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Living proof the American dream exists

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Posted: Friday, May 30, 2003 10:00 pm

The American Dream is alive and flourishing on the outskirts of Lodi, surrounded by plastic swans and American flags and strawberry fields.

This is the home of Socrates Papadimatos, immigrant, family man, chef to celebrities and believer in the elevating power of hard work.

His story includes the Capraesque image of a young man coming to America with only pennies in his pockets. It includes a series of kitchen jobs leading to the ownership of a legendary lodge in the Catskills serving outdoorsmen and dignitaries.

Ultimately, it is a story of dreams and hard work and making the most of one's gifts.

Reichart Heinitz

Reichart Heinitz

Socrates, who is 73, was born on the halcyon island of Cephalonia in Greece. His family owned a farm and as a boy he toiled long hours doing the daily chores. From his father, he learned to work long, hard hours. From his mother, he learned to cook. Chicken, fish, beef, vegetables - all the bounty of the Greek isle and its shores.

As it turned out, working with food would be a theme of his life - and a key to his success.

"I believe in working hard," he said recently, seated at the kitchen table of his comfortable home west of Lodi on Highway 12. "And cooking. Well, cooking is my gift."

It was as a cook's helper that Socrates found work aboard a freighter bound for New York in 1948. Post-war Greece offered few opportunities for a young man with ambition and boundless energy. So he grabbed the chance to join the ship's crew and did the difficult, sometimes grimy work of the galley. Peeled the potatoes. Cleaned the oven. Washed the pots and pans.

"I did whatever needed to be done," he recalled, displaying photos of the ship. "I wanted to be cooperative, to get ahead."

Socrates left the ship in New York, an illegal immigrant, but quickly melted into the Greek community and found work at a restaurant. Soon he ascended from helper to prep cook to broilerman to chef. He gained a reputation as committed, innovative and fast. He became a top chef at nightclubs and restaurants on Long Island, including Guy Lombardo's in Freeport.

Then a setback: He was seized by immigration agents and faced deportation. Luckily, a food supplier he had befriended came forward and posted bail. Socrates was able to hire a lawyer and launch the formal process of becoming a citizen.

In 1955, he met Lenna Selles, a Lodi girl whose brother had become acquainted with Socrates on the East Coast.

"I saw a picture of her, and I said right then, 'I want to marry her,'" he recalled.

He traveled to Lodi. The two courted and married.

"I wasn't absolutely certain I wanted to marry him after I first met him," Lenna recalled with a smile. "But he kind of grows on you - and I was ready to get out of Lodi."

The two married and started a family. Socrates worked as a top chef in San Diego before moving back to the East Coast to take over kitchens at upscale nightclubs and restaurants. He honed his skills as a chef, taking pride in preparing a dizzying variety of dishes, from frog's legs to fish cakes with spaghetti, from a secret Greek pizza to trout almondine and eggplant moussaka.

One of many dishes he created himself included lobster, veal, chicken, steak, shrimp, garlic and lemon. He called the eclectic dish the "Socrates Philosophy."

"It gave you something to think about," quipped Lenna.

In the early '80s, the family moved to the Catskills and took over the Antrim Lodge. Founded in 1890, through the years the lodge had provided bed and board to many noted writers, politicians and athletes seeking refuge from the hurly-burly of life in New York City.

Running the lodge was a family enterprise. Socrates presided over the kitchen and Lenna managed the office and lodgings. Their son, Mark, managed the dining room and bar, daughter Ava worked as hostess and daughter Revecca worked as a waitress. Daughter Taysie lived in nearby Brockport with her husband and family.

The family ran the inn for more than a decade, serving such notables as CBS anchorman Dan Rather, the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Moynihan and the late newsman Charles Kuralt.

Perhaps the highlight was in 1984, when former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalyn, came to the lodge for a press conference and fund-raising dinner. Carter, an avid fly fisherman, had agreed to raise funds to maintain the quality of the adjacent Beaverkill River, one of the world's legendary fishing streams.

Organizers asked Socrates what the large banquet would cost. When he learned Carter would be the guest speaker, Socrates dropped the price substantially - to zero.

"I told them it was my honor to have a president come to my lodge," he said.

Socrates and Lenna sometimes worked 18 hours straight to keep the lodge going. It was both exhausting and satisfying. Socrates and Lenna sold the lodge and, after operating another lodge for a few years, retired to Lodi in 1996. The couple had purchased a home and property in Lenna's hometown several years before.

"Lodi reminds me of Cephalonia - the weather is mild and you can grow anything," he said.

Socrates continues to grow fruits and vegetables. And he continues to cook. He shares his bounty with an array of friends around town, dropping off fresh pies and rice pudding and strawberries.

He has returned several times to Greece and still has great fondness for it.

But for Socrates, the U.S. has no equal.

"America, she is a great, great country," he said. "You can go as high as you want to go. Nothing comes easy. But if you work hard and have confidence in yourself, you can do anything."

Richard Hanner is the Lodi News-Sentinel’s editor. He can be reached at (209) 369-7035; at 125 N. Church St., or via e-mail.

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