Mary Caton – Jan 29, 2015
Thom Racovitis, a Windsor chef famous for nourishing both body and soul, has died.
Having battled multiple health issues for several years, the former owner of the iconic Tunnel Bar-B-Q restaurant died early Thursday morning. He was 72.
Just a day earlier, he was busy at work with his daughter, Helena Ventrella, pouring over details for their bottling line of spices and sauces.
“He just got his new business cards,” Ventrella said of their joint venture called InnerSeasonings International. “He was excited and happy.”
Required to electronically sign in and out of the office, Ventrella said staff noticed later in the day that he forgot to sign himself out Wednesday.
“Of course he never signed out. He wasn’t leaving. He’s going to be there overseeing us,” she said.
Despite battling kidney cancer and taking home dialysis treatments from his wife Marilyn, Ventrella said Racovitis remained on the go when his health permitted.
He was in the middle of writing a family cookbook and just had cataract surgery last week.
“He was an inspiration to a lot of us,” fellow chef Vincenzo Del Duca said. “He had a big heart. He wanted to see the best come out of every person who crossed his path. Anything he did was for the betterment of the culinary profession and his colleagues.”
Racovitis was a generous mentor to countless young chefs and hospitality workers.
“For those of us in the old guard, we called him the Pope,” recalled the 60-year-old Del Duca, who worked under Racovitis as a young cook at TBQ’s Other Place. “You’d say ‘I’ve got to talk to the Pope.’ If he gave you his blessing about something, that was good enough for us.”
His parents opened Tunnel Bar-B-Q in 1941, the year before Thom was born. After studying marketing and culinary arts at Oklahoma State, Racovitis joined the family business famous for ribs, chicken and mouth-watering desserts and helped it expand into multiple locations employing close to 600 people.
“Knowing his talent and abilities and how he took care of the brand as an executive chef, the thing that always comes to the forefront is he wanted to give back and be part of the community,” said friend John Fairley, the vice-president of college and community affairs for St. Clair College.
Fairley was a salesman for CKLW radio back in the ‘80s when he first met Racovitis. He dropped by Tunnel Bar-B-Q looking to sell advertising spots at a time when Racovitis was searching for ways to promote several local charity fundraisers.
Soon, Fairley was the emcee for events the station helped publicize.
“His wheels were always spinning,” Fairley said. “He knew his role and he knew how to coax everybody to be a part of something. The best thing about going to talk to him, you always ate. He always said the food’s coming.”
Racovitis promoted and aided a wide array of charitable causes in Windsor through the years. Even the “Toast to Thom Gala” held in his honour last fall was a two-pronged fundraiser. It established the Thom Racovitis scholarship which will be awarded for the first time next month to a second-year culinary student at St. Clair.
The gala also helped purchase two renal dialysis chairs for Windsor Regional Hospital’s program.
Racovitis found the existing chairs uncomfortable. Dr. Al Kadri, the medical lead for the dialysis program, once worked for Racovitis as a teenager at The Other Place.
“I did cleanup at the restaurant,” Kadri said. “He was a very good guy, good to his employees.”
Kadri got to know him again years later as a patient.
“A lovely, kind-hearted man, very much a family man,” Kadri said.
When veteran food writer Ted Whipp needed a thoughtful quote for a Windsor Star article he often turned to Racovitis.
“He was a walking food encyclopedia,” Whipp said. “He was so knowledgeable about food and so curious, exploring techniques, ingredients, their origins, flavours and use.”
Racovitis and his family closed the doors on Tunnel Bar-B-Q last year when they sold the building and property for $4 million to the University of Windsor for a future art school.
That merely opened a door to new adventures.
“He set the bar high,” Ventrella said. “He was tough but he got the best out of people. So much of what I know and practice in my own business I learned from him.”
Racovitis is survived by his wife and three children. Windsor Chapel on Banwell Road is handling the arrangements. Ventrella said the family opted for only afternoon visitation Sunday so everyone could watch the Super Bowl.
“He played football and he loved football,” Ventrella said. “He would want that.”
The funeral service will be held Monday at the McEwan campus of Our Lady of Assumption.
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