In Pursuit Of Appyness
Small bites are a big boon for business at one of the city’s longstanding dining institutions.
By Joelle Kidd
As the holiday season approaches, Rae & Jerry’s becomes, even more than usual, a flurry of activity. The massive 330-seat space is a hive of excitement, with an adrenaline buzz leaking from the back of the building, where behind swinging double doors the kitchen is alive with the sounds of chopping, chatter, and searing meat.
Head chef Bill Georgakopoulos is at the centre of this seeming chaos, a quietly efficient chief of organization presiding over the restaurant’s staff. Managing both the kitchen and catering team, it is his stalwart task to keep an eye on the ball at all times.
While the steakhouse sees an uptick in orders around the holidays, it is the flood of catering jobs that sets this kitchen abuzz. Bill estimates that over the holiday season, between 1500 and 2400 mini yorkshire puddings alone are baked, filled, arranged, and sent out to events across the city.
The extensive operation works out of a small area tucked into the back of the kitchen, surrounded by loaves of crustless sliced bread. Here, a small army of ladies tightly rolls and chills fancy pinwheel sandwiches, while chef Bill whisks to and fro, trusty mini muffin tin in hand to form lacy cups of melted asiago cheese or tart shells moulded from flattened bread.
While Rae & Jerry’s has been the city’s perennial pick for stately steakhouse dinners since 1957, the restaurant’s move into catering is relatively recent. Steve Hrousalas, longtime owner (since 1975) began testing the waters of the catering business in 1996. Worried about a potential downturn in business with the departure of the Jets, Hrousalas drew on his experience working at The Bay to create fancy sandwich platters for friends and customers.
It was a savvy move. More and more restaurant regulars were eager to entrust their favourite steakhouse with their events, and the operation grew. Today, the catering menu ranges from the famous sandwich platters to an expansive selection of hot and cold hors d’oeuvres, swanky canapés, and other charming morsels.
For Bill, the challenges of catering are enjoyable. Off-site events allow the chef a chance to step out of the kitchen, interact with diners, and work on the fly with the added dose of creativity needed to cater to customer needs. With an avid base of returning customers, some jobs feel like social calls. One annual event sees the restaurant’s staff trucking hors d’oeuvres to a log cabin in the Whiteshell, to serve a party of 150-200 guests. “I end up working from about 7 am to 3 am,” says Bill. The event has been catered by Rae & Jerry’s for more than a decade.
The scale of the catering operation is no problem for the steakhouse, which, as its size shows, has always adopted a “more is more” philosophy. Regulars come in for generous sandwiches piled high with meat, and savoury indulgences like slabs of succulent prime rib and juicy tenderloin. The original fine dining option, a really good steakhouse still carries the white-glove nostalgia of luxury and service, and though Rae & Jerry’s servers traded their traditional red smocks for contemporary black and white ensembles four years ago, the experience is still about pampering.
While Bill has made his marks on the menu (pushing for the inclusion of tzatziki sauce, for instance), the wistful offerings are still a celebration of classic tastes. Here, it’s all about the cow. Daily, chef Bill butchers 200-300 lbs of beef, deftly making each cut to ensure as little meat is scrapped as possible.
“It’s a well-oiled machine,” says Bill. Even beyond the systems of the kitchen, the restaurant relies on elaborate organization. A laundry room where chefs’ whites are washed on site, a potato peeling and slicing station where pallets of spuds are transformed into shoestring fries, and a storage room just for lightbulbs are all contained in the building’s labyrinthine basement.
Nary a day goes by without a bulb needing changing in the large, softly lit dining room and lounge; Hrousalas won’t let a single one go dark. “Steve takes care of this place,” says chef Bill.
Hrousalas is careful with every element of upkeep in the restaurant, sending out the iconic red chairs for reupholstering at any sign of wear, so that while the decor may appear vintage, it always looks brand new. Because of this, stepping into Rae & Jerry’s feels like entering a time machine, the interior a visual representation of the warmth and tradition the space carries.
Bill himself has been a fixture at the restaurant for nine years, ascending to head chef status four years ago. Enamoured with cooking since the age of 5, when he began helping out in his father’s restaurant near Winnipeg beach, Bill’s career path wound through several years of working in hotels, preparing banquets and special events. Eventually, he rejoined his father, taking over for him in the kitchen at Rae & Jerry’s when he retired.
The staff, like the customers, feel like family at this bastion of old school eating; many have worked in the restaurant for more than 20 years. Rae & Jerry’s has proved the value of finding what works and sticking to it, staking its claim in the city with a commitment to consistency and keeping tradition.