All you can eat in the Catskills

April 25, 2000
 By Barry Lewis
 Times Herald-Record
Frankie Abreu is down to serving his last three plates of sautéed mushroom caps with onions, a couple of small orders of halibut scallops with tartar sauce and two more dishes of baked noodles and cheese with sour cream.

Sylvia Elgart of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, catches his eye and asks for some slices of tomatoes. Nothing fancy, don't need a big salad, just some tomatoes.

Before Sylvia can reach for the dressing, a plate of tomatoes is placed before her, right next to the untouched steamed vegetable platter. "How many times have I gone into the kitchen?"

Abreu repeats the question out loud, wiping the sweat from his brow. He remains neatly dressed in a white shirt and black pants, his black clip-on bow tie still in place. His red waiter's jacket has "Frankie" in gold script placed just off the lapel. On this day, he is serving 62 guests at nine tables at the Raleigh Hotel in South Fallsburg.

How many trips to the kitchen, its doors about a hundred feet from his station?

"Frankie, can we get a bottle of ginger ale?" asks Jerry Lang of Fishkill, who needs help washing down the tuna salad and matzoh.

After 31 seasons of serving in the Catskills, Abreu knows the golden rule. Never leave the kitchen with just one of anything. He brings three bottles of ginger ale back to the table of 13.

And so goes Passover in the Catskills, where Jewish families gather in a resort to share quality time, exchange stories, pray, play bingo, go to shows and eat.

And eat. And eat. Three times a day, for eight days.

It's called the American plan. For one inclusive price, guests order what they want, as much as they want. From the lunch menu, there is a choice of juice, three kinds of soup, a dozen hot and cold entrees, two types of vegetables and four different desserts.

The menu is a working plan. A blueprint. Many will divert from it. "We'll give them anything," explains Diane Pavelchak, the assistant maitre d'. "We find a way to get it."

After 20 years working in various hotels, Pavelchak knows the way to a guest's heart is with food.

Ann Teplitsky, from New York's Lower East Side, is sitting with her husband, Bernie. She says they've made the trip to the mountains "since the beginning of time." For six-year-old Lawrence, her great-grandson sitting across the table, it may seem that long.

Look around the dining room, and a quick head count of the resort's nearly 600 guests finds fewer than two dozen under the voting age.

"Children don't want to go with their parents to the Catskills; they want to go to Europe or on cruises," said Sylvia Elgart, whose husband, Teddy, brought 200 guests to the Raleigh with their group, from the Kingsbay Y of Brooklyn. "If they don't get gambling up here, you'll see even less young people," said Teddy, reacting to the issue of the day.

Mara Finkelman, 13, who came up with her parents from West Hempstead, admits the days can be boring. But as with most youngsters, she seems less troubled when biting into her matzoh pizza.

Along with fewer young people, the biggest change for the resorts during the holidays is the growing number of products now deemed kosher for Passover. "The kitchens were somewhat limited years ago," said Bill Shuart of Harris, the kitchen steward. "Even Sweet 'n Low now makes a product specially for Passover."

He says there are certain staples that are never used during Passover, including peas, beans, corn, cornstarch and yeast. But Shuart says there are more than enough ingredients used over the eight days to make up for what is not allowed.

Over the holiday, he says, guests will consume 24,000 eggs, 1,000 pounds of sour cream, 800 pounds of cottage cheese, 3,000 pounds of fresh fish (1,500 pounds of salmon, 350 pounds of lox), 1,700 boxes of matzoh (1,000 boxes of regular, 700 boxes of egg matzoh) and 50 bags containing 50 pounds of potatoes each.

Milton Laks of Manhattan has been coming up to the mountains with his wife, Esther, for 35 years. For him, Passover means family, gathering with his children and grandchildren.

And white fish. "I love white fish. And they give you such big slices, too. All you need is a big stomach."

What to eat is the furthest thing from Abreu's mind. He says the runs into the kitchen and the endless supply of main and side dishes cool his appetite. "I get full watching these folks eat," he says. "I could never eat like this ."

But he has no problem serving them. When the eight days are over, Abreu, who was born in Puerto Rico but now lives in Monticello, expects to have earned about $800 in tips. But nothing is guaranteed. "It's not easy money," said Abreu. "This is not easy work, but I love it ... and I love these people," he said, loosening his tie.

Another meal down.

"Frankie, listen, darling, do you have any more macaroons?"

Teddy Elgart doesn't need to ask twice. Abreu returns quickly with a bowlful.


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