I first met Ed Zaranski, the co founder and original chef of Cobblestones, in a high end resort kitchen outside New York City.
It was a memorable introduction. I had swiped an hors d’oeuvre off of a tray headed for a function, that was sitting in the kitchen pick-up window, and popped it in my mouth. An immediate BOOM! thundered when he gavel-like hammered the back of his chef’s knife against the stainless steel shelf. The sound actually made me jump.
I bent down to look through the gap between the two stainless shelves and came within inches of an icey glare that I will recall forever—his 6’2 wooden soldier-like frame, hawkish nose and glaring, black eyes focused on my own;
“If I were you, I would NEVER. Ever. Do that again.”
I never caught a glimpse of smile nor was there a “just kidding” offerred. Though having never seen him angry, actually having never heard him even raise his voice, over the next 27 years , I am certain now that he was teasing then, but at that moment…point made.
Before long, we were regularly visiting the local English pub after work known as The Cobblestone —a foreshadowing of sorts, where the Beck’s were encrusted in ice, the storage cooler so cold—an amazing refreshment after a 12 hour shift.
Ed Z’s arthritis had yet to become bothersome.
It was after one of those shifts, alone with Z in the parking lot, that I shed tears at hearing for the 1st time that I was to be a father, also for the 1st time, only minutes after receiving the news. “Congratulations Bubba” he smiled with his arm around my shoulder. To this day, I am still not sure who Bubba is.
We dreamed over many a Becks, of combining his culinary talent, with my imagination and business mindedness–of starting our own business and making our own hours.
I soon moved to Massachusetts, to become a proud father and frustrated restaurant manager. A year later my phone rang. “Hey Bubba…I was just offered the Chef’s job at The Top of the Hub. Ever hear of it?” And then, “Let’s start that business.”
Together again a couple of years later, we launched “This Affair” catering, wrote beautiful menus—with flights of fancy—Cormeal Encrusted Oysters and such—then proceeded to make many more ham salad finger sandwiches than we ever imagined! We always left a staff member behind as a “trail”, to bring whatever we forgot (extension cords, cooking oil, the fish…). We also always took $100.00 out after each job and treated the staff to beers or sushi or Mexican. We did all our own dishes, in our home sinks, between our full time jobs, while watching my daughter and sharing a beer or two. We always put the rest of the money in the bank, with visions of our own place, and a full time dishwasher!
Ed Z’s gout had yet to rear it’s enflamed and ugly head.
After a catered job one year–a large lakeside bbq, we were invited by the host to stick around and have some beers with the party. An hour later, when the beers had become scarce, Z “snuck” inside the clubhouse, “found” a 12 pack in someone’s refrigerator, and with great stealth, tiptoed through the empty front room, out to our catering truck (aka his pick up), snickering like Scooby Doo, at his own sneaky resourcefulness. We were confronted 5 minutes later. Ed did not realize he was pulling his Pink Panther routine while tiptoeing through a well lit greenhouse—as everyone outside, in the evening-dim, watched through the glass walls wondering what he was doing. We were not booked the following year.
Ed had aching feet. He liked to kick off his shoes right before he teed off. He played with his father’s woods. Real woods. Small heads, old school. Barefoot. With a 6 pack in the cart.
Once, after another catered affair, and a serious “unwinding” at Lowell’s infamous Johnny’s Bench—a bar in Lowell known for it’s likelihood to regularly produce a good brawl, we left, Ed a few paces behind me. Apparently, one of us offended someone before we were asked to leave. Though it’s likely to be true, I do not remember us doing so. And, unknown to me, the offend-ee followed me outside and prepared to sucker-punch me in the head from behind. I know this, because from the corner of my eye—at the same time I heard him cry out in pain—I saw the man being eased gently to his knees, as Ed Z had caught the clenched fist in mid air , from behind, and wrapped it in his own huge—cleaver-made-strong hands- squeezing as though ringing every drop of water from a sponge. Stepping over and around the wincing, would-have-been-punching-me guy, Z spun and walked backwards, as he wagged his finger all Mrs. Doubtfire-like and gave dude his best “tsk, tsk, oh no you don’t” dismissal. Drunk, impressed and grateful, I recognized at that moment that Ed was barefoot, carrying his shoes in his free hand.
On another occasion, packing up and piling the 6 foot round tables into the back of the pick up, and a certain “They’ll be fine” confirmation before driving off, led to a “whoosh, whoosh, whoosh” as we watched in the car mirrors three of them lofted by the wind, out of the truck and onto Rte 3 at 6oMPH. Dead panned, Ed immediately asked if we had insurance. One of the tables actually dropped it’s legs and landed standing, in the breakdown lane. While fetching the other two, Z suggested we have lunch–our table was ready!
Persistence and discipline paid off in 1994, armed with the $20K that we had set aside over 7 years, and an actual insurance policy, Ed, Kathy and I launched Cobblestones in downtown Lowell. Our dream of a small diner or café turned into a 12,000 square foot historic building in Lowell’s not-yet-resurgent downtown. Whatever. We finally had our own dishwasher, too clueless to be scared!
Ed loved the Far Side. A quiet, and rather humble “good Christian,” Ed often had a perspective that I did not understand until later. Moments later. Sometimes hours later. Because so often, you had to think about his cryptic meaning—Still waters run deep, and sometimes a bit murky!
Nearly twenty years ago, before this current flatbread revolution, I returned to the new Cobblestones excited after being out the night before; “Eddie…Check it out! I was out and had this amazing appetizer we should consider for the next menu. It was thin bread, charred right on the grill…with roasted plum tomatoes..slices of buffala mozzarella..some fresh basil and pancetta!” Dead panned once again, Ed looked at me and said “Sounds like pizza. You want we should do pizza?”
Ed once won a $1,000.00 raffle in a bar, close to our NY hometowns, over the Thanksgiving holiday. He smiled, gave gentle, dancing-finger high fives, promptly bought the entire bar a round, then gave the rest of the money back to the bartender, for the young, sick girl, who had inspired the raffle in the first place.
Ed left Cobblestones in 2001 , in pain and exhausted, 7 years after giving his all to making our restaurant go. He did not see us as being successful before we were “old men.” The constant repairs, the long hours with short compensation, the stress—He called it a “black hole” and moved on to a corporate kitchen job, a 5am to 1pm gig, which he hated, and ultimately left.
Ed played a beautiful piano and loved to sing. He did so for a local restaurant while cooking at a school for impaired chidren over the past few years, while taking care of his new family—His sons Ryan and his own Christopher, now aged 6. He was so proud.
My contact with Ed waned over the past years—we tried to get together for a round of golf or to exchange Christmas gifts annually. He loved Watney’s Stout and I loved trying to track it down. He seemed to like the newest Far Side calendar I gave him each year.
I was truly hoping to see Z this Christmas. It had been a couple of years.
The word came on a Sunday that he was very sick. And then, on Tuesday, that he had passed away.
Ed Zaranski was 51.
Ed was an incredible Chef, but for perhaps too long.
Ed was a father, and clearly for not nearly long enough.
A friend from day one, and such a good friend, yet the opportunity to thank him for that has passed as well.
Rest in peace Z man. I love you. And now, I will miss you, forever.