A Chef’s Life, Seasoned With Compassion

“Restaurateur to the stars!” The words conjure up visions of opulent dinners for gorgeous women and well-heeled men, exotic dishes whose preparation has been overseen by an esteemed restaurant owner. This description would be entirely fitting for Bruno Serato, owner and proprietor of the Anaheim White House Restaurant in Anaheim, Calif., which is renowned for its award-winning, five-star cuisine.
But despite owning one of the most respected dining establishments on the West Coast, Serato still counts his ability to help even the humblest among us as the best part of who he is.
“Plenty of celebrities and movie stars have come into my restaurant,” he says with a smile. “But honestly, MY favorite stars are the motel kids I serve every night.”
He’s referring to the 300-plus homeless children that he and his foundation, Caterina’s Club, manage to keep from going to bed hungry.
A look into his background makes it easy to see where this outlook comes from.
“My grandparents were shepherds in Italy,” he says. “They didn’t have much, but they were such kind people that they were always giving milk and cheese from their sheep to the hungry people of the town who were struggling to feed their own children.”
Although the roots of his family tree are firmly planted in Verona, Italy, Serato himself was born in Laon, France, a small town about an hour north of Paris. After World War II, he said, there was very little work in their native land, so “my parents moved there to find work harvesting beets and potatoes. With seven children to support in this post-war economy, things were never easy, which meant never taking anything for granted!”
Eventually, though, they made the move back to their family’s homeland, and that is where, in 1970, they opened up a small trattoria of their own in Villanova.
“My first memory of working in the kitchen was when I was 14 and helping my mother cook for the customers,” Serato remembers. From age 14 to age 20, he worked there, learning skills and finetuning the “can-do” spirit that would serve him so well in the years to come. Still, there was always time to think of others -- and the time spent helping to prepare the food they all had worked so hard for became near-sacred for the young man.
Several years later, after a visit to his sister in sunny Southern California, he decided to relocate there himself. That’s when he learned about a local eatery called the White House. Upon first entering, he said, “I was in a dream. My whole body and soul KNEW that I was home!”
Housed in an impressive, yet inviting, estate built in 1909, this establishment was already a thriving bistro when Serato purchased it.
If anything though, he improved upon its lavish crème and gold ambience, accentuated by silk blossoms lining the walls. Five sensuously appointed dining areas are downstairs, and the second floor features six private salons designed to accommodate parties of all sizes. Each is named after a U.S. president. The menu is an inspired blend of Hollywood meets the Continent, of Old World and New. Serato combines French and Italian cuisine in a way that thoroughly pleases the American palate. There’s even an extraordinary dessert platter called “The Jackie O,” named for the first lady whom he admires the most.
Stars ranging from Carol Channing to Madonna started stopping by for the blue-ribbon fare.
Among the restaurant’s offerings, Serato considers the Ossobucco alla Milanese -- a succulent veal shank prepared in tantalizing Milanese style, then served with polenta and porcini mushroom sauce -- among his favorites. And when it comes to dessert, the man named this year’s “Restaurateur of the Year” by Riviera Magazine proudly proclaims his Chocolate Soufflé to be “Buonissimo! The very best in the West!”
“My goal is to keep everyone who walks into my restaurant happy about everything involving their experience here. I want people to smile when they leave!” declares Serato.
A fateful meeting between Serato and a young homeless boy -- one of many whose families dwell in the many motels located around the area’s most famous attraction, the Disneyland Resort -- pointed this master chef’s life in an unexpected direction.
“I met a 6-year-old kid who was eating potato chips (if even that) for dinner every night because there wasn’t anything else for him to eat,” he recalls. “That was when I knew I had to do something about it. After thinking about that first kid, it made me aware that there were an overwhelming amount of other kids in the same situation -- no dinner at night for them!”
Having achieved his own American dream, he realized he needed to do his part to help others. That’s when he put his connections to work creating Caterina’s Club.
“It had been my dream to honor my mother by creating a charity in her name,” he said. In 2003, the organization was founded, and it operates in conjunction with the Boys and Girls Club of Anaheim.
“We’ve served over a quarter of a million kids so far with no intention of stopping!” he said, adding that these meals are provided “every night, seven nights a week.”
Now, with the same self-assurance that has taken him so far, Serato looks toward a day when his enterprise goes national.
Earlier this year, Serato was named as one of Anderson Cooper’s CNN Heroes.
“Of course, I was overwhelmed to be selected,” the foodie-turned-philanthropist says with a modest grin. “Only a few people around the world ever get that honor. But although I may be a CNN Hero, I’m really just the same Bruno as before, doing what I’ve always done, what I love doing, and that’s what really counts!”
To learn more about Caterina’s Club, check out www.thecaterinasclub.org)
Bruno’s Spaghetti in Olive Oil and Garlic
“Spaghetti is still my favorite food” Bruno Serato says. Whether you want to treat unexpected guests to some inexpensive last-minute luxury dining or throw in a little mid-week elegance to your own mealtime, he offers this quick, easy, but delectable pasta dish direct from his Anaheim White House. Enjoy and buon appetito!
8 ounces spaghetti
1 Tbs salt (sea salt preferred)
¼ cup freshly diced garlic
3 Tbs olive oil
1 tsp chili pepper
2 quarts boiling water
grated Parmesan cheese (to taste)
The way I like it best is to start by filling a large pan with two quarts of water, to which you add 1 Tbs of salt (“This is a must!”). Bring to a boil, and then add 8 ounces of spaghetti. Cook for eight minutes. Drain when done. Meanwhile, in a separate pan, sauté ¼ cup of freshly diced garlic in 3 Tbs of olive oil until it gets light brown, then add 1 tsp of chili pepper. When the spaghetti is cooked, place it in the pan with the oil and garlic and mix well. Season with some grated Parmesan cheese for that extra zesty taste. (Serves two; double recipe as needed for more.)

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