UB kosher cook dishin' on knish

NY Deli & Diner cook balances life with food and music

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A blues guitarist who doubles as a Jewish deli cook? Oy vey.

Willie Haddath lives a double life, working at the on campus at NY Deli & Diner. One might think after 13 years of preparing knish, stirring the broth for matzo ball soup and serving hungry students, life would get pretty routine – but not for 58-year-old Haddath.

During his 30 years working for Campus Dining and Shops (CDS), the kosher chef has spent his free time playing guitar in a blues band that is known throughout Buffalo as Willie and the Reinhardts.

“I wanted to be a chef, but I knew if I owned a restaurant, I wouldn’t be able to play music,” Haddath said. “I would never have a Friday or Saturday night off. If I even asked, they’d think I was crazy. So I’ve been working with Campus Dining, and now I get to do both things I love: cook great food and make music.”

Three days a week, Haddath serves food to hungry UB students and faculty at the NY Deli & Diner on North Campus. The deli serves kosher food, meaning it has been prepared satisfying the rules of Jewish law. The Buffalo native laughs and jokes with his coworkers and enjoys his time in the kitchen.

Ely Bokobza, the man who opened the deli 15 years ago, also works to create new recipes and serve made-to-order food to students and faculty.

“We’re all one big happy family here,” Bokobza said. “Of course I hear all about his band, I’ve been working with him for 13 years.”

Haddath got his first guitar at age 12 and has been playing since. He taught himself how to play when he became infatuated with the blues sounds of Eric Clapton and Chuck Barry, famous for their easy-going rock ‘n’ roll hits. He continued to play throughout his youth and adulthood and eventually started performing.

He has played alongside Jimmie Van Zant, who is cousins with rock-legend Lynyrd Skynyrd members Johnny and Ronnie Van Zant.

Haddath went on tour with Jimmie about five years ago, taking their combined musical ability and natural, soulful sound on the road.

Today, Willie doesn’t only play smooth blues music, he also teaches it. He offers lessons at his house and tries to teach kids not only the value of music, but also the importance of practicing it. As a self-taught musician, he took lessons before he started teaching because he wanted to perfect the art of sheet reading and pass it on to younger generations.

“Sometimes one of my students will say, ‘I can’t read music’ and I explain the value of sheet music,” Haddath said. “It’s eight notes, and even though it seems so simple to me now, I didn’t learn that way when I taught myself.”

In addition to teaching, Haddath performs solo or alongside his group, Willie and the Reinhardts.

They perform at local clubs around downtown Buffalo. The “Reinhardts” are a pair of brothers, Ted Reinhardt, 61, and his brother, Tom, 59, who play the bass and drums, respectively.

The band released an album titled “Live at Mohawk Place,” named after all of their shows at the famous downtown venue.

Whether it’s in the kitchen or behind his guitar, Haddath, likes to improvise.

In a kosher kitchen, although it took some adjustment for the non-kosher chef, he comes up with new recipes to improve the NY Deli & Diner menu. On stage he picks at his strings, plucking out blues tunes and reveling in the spotlight.

Haddath hopes to continue pursuing both of his passions for as long as he can.

email: arts@ubspectrum.com