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Ryszard Zawadzki, who runs a pair of northwest-side restaurants, got his start in the kitchen of the LA Playboy mansion two years after he arrived from Poland. “In 1971 I was in E.C. Goodman Tech Chef School in New Britain, Connecticut, and there was an announcement that the Playboy mansion was looking for a European chef,” remembers Zawadzki, who was only 22 at the time. “I went to the mansion, and they put me to work. The second day [Hugh] Hefner came to the kitchen. He knew I was from Poland, and he said he was looking for someone from Europe to run the kitchen. On Sunday they had a big function, and the next day they hired me.”
Back then Hefner spent most of his time in Chicago, making sure his magazine was cashing in on the sexual revolution. But every ten days he flew to his LA mansion to entertain celebrity guests with movies, tennis, orgies, and Zawadzki’s cooking. “You wouldn’t believe it,” Zawadzki says. “He brought a full plane of women–40, 50 bunnies. When Hefner was in town they had three banquets.”
On weekends when Hefner was in residence, the mansion’s eight-man kitchen ran 24 hours a day. Besides banquets, they often prepared lunch for 200 on Friday afternoons and barbecues during the Sunday tennis outings. They also satisfied the gustatory whims of celebrity guests such as Bill Cosby, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra. When Roman Polanski moved into the mansion to edit Macbeth, Zawadzki provided him with home cooking. “The butler came to me, and he said, ‘Ryszard, we’ve got a Polish guy, and he wants kielbasa.’ In California they don’t know kielbasa. I called him and spoke to him in Polish. He’s so surprised he dropped the phone. He said, ‘I’m sorry. I thought I was having a dream.'”
That was the first of only two times Zawadzki got to try his Polish cooking at the mansion. The second time he prepared sauerkraut soup for a banquet. He starts laughing. “The next day I have memo from Hefner. ‘Please don’t cook any sauerkraut soup. Whole mansion was farting.'”
When Hefner wasn’t around, the only person living at the mansion was his girlfriend, Barbi Benton. “She was a great cook,” Zawadzki says. “Many times we baked together–cookies, dessert. We planned the menu.”
Zawadzki was careful to keep his relationship with her, and all the other women he saw at the mansion, on a strictly culinary level. He says Hefner made it clear that women were for guests only. “The rule was like this: look, but don’t touch. There were security guards–they were supposed to look, not touch. The bunny would brag about [an encounter], and the guards would get fired.”
Zawadzki left the mansion in 1972, after being mauled by one of Hefner’s guard dogs. He had plastic surgery twice and still has a long white scar on his throat. He sued Playboy and used the settlement money to start his own restaurant in Playa del Rey.
In 1981 he moved to Chicago because it has a large Polish community and because “people are less phony than in California.” After operating a seafood restaurant called Pelican Catch for several years, he moved in 1989 to the corner of Lawrence and Milwaukee, where he opened the Pierogi Inn, a storefront eatery serving the comfort foods of his homeland–sauerkraut, pork chops, beef goulash, kolduny, chicken paprika. “It’s a nostalgia place, for mama or grandma cooking,” says Zawadzki, whose mother, Alexandria, prepares most of the soups.
The Pierogi Inn is a homey restaurant–the menu is chalked on a board behind the counter, the walls are decorated with huge photographs of rural Poland. When he’s not cooking, Zawadzki sometimes sits at a window table, listening to a radio station that plays Polish versions of “Oh, Pretty Woman” and “Sugar, Sugar” and greeting customers who come in just to eat kolduny and gab in Polish. “All the Polish entertainers who come to Chicago, they come to Pierogi Inn,” Zawadzki says. “This is like when you go to Rome you go to the Vatican.”
Zawadzki had begun building his name in the Polish community before he opened the Pierogi Inn, as host of the Channel 25 TV program Cooking With Chef Ryszard. Usually he cooked with Polish-American luminaries, such as Cook County commissioner Ted Lechowicz and Cook County circuit court clerk Aurelia Pucinski, but he was willing to share his kitchen with celebrities from other ethnic groups too. “Congressman Gutierrez came in–he cooked some kind of fish. The guy from Nick’s Fishmarket–we cooked together.”
Cooking With Chef Ryszard petered out last year, but Zawadzki’s still on television, as the host of Zdrowe Gotowanie z Zepterrem (“Healthy Cooking With Zepter”), a ten-minute segment that runs every Monday on Polvision, a nightly Polish-language program on Channel 23. He tapes the show at the Gold Coast store of his sponsor, Zepter, a Swiss cookware manufacturer. (He also has a video, Wigilia With Chef Ryszard, in which he describes, in English, how to cook a Polish Christmas Eve feast; it’s on sale at the Polonia Book Store on Milwaukee.)
But Zawadzki’s most excited about his new restaurant, Chopin Mon Ami, which opened in February a few doors down from the Pierogi Inn. He named the place after a French pop song about Frederic Chopin, one of his idols. “He was the ambassador of Polish pride around the world, especially when Poland was divided and he had to leave Poland because he didn’t want to live under the Russian occupation. He was the greatest Polish person. His mazurkas, his polonaises–you listen to them and you feel nostalgia for Poland.”
On the menu at Chopin Mon Ami, 4801 N. Milwaukee, are dishes from Poland, France, and Spain, the three countries where the composer spent his life. You can order escargots “burgugnon” and Polish mushroom soup as appetizers, then paella de mariscos as an entree. Zawadzki has also included classic Polish recipes, such as cielicina po warszawsku (Warsaw-style veal) and bazant po krolewsku (roasted breast of pheasant). The restaurant is open 4 to 11 Tuesday through Sunday; 773-685-0782. The Pierogi Inn, 5318 W. Lawrence, is open 10 to 10 seven days a week; 773-736-4815. –Ted Kleine
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Eugene Zakusilo.