New Jewish Theatre opener looks at punk rock chef; art for a cause

Chef Rossi’s 2015 memoir ‘The Raging Skillet: The True Life of Chef Rossi’ is the basis for the New Jewish Theatre’s upcoming play, ‘Raging Skillet.’ Photo: Melissa Donovan

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

Chef is all the rage

If “Raging Skillet” is half as entertaining as the person on whom it is based, then St. Louis audiences should prepare for a thoroughly raucous experience. 

Written by Jacques Lamarre, the play takes its cue from the 2015 memoir, “The Raging Skillet: The True Life of Chef Rossi,” by Chef Rossi, New York’s first punk-rock, Jewish, lesbian caterer. The play will be performed by the New Jewish Theatre Oct. 4 to 21.

For those unfamiliar, Chef Rossi is owner and executive chef of The Raging Skillet, a cutting-edge New York catering company known for breaking any and all rules. It’s been called “a new breed of rebel anti-caterer” by The New York Times, “the wildest thing this side of the Mason Dixon line” by Zagat and has been named among The Knot’s Best Of Wedding Caterers every year since 2010. 

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Rossi, herself, is a hoot, who worked long and hard to achieve success despite a rocky childhood that she relates with candor and humor. Her misadventures — and she’s got plenty to share, so tighten your apron strings — include running away from her “Orthodox-light” Jersey home as a rebellious, pot-smoking, 16-year-old feminist, only to be “found” three months later and sent to live with a Hasidic rabbi in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. who “took in wayward Jewish kids.” 

“It was that or reform school,” said Chef Rossi, 54, when we spoke last week. “I had just seen this movie with Linda Blair where she does time in reform school and this looked slightly better.”

Rossi says that she stayed with the Hasidim until she “formulated a battle plan,” then escaped to Manhattan at age 18 and “never looked back.” 

Born Slavah Davida Shana Ross — “a mouthful, huh?” she jokes — she got the nickname “Rossi” during high school. “It came from Valerie Walcott who never had any influence in my life except at this one moment when she screamed in the hallway, ‘Hey Rossi,’ and it stuck.” 

Her first-generation Hungarian Jewish parents, Harriet and Marty, were older when they had children, as were their parents when they had them. As a result, Rossi says, Harriet and Marty were more like grandparents “with very old-world Jewish values rooted in the 1940s and 50s.”

“They wanted me to button my tongue, not wear make-up and not go to R-rated movies,” she said. “I was a child of the ‘70s, and the thing I really raged against was the double standard in my house.”

She contends that while her younger brother could do anything he wanted, she and her sister had to abide by “a million rules and regulations.” 

“At age 8, I started to become a hardcore, feminist women’s libber and that caused a lot of havoc in my family,” she said. “My parents wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer or, preferably, marry a doctor or lawyer. I wanted to be a painter, an artist, so there was a lot of fighting in my house that could be heard blocks away.”

Rossi’s culinary flag took flight not long after her mother received her first microwave oven. As Rossi tells it, Harriet had always been into slow cooking. “Her goulash simmered longer than many of my relationships,” she quipped.

Then one day Marty presented Harriet with her first microwave. “All of a sudden, she started making all this horrifying stuff,” said Rossi.  “Red powder mixed with water became tomato soup. From that point on, our dinners were like astronaut food. We were starting to miss the goulash.”

Taking matters into her own hands, Rossi rummaged through the freezer for Lender’s Bagels, “a family staple,” then grabbed “one of the 1,000 jars of Ragu my mother couldn’t pass up ‘cause they were such a deal.” She poured sauce on the bagels before topping them with “some random cheese” she found in the frig.

“I know, yawn, but pizza bagels were an interesting and exciting idea in the 1970s,” she said, adding that with her newfound “cooking” ability, family members began treating her with respect. “I knew food was love because of my mother but I didn’t know food was power until pizza bagels.”

Rossi’s mother died in 1992 from heart failure at age 65. She and Marty were driving from Florida to meet Rossi and other family in New Jersey for Rosh Hashanah. “It took me a year to accept that she was gone,” said Rossi. “Maybe that’s why the Jewish religion has the unveiling of the headstone one year later. We need that year.”

Harriet Ross never did get to read her daughter’s book or see her play. But she did get to read Rossi’s articles for Provincetown Magazine in which her mother had a starring role, even if it wasn’t always flattering. 

“I worried that she would be mad because I was making fun of her,” said Rossi, who lived in Provincetown, Mass. for nine months in the early 1990s. “But then she said to me, ‘Slavah, keep writing about me. Promise, you’ll keep writing about me. I want to be immortalized.’ 

“Every week I would mail her what I wrote and she’d copy it and sent it to every relative we never met. The nine months I spent in Provincetown was the closest I ever was with my mother because we would bond over these articles.”

As it turns out, Harriet appears as a character in the play, despite having been dead for decades. (Rossi’s father, with whom she enjoyed a close relationship in his later years, died in 2016.) 

“There are a lot of different journeys in this play,” said Rossi, who will be in St. Louis for its opening. “But in the end, it’s a story of a mother and daughter and that’s fairly universal. It’s how these two women seem to have everything in the world that makes them different, that sends them apart, but in the end, they are spectacularly similar, too, which is like my story with my own mom.”

Before we hang up, Rossi mentions that she just finished the first draft of her second book, which centers on the two years she lived in Crown Heights. Its working title is “Escape from Kingston Avenue.”

“I couldn’t write it until both of my parents passed away because it would have broken their hearts if they knew what happened,” she said. “Some really great things happened to me there but also some really terrible things.”

For tickets and more information about NJT’s production of “Raging Skillet,” go to www.jccstl.com/arts-ideas/new-jewish-theatre

Art for a cause

Local artist David Alper is auctioning off a one-of-a-kind, mixed medium piece entitled “Summer Love” in support of Pedal the Cause. Alper created this piece to raise money for Stacy Abeles and her team Big Ten Cycling, to honor her husband, Eli, who passed away from renal cancer on Sept. 10. (Read his obituary on Page 21. ) The auction is hosted until Sept. 27 at www.biddingowl.com/davidalperstudio and 100 percent of the proceeds from the sale will go directly to Stacy’s Pedal the Cause team.

Pedal the Cause provides funding for cancer research at Siteman Cancer Center and Siteman Kids at St. Louis Children’s Hospital through the annual cycling challenge. The 2018 cycling challenge takes place on Sept. 29 and 30. Interested race participants can register by visiting www.pedalthecause.org.

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