Home for the Holidays: Restaurateurs Take Some Time for Family Traditions

December 9, 2011
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During the Christmas season, those who make their living preparing and serving food know that the holiday is long on work and short on shopping, caroling and parties with loved ones.

Chefs Nicholas Harary and Pat Trama know from experience that being a success in the restaurant business requires long hours, hard work, financial sacrifice and many missed holidays and special occasions.

Want to take your sweetheart out for dinner on Valentine’s Day? Forget it. It’s all hands on deck at the restaurant. Can you spend Thanksgiving, Easter or Mother’s Day meals with Mom? Not a chance. Those holidays are spent feeding customers.

During the Christmas season, those who make their living preparing and serving food know that the holiday is long on work and short on shopping, caroling and parties with loved ones.

Two area restaurant owners – Harary, owner of the renowned Restaurant Nicholas in Middletown and Trama, owner of Ama Ristorante Tuscana in Atlantic Highlands – make a point of setting aside time during the busy holiday season to keep Christmas family traditions alive.

Long before Nicholas Harary became recognized as one of the top chefs in the country, he knew that his life’s work would be in the kitchen. At the age of 11, young Nicholas started working in Pizzarama in East Brunswick, doing odd jobs like sweeping and bussing tables until he climbed through the ranks to dishwasher and eventually pizza maker.

After high school he attended Culinary Institute of America in New Hyde Park, N.Y and after graduation he honed his craft in the restaurants of some of America’s most renowned chefs, like Jean Georges Vongerichten. After years of paying his dues working in various positions both in the kitchen and in the front of the house, at age 25 Nicholas and his wife Melissa, also a veteran of top restaurants, set out to launch a place of their own.

When it opened 11 years ago, Restaurant Nicholas quickly made its way to the top of the Best Restaurant lists in New Jersey, and became a destination restaurant for foodies throughout the tri-state area. But Nicholas and Melissa knew that it wasn’t luck, but hard work and sacrifice that earned them accolades from food critics.

When their son Nicholas was born 4 ½ years ago, followed by daughter Juliana two years later, the couple began to create holiday traditions for their young family.

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Melissa’s family had the long-held tradition of seeing the annual Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall, Nicholas said.

This week, the Harary family saw the Christmas Spectacular together for the first time. They saw the towering tree in Rockefeller Center and took in the sights of New York City at Christmas time. “Now the tradition has been passed on to us,” Nicholas said.

The restaurant is closed only two days a year, he said – Christmas Day and Super Bowl Sunday, if the Giants are playing.

Christmas is spent at home, he says, starting with French toast in the morning followed by a homemade dinner for extended family and friends later in the day.

“I’ll make Roasted Chestnut Soup,” he says, but hasn’t decided yet what the main course will be.

“It’s a great holiday, because it’s all around food and the kids.”

For those who work in the restaurant business, he says, Christmas is rushed, “but nobody skips over it.”

December is busy through to the new year, with holiday parties and gift purchases. As Christmas gets closer, there will be a line out the door. “You can feel people’s tension,” he says.

His secret to enjoying Christmas is to plan early. Before the first holiday party is held at the restaurant, gifts for his mother and his wife have been purchased.

Throughout the year, the couple carves out time for the family. The restaurant is closed on Mondays, so they eat out together.

“Our life revolves around food,” he says, and they share that life with their children.

“Nicholas is here all the time at the restaurant.” His father wants to instill the values he learned working in the business in his own children. “They’ll know hard work; they’ll know about many cultures. And they’ll know that you get out of it what you put into it.”

“So many things happened at the kitchen table.. That’s where my fondest memories come from.”

Pat Trama, owner and chef of Ama Ristorante Tuscana, knows that work doesn’t take a holiday during the Christmas season. After all, as a third generation chef and restaurant owner, he grew up in the business.

His grandparents emigrated from southern Italy to New York and opened a restaurant that highlighted the flavors of their home country. His parent owned and operated a restaurant in the Westchester County, N.Y. town of Bedford Hills.

But when the work of preparing and serving meals for others was finished, Trama recalls, his family life was centered around the kitchen table.

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“So many things happened at the kitchen table,” he says. “That’s where my fondest memories come from.”

Trama’s mother, Dolores, worked at the restaurant on Christmas Eve, he says, while his father spent the day at home preparing for the family’s celebration.

“Christmas Eve was my father’s gig,” Trama says. And, beginning at a very young age, Trama worked beside his father, cleaning shrimp, cutting calamari, and washing the mussels for the big feast.

When the work was done, two dozen people or more spanning three generations gathered at his parents’ home to share the traditional Christmas Eve meal. The large family required two tables – one for the adults and one for the kids.

“But I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to sit with the grownups,” Trama says. Because it was at that table where the family’s cultural heritage was shared.

“That’s what I try to instill in my kids – how important it is to be around the table,” says the father of three sons

Chef Trama set out on his own culinary career, starting at age 17 working with famed Chef Charlie Palmer at the River Café in Brooklyn, a training ground for some of the country’s best chefs. He worked for Pino Luongo, and moved to Chicago to work for him at Coco Pazzo, where he learned first-hand about Tuscan cuisine. He traveled to Tuscany to immerse himself in traditional Tuscan cooking, so different from the southern Italian dishes that he was raised on.

Trama came to Monmouth County to work at David Burke’s Fromagerie in Rumson, and decided to make the area his home. He and his girlfriend Laura Borawski opened Ama in 2009, where Trama has pursued his passion for Tuscan cuisine with great success.

The first two years at Ama, the couple kept the restaurant open on Christmas Eve. But he found that he missed spending Christmas Eve with his family, and for the second year in a row Ama will be closed. In a business that is all about hard work and sacrifice, Trama found that missing Christmas Eve with his family just wasn’t worth the sacrifice.


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