Monday, December 26, 2011
By Pamela Zoslov
“It is impossible to think of any good meal, no matter how plain or elegant, without soup or bread in it,” said the prominent food writer M.F.K. Fischer. That philosophy is fully embraced by Susy’s Soup & Deli, a casual downtown eatery that has been serving comforting, piping-hot homemade soups for nine years, the last two and a half at its present location Tower City. The house-made soups, along with specialty sandwiches on fresh-baked bread, fresh salads, chili and breakfast wraps, have customers lining up out the door –- and why not? It’s hard to imagine anything more satisfying than a bowl of chicken and wild rice, chicken paprikash, chicken dumpling, creamy tomato tortellini, black bean, Italian wedding, minestrone, lobster bisque or clam chowder. To a true soup lover, the very names are ambrosial.
Diners are drawn to Susy’s by the soup and sandwiches, but the attentive service, unusual for a casual lunch spot, keeps them coming back. After a customer picks up his soup, a member of the Susy’s team brings their sandwich or salad to the table. “We do everything with love,” says general manager Dave Long. “We want to be the best at what we do. We work hard, over a hot kettle all day. We use good-quality ingredients, and the bread is baked fresh every day.” The soup is made one kettle at a time, the flavor then locked in with a “quick chill” process. Healthy food is a priority; everything on the menu is made without MSG or preservatives, and vegetarian, fat-free and gluten-free options are available.
Susy’s was founded 12 years ago by Michael Sharpe, an owner of Cleveland’s popular Sharpy’s Subs in the 1980s. He wanted to shift his culinary focus to soups, and after searching for a name for the new venture, decided to christen it after his young daughter, whose name provided a nice alliteration and represented the restaurant’s “family” feeling. The first Susy’s Soups was in North Olmsted; the restaurant then took up residence in the Park Building on Public Square before accepting an offer to open on the fountain level of Tower City. (Susy’s also has an Express location in the Halle Building.) The long lunchtime lines attest to Susy’s success. “In a bad economy, we’ve had consistent growth,” Long says.
While soup is paramount, the salads, chili and sandwiches – corned beef, smoked turkey, Reubens, chicken salad — have a devoted following. “The most popular is our grilled cheese,” Long says. “People get addicted to it.” It’s made with provolone, cheddar and American cheese, melted on tasty fresh bread from the Western Reserve Bread Co. Susy’s also has a busy catering business, providing crock pot soups, deli trays, wrap trays and box lunches for events large and small. With all the changes happening in and around Public Square, Susy’s, currently open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., may also add dinner hours.
Susy’s is guided by a love of Cleveland and a strong belief in giving back to the community with extensive charitable work. “We don’t really publicize our charitable work,” Long says, but notes that the restaurant’s outreach efforts include a monthly feeding for Laura’s Home, the City Mission shelter for women and children in crisis, supporting St. Malachi’s, donating 40 gallons of soup to feed a youth group of 400 and participating in the annual Market Under Glass benefit for Harvest for Hunger. “That stuff is really fulfilling,” he says. “We see ourselves as part of the community, part of Cleveland’s rebirth,” Long says. “We’re trying to do something good.”
Fulfillment also comes from the simple everyday act of providing good food for people. “It’s the small things – knowing that we can make a small difference in people’s lives every day,” Long says. “We don’t like to call them customers. We call them ‘friends of Susy.’ We treat them as our friends.”
By Pamela Zoslov
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” He clearly never imagined the determination of Phil Davis, founder and proprietor of Phil the Fire, the restaurant that introduced Cleveland to the Southern homestyle delicacy chicken and waffles –- a unique combination of golden-brown fried chicken atop thick, cinnamon-spiced Belgian waffle, topped with butter and syrup. Phil the Fire –- a nickname based on the Peabo Bryson song “Feel the Fire” –- took Davis from a dazzling rise to a devastating fall, followed by a seven-year sojourn in the desert of legal troubles and a low-paying job loading boxes in the middle of the night.
The journey began in 2001, when Davis began serving Sunday brunch in the basement of The Civic in Cleveland Heights. His chicken and waffles became a sensation, and Davis opened Phil the Fire restaurants at Shaker Square and downtown. Then, fatefully, he relied on the promises of an unscrupulous hedge fund manager, leading to the loss of millions of investor dollars and the closing of Phil the Fire in 2004, followed by a rash of lawsuits. “In January 2004, I was a local quasi-celebrity, and within a week went from being the toast of the town to the talk of the town,” he reflects. “That was very humbling, because when your fall from grace is very public, you have nowhere to hide.”
During those dark days, Davis underwent a period of personal growth. He worked out a plan to repay his debts and spent time caring for his daughter, Machiah, now 10, all the while keeping in mind a line from his mother’s favorite poem, "Invictus": “My head is bloody, but unbowed.” He spent endless hours in the kitchen perfecting his recipes, and drew upon his business-school training to launch new inventions -- including “the world’s smallest microwave” — and plan how he would do things better if he could reopen Phil the Fire.
Davis’ second act began in August, when he opened the new Phil the Fire restaurant at the Fairfield Inn in Beachwood, a warm, inviting space that serves up Davis’ signature “comfort food for the soul” – rich, flavorful dishes based on the Sunday brunches his parents, Alberta and Sherman, cooked when he was growing up in Cleveland. The location is one Davis had long been interested in. “I’d always been a big fan of this area, and when I walked in, it just felt like, this is it – this is the space I’ve been dreaming of.” The new restaurant enabled Davis to bring back two of the original Phil the Fire chefs, hire a savvy general manager and create 125 jobs. “That’s a great feeling,” he says.
