Fire cannot extinguish Chef Bruno's goodwill

This week I received sad news about two men who hold special places in my heart.

A Saturday fire destroyed the iconic Anaheim White House Restaurant, owned by Huntington Beach resident Bruno Serato.

And on Monday Newport's Ralph Rodheim lost his long battle with Lou Gehrig's disease.

In times like these, we hold on to memories of better times.

I first met Chef Bruno back in 2010. Public relations man Frank Groff invited me to meet his client, Serato, who had started a nonprofit organization, Caterina's Club, named after Serato's mom.

Serato had been quietly feeding motel kids nightly at the Boys and Girls Club in Anaheim.

Later that year I joined Serato as he cooked and delivered the meals to the kids. It wasn't long before he'd receive national and international attention, as well as numerous awards for his selfless endeavors.

And then there was the time I offered to cook for this master chef at my home, enlisting the help of my buddy Frank Mickadeit, the former OC Register columnist who now practices law. Now that was a hoot.

With the recent fire I, like many, was concerned about Serato. Not wanting to bother him, I reached out to Groff to see how things were going.

He explained GoFundMe pages popped up as soon as news of the fire broke. Groff coordinated the efforts, asking folks to take them down, and he started one main page, which collected over $100,000 in just the first four days toward the $350,000 goal.

Groff says the money will go to rebuilding costs that insurance won't cover. Though Serato had insurance, insuring full replacement costs for a building built in 1909 would have been prohibitive.

The GoFundMe efforts here will also go to helping employees. Every penny raised over the stated amount will be donated to Caterina's Club.

But it wasn't only the building that was lost; a lifetime of memories, photos of celebrities who dined there and Serato's coveted 2011 CNN Hero Award, were too.

Groff is reaching out to CNN to get a replacement.

"He's doesn't want people feeling sorry for him," Groff said. "He's the most selfless man I know."

The fire happened Saturday. By Monday, Serato was feeding the kids through the use of other restaurateurs' kitchens.

"It keeps his mind focused on the kids, so he doesn't have to think about the fire," Groff said. "I know when he goes home at night it's difficult for him, as he sits alone."

But the good news is Serato is receiving an amazing outpouring of love and support.

Sophia Loren called him, and her son, conductor Carlo Ponti Jr., closed his recent concert telling his audience about Serato's good works feeding over 1 million children.

Groff and Judy Walker, of Golden Rule Charity, will hold a Feb. 20 fundraiser at Highway 39 Event Center in Anaheim with 100% of net proceeds going to the Anaheim Whitehouse and its employees. Twenty chefs and restaurants serving bite-size tastes, beer and wine will be on hand. Doors open at 5 p.m. for $75 VIP ticket holders, and 6 p.m. for those who pay $50 for general admission. For more information, visit goldenrulecharity.org

My thoughts this week also focused on the passing of Rodheim, who was also giving and loved by many.

Our paths crossed many times, and what I remember most was his amazing smile and radiantly expressive eyes.

In 2006, he invited me to lunch, though I barely knew him. I'd just announced my bid for City Council against then-Councilwoman Leslie Daigle.

Rodeim shared a cautionary tale of his bid for council, and how devastated he and his family were by the lies and ugliness launched at him during that campaign. I sensed the hurt and anger still lingered, as he urged me to rethink my decision to avoid this same experience.

Months later, when my race got nasty, just as Rodheim described, I dropped out. But I never forgot how he candidly bared his soul, warning me of what was to come, and hoping to save me from it.

On Rodheim's Facebook page, his wife, Penny, posted her thanks for the kindness and support folks have shown since her husband's passing and asked friends to send photos or short videos of Ralph to she50barger@yahoo.com. These will be used in his upcoming memorial.

I will never forget the kindness he showed me.He was a lovely man. Rest in peace, Ralph.

BARBARA VENEZIA lives in Newport Beach. She can be reached at bvontv1@gmail.com.

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