s was mostly about the comedians.

On this night, Red Buttons walked in. My dad was always the first person anyone greeted. He was hard to miss. Short of stature, but big of mouth, and loudly holding court at a spot you had to pass to enter. Except for Shecky, my father called all comics he knew by their last name. It was just Dangerfield. Or Youngman. You get it.

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rackribs.jpgamy ephron colorI have an image of my father wearing a blue and white canvas pin-stripe apron over his clothes that my mother gave him (with good reason), standing over the barbecue in our backyard alternately spraying charcoal fluid (with big effect) on the briquettes and a few moments later spraying, using his thumb as a spray cap, a large bottle of Canada Dry Soda Water filled (and refilled) with water from the hose onto the resulting flames from the barbecue that were threatening to ruin his perfect barbecued ribs.  They were perfect which is sort of surprising since my father couldn’t really cook at all.  Scrambled eggs and burnt bacon is about all I remember from his repertoire except for the night he exploded a can of baked beans since he’d decided it was okay to heat them in the can (unopened) which he’d placed in a large pot of boiling water and, I think, forgotten about them.  Tip:  don’t try that at home.

But his barbecued pork ribs were perfect.  The secret was the sauce.  The secret was that he marinated them religiously overnight (turning them constantly).  The secret was that he cooked them perfectly albeit with a strange method that involved alternately kicking the fire up to high temperatures and then knocking it down.  It was a method that I still remember and it was before we knew that charcoal fluid is truly bad for you so don’t try that at home either.

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Three-DukesPeople would stare as we walked down the street. Not because he was famous but because he was different. He walked with a cane and a brace, tilting from side to side with each stride. Somehow he stayed upright. If someone stared too long, he might yell, “Whad’ya lookin’ at? It’s nothin’, it’s polio, I got it when it first came out!” Anyone else yelling at a stranger might come off as aggressive — he had a REALLY loud mouth — but Duke said it with a twinkle in his eye that set the person instantly at ease. It might even turn into a too-long stop-and-chat, but I was used to those.

I’d look up at him with pride and ownership. He was my daddy. Mine being the operative word. My mother told me the story many times. As a tiny preverbal baby, I had my arms thrown around my father’s neck, holding him as tight as I could, looking back at her with eyes that said, “He’s MINE.” As in, not hers. Her interpretation. Well, it was true.

Sometimes in late August or early September we’d go shopping for back-to-school clothes at Hank DeGoniff’s house. Hank’s “house” was a warehouse in seedy Hollywood. And unbeknownst to me at the time, DeGoniff wasn’t his family name. I wasn’t sure why Hank had clothes and winter coats for me along with lots of electronic equipment. But cash was handed over and I’d walk away with some new clothes. There wasn’t even a lot to choose from, but I wasn’t an overindulged child, so I was happy with what I got. I was in my twenties (maybe thirties) before I learned that Hank’s merchandise “fell of the back of a truck,” and goniff was Yiddish for thief.

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"This intense flavorful rub is great for any type of steak, but I prefer rib eye for barbecuing. This recipe is for indoor cooking, but you can also cook them on a charcoal or gas grill over high heat. Be sure and let the steaks rest before carving – I usually throw some olive coated vegetables (such as zucchini or asparagus coated with olive oil, sea salt and pepper) on the grill after I remove the steaks."

perfect steak Coffee Rubbed Grilled Rib Eye Steaks

3 tablespoons finely ground espresso
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon Spanish sweet paprika
1½ tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon allspice
2 bone-in or boneless rib-eye steaks, 2-inches thick, approximately 1 1/2 pounds each
Canola or olive oil
Salt and coarsely ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 425°F and adjust oven rack to center position. Combine all spices in a bowl and set aside.

Preheat a cast iron grill pan over high heat.

Brush each side of the steak with oil and then season each side liberally with salt and pepper. Rub 2 tablespoons of the coffee rub onto 1 side of each steak. Cook the steak, rub side down until nicely browned, about 3 to 4 minutes. Flip the steak over, cook for 2 minutes and then transfer to a baking sheet and cook in the oven to medium-rare doneness, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove and let rest 5 minutes before slicing.

– Recipe courtesy of Cook Like James