When Phil the Fire reopened with an all-day Sunday brunch, it was as though it had never closed. People had been yearning for another taste of Phil’s chicken and waffles. “The support, love and warmth we’ve received have been overwhelming. We’ve had people drive in from Columbus, Ashtabula, Canton. We’ve served about 10,000 people in the first month. We’ve had people create special memories here – wedding anniversaries, birthdays — one man proposed to his fiancée in that room over there. It’s humbling and overwhelming. If I had to wait seven years for anything in life,” he says, “This would have been it.”
Davis made a conscious decision to limit the menu to “what we do best.” That means that aside from chicken and waffles, there are such mouthwatering favorites as the creamy Three Cheese Mac N Cheese, fresh collard greens, buttermilk pancakes, rotisserie chicken, fried salmon strips, broiled salmon and catfish (blackened, fried or broiled), as well as Phil’s signature desserts: Mom’s Famous Double Butter Peach or Apple Cobbler, Pecan and Sweet Potato Pie and Sweet Potato Pecan Pie. As the weather grows colder, the restaurant will offer hot gumbos and a fireplace for people to gather around.
Every dish has what Davis calls a “signature flavor,” and he is meticulous and demanding of his staff about achieving it. he says. “We cook everything from scratch. Everything is fresh, not frozen. We honor the food.”
But food is only one part of the Phil the Fire picture. “I asked the staff, what do we sell here? Memories. This food evokes memories, like the scene in the movie Ratatouille where the critic tastes the ratatouille and it takes him back to his childhood. This food is a daily reminder of the things I grew up on, and a way to honor the memories of my mother and father.”
The restaurant business is a tough taskmaster, but Davis says it’s addictive. “It’s hard to get out of your system. I’m here 20 hours a day, but this is easy. I love to cook, I love to serve. It’s a labor of love. I’m just having a ball.” The entrepreneurial Davis has plans to capitalize on his brand with a line of Phil the Fire prepared comfort foods and Phil the Fire restaurants in other cities.
After only one month back I business, Phil the Fire is already a destination spot. “People are saying, “Let’s meet at Phil’s,” he says. “This is something you can’t buy. Things like this keep me going.”
Thursday, December 8, 2011
Review by Pamela Zoslov
Nancy Verrier's book The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child caused a considerable stir when it was published in 1993. Verrier's thesis challenged the idea that loving and caring adoptive parents can overcome the trauma experienced by a child who is separated from his birth mothers and given up for adoption. According to Verrier, “the resultant experience of abandonment and loss is indelibly imprinted upon the unconscious minds of these children, causing that which I call the primal wound.”
Verrier's Freudian-derived thesis is vividly illustrated in I'm Glad My Mother Is Alive (Je suis heureaux que ma mère soit vivante), a 2009 film written and directed by Claude Miller, a veteran French director, and his cameraman son, Nathan. Based on a true story, the film tells the story of Thomas Jouvet, a teenager who rebels against his well-meaning adoptive parents (Yves Verhoeven and Christine Citti) and searches for his birth mother. The movie toggles between the present day, as Thomas gets in trouble for fighting in school, and his harrowing early childhood, when he and his younger half-brother, Patrick, were left in the casually negligent care of their mother, Julie (Sophie Cattani). So careless a mother is Julie that she leaves 4-year-old Thomas in charge of his infant brother while she takes off for days with a friend. Not surprisingly, the authorities remove Thomas and Patrick from Julie's chaotic home, and she is compelled to give them up for adoption; Annie and Yves Jouvet adopt both boys, changing Patrick's name to François.
Despite the Jouvets' loving care, the primal wound remains unhealed in the teenage Thomas ( Maxine Renard), first seen on a beach holiday with his parents. Angry and resentful of the Jouvets (“You're not my real parents!”), he wrangles his birth mother's address from a reluctant registry official. He knocks on the door to Julie's suburban flat but runs away when she appears, newly married and happily pregnant.
At 20, Thomas (now played by Vincent Rottiers) is seemingly better adjusted and working as an auto mechanic. His relationship with his mother is improved; his brother, François (Olivier Guéritée), is a sanguine teenager with no interest in hearing about his birth mother. Thomas again visits his mother, now divorced from a wealthy man and raising her young son. He approaches her rather like a suitor, with chocolates and flowers in hand, a hallmark of the unusual, strangely sexualized relationship that develops between them (Julie is only 17 years older than her son). The play of emotions on Cattani's face as Julie searches for her feelings for her revenant son. – she doesn't even ask about Patrick/François, as Thomas chidingly reminds her -- is wonderfully subtle, and Rottiers' resentment of his mother's neglect and loving indulgence of her new son, feel quite real. Thomas, confused in an Oedipal way, tells his adoptive mother he has a “girlfriend,” and Julie uses Thomas as a convenient babysitter and a confidante, inflaming his ancient anger by telling him about men she's dating. His mother's sexuality is front and center in the mother-son relationship, replicating the fateful pattern of years ago.
The narrative's stark, almost documentary quality, makes the paroxysm of violence that erupts at the film's climax especially seem especially shocking, yet as inexorable as Greek tragedy. With strong, realistic writing and persuasive acting, the film elicits sympathy for all of the characters – the grievously wounded Thomas, the devoted but helpless adoptive mother and the father descending into dementia, and Julie, who could never be the mother Thomas needed.