Judy Gethers came from deli royalty, part of the family that owned Ratner’s on the Lower East Side of New York, maybe the most famous Jewish dairy restaurant in the world for most of the 20th century.
She also happened to train as a chef with a young upstart named Wolfgang Puck at the fabled Ma Maison in Los Angeles.
One could say that food was important to Judy Gethers, who, at the age of 53, became a mentor to a whole generation of chefs and a renowned cookbook author. So, when her son Peter set out to write “My Mother’s Kitchen,” he intended it to be “a life in food,” he told the Chronicle.
Instead, he said, the book “really turned out to be both a story of a mother-son friendship, and also a lesson on how to not just live your life, but how to live the end of your life. It became an end of life story.”
Peter Gethers will be at Rodef Shalom Congregation on May 15 at 7 p.m. to talk about “My Mother’s Kitchen” as part of the congregation’s “A Conversation with the Author” series.
While Judy Gethers grew up “immersed in food” as part of the Ratner clan, Ratner’s “was hardly haute cuisine,” said Gethers, speaking by phone from New York. “As I have said often, it was the kind of food where in the middle of the meal you could actually feel your arteries hardening. But it was great, and it was legendary, partly because of the food, and partly because the waiters were all 120 years old.”
But Judy had a culinary awakening once the family moved to Los Angeles in the late 1960s. Gethers’ father was a television writer, and Judy entertained often, learning how to cook and developing a more sophisticated palate.
By 1975, Ma Maison had opened, “the first great restaurant in L.A.,” Gethers said. Naturally, his parents became regulars.
By this time, Gethers had moved back to New York, but had come to L.A. for a visit. His mother took him and his girlfriend for lunch at Ma Maison, and it was at that moment that her life changed.
“The owner of the restaurant sat at our table, because my mom was a regular,” her son recalled, “and she said to him, at 53, having never worked a day in her life, ‘I really want to become a good French cook. What should I do?’”
The owner of Ma Maison told Judy that if she wanted to learn to be an accomplished cook, she should come to work in the kitchen at Ma Maison — for free.
“And my mother, much to my astonishment, said, without missing a beat, ‘OK,’” Gethers said. “And she went to work there for free three nights a week. The baby unknown chef — his first job running a restaurant was at La Maison — was a guy named Wolfgang Puck, and so exactly a year later, my mother was not only a good French cook, but she was being mentored in the kitchen by people like Wolfgang Puck and Nancy Silverton and Jonathan Waxman, all of whom went on to become culinary legends and went on to run world famous restaurants. And she was mentoring them in life.”
Almost exactly a year after she started at Ma Maison, Puck asked Judy to run the restaurant’s cooking school, Ma Cuisine.
“Suddenly she was cooking and teaching with people like Julia Child,” Gethers said, and she became “this legendary food person.”
Judy became “revered” in the food world, said her son.
He recounted a story of taking his mother to a new restaurant in New York when she was 80.
“It was one of the best meals I ever had,” Gethers said. “After the dinner my mother was so impressed, I went back to the kitchen to suck up to the owner and chef. The chef was Dan Barber, who is also now a legend in the food world, and the restaurant was Blue Hill, which is still there. It’s the restaurant where Barack Obama took Michelle after he won the first election.”
Gethers introduced himself to Barber, who immediately asked, “Are you any relation to Judy? She’s my idol. She’s the reason I got into cooking.”
When Gethers told his mother that the chef said she was his idol, his mother responded, “Well, of course I am,” Gethers recalled. “That happened until the day she died, and it happened everywhere.”
I write about how food is a connection to the past. It’s sort of like music. You can take a bite of a specific food, and not just remember the past, but emotionally be transported back there.
Judy Gethers defied the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald aphorism that “there are no second acts in American lives,” said her son.
“My mother really had five acts, and each one became more and more impressive,” Gethers said. “The Los Angeles act was really act three, which everyone thought would be the pinnacle of her life. Acts four and five were even more astonishing, although they were more personal than professional.”
After Judy Gethers moved to New York in her later years, she became a medical miracle.
Against daunting odds, she largely recovered from a massive stroke, all while keeping her sense of humor and her lust for life.
“The way that she accepted life, which I do connect to her life in the kitchen, was act four,” said Gethers.
Act five was shorter.
“When my mother turned 90, I realized how important food was, not only to her life, but to mine,” Gethers said. “So, I started asking her questions about food, because I didn’t know what foods were important to her. I got her to give me her fantasy breakfast, lunch and dinner menus, and they weren’t just her favorite foods, but they were all the foods that had emotional resonance for her for one reason or another.”
“My Mother’s Kitchen” is structured around Gethers creating those meals for his mother and includes recipes.
“The simplest recipe in the book is a matzah brie,” he said. “She picked it because I loved it as a kid, and it was connected to Ratner’s and was my favorite breakfast. And as I say in the book, a monkey can make matzah brie.”
Gethers painstakingly learned how to make all his mother’s favorite foods, including one of the first things Puck taught her how to prepare at Ma Maison, a dish called salmon coulibiac, which took Gethers two full days to master.
“For her 93rd birthday, she came out to my house in Sag Harbor, and I made a lunch for her,” Gethers said. “I made her this chocolate pudding that I had last had when I was 8 years old, and my mother was 40. But at that point, one of the reasons I picked that is because when my mother was 40, she got cancer and was given a 5 percent chance of living 12 months. She only lived 52 more years. She refused to give in.
“That chocolate pudding is crucial to the book, because I write about how food is a connection to the past. It’s sort of like music. You can take a bite of a specific food, and not just remember the past, but emotionally be transported back there.”
Shortly after her birthday, a large mass was found in Judy Gether’s stomach, causing her excessive pain, which the doctors suspected was cancer. They explained she had no more than two weeks to live and told her caregivers that she should only have ice chips and pain medication.
“Three weeks later, my mother went out for a pastrami sandwich,” Gethers said. And she lived for several more months. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.