You call your customers "family," and they'll eventually ask you to host the big holiday dinner at your place -- even when you are a Greek Orthodox Christian restaurateur and your Jewish clients want you to cook their Passover Seder.
"I'm from the island of Cyprus," begins Pete Panayiotou, a 49-year-old immigrant who owns The Continental Restaurant in Buffalo Grove. "I saw matzo balls once (on a trip to Israel in the 1970s as a kid with his farmer father), but I never touched them or never ate them."
Now, as he does for every Passover, Panayiotou makes nearly 3,000 matzo balls as part of the traditional Jewish dinner he'll serve Monday and Tuesday night in his restaurant for more than 300 paying holiday celebrants from the community.
"Isn't it amazing how things change?" says Panayiotou, who notes that he's looking forward to the Jewish holiday as much as his customers.
The annual tradition began 15 years ago when one of his best customers asked Panayiotou if he could make the traditional Seder meal for her extended family of 22.
"She told me to make brisket, chicken, whitefish, the matzo balls, and make sure there's no flour," remembers Panayiotou, who was up for the challenge. "It was very exciting to be a Greek Orthodox in a Jewish neighborhood and to celebrate a holiday."
The dinner was a success, even if he made a few rookie mistakes.
"The way we cut the brisket was wrong," Panayiotou says. "We brought the roast chicken out with stuffing, and you're not supposed to eat any bread."
Now, Panayiotou puts out a traditional Passover spread that rivals those of any bubbe or baleboste.
"He knows how to prepare a Passover plate," says Glen Brin of Long Grove, whose family has been eating a Passover Seder at The Continental Restaurant since the tradition began. Brin says customers appreciate Panayiotou's efforts to include everything from gefilte fish to flourless desserts, as well as "all the traditional things" such as parsley, horseradish, a hard-boiled egg, salted water and other symbolic foods that are part of the Jewish holiday. Having prepared more Passover meals than many of his guests, Panayiotou kiddingly tells customers "I'm more Jewish than you guys."
Families must reserve tables, which are adorned with white tablecloths, in advance. As he celebrates his 15th year of hosting the Passover Seder, Panayiotou says the hardest part is turning away the more than 200 patrons who were late making reservations for the sold-out event.
"He's special. He really wants to reach out to the community that supports him throughout the year," says Brin, who still remembers his family's first visit to the restaurant after his young daughter's soccer game. Panayiotou, a soccer fan, saw the girl's uniform and immediately made an impression on the Brins.
Panayiotou said, "'I'm sponsoring the team,'" recalls Brin, and immediately handed him the money to do so.
Brin will celebrate the first night of Passover at the restaurant with his wife, Darlene, that daughter Debbie, now 27, son Hal, 25, thoughts of Wayne, 21, who is a student at Bradley University, and some nieces, first cousins and dear friends.
"It's like you're at home. It feels like a home atmosphere because you see a lot the same people every year," Brin says. As he once told the late Daily Herald columnist Ruth Silverman at one of the earlier Seders, Brin's only complaint is that the Passover dietary restrictions prevent him for partaking in "Pete's pastitio," a Greek dish with cheese, meat and noodles.
For Panayiotou, who has invited Jewish friends to his home in Crystal Lake for Christmas and will cook two lambs for the April 24 Easter dinner at his restaurant, his immersion into a different culture has broadened his world at the same time it has made it seem smaller.
The Passover Seder "reminds me how I used to celebrate Easter dinner at home in Cyprus," Panayiotou says. "My mom wasn't going to put the chicken on the table until everyone was at the table. It's exactly the same thing the Jewish families do."