Obituary: Joel P. Wolfe, Restaurant Lisanne founder
Joel P. Wolfe died on March 2, 2015. He was 78 years old. He was born in Brooklyn on September 19, 1936, the oldest of three sons. His father, Seymour Wolfe, was a milkman and his mother Rachel (Rae) Borrin Wolfe was a Canadian expat. His mother’s family, Jews who had emigrated from the pogroms in Polish Russia (actually Bellarus), grew up in the Jewish area of Montreal called Mile End. Although Joel spent most of his childhood in the Bronx, he spent his childhood summers in the Laurentian mountains with his Montreal relatives. He always had strong ties to his mother’s side of the family, who could tell lively stories and jokes and had the best bakers.
He found his love of fencing at City College, where he got to compete on a national level. He majored in psychology mostly because he had an enigmatic professor, Kenneth Clark, who played a pivotal role in the Brown vs. Board of Education case. After college he didn’t have a career path so he joined the Army in Fort Bragg, where he found his love of the stage and acting. After the army, Joel took several, less interesting jobs, before he met the love of his life, Sue Heacock. Sue always encouraged him to follow his dreams.
A year after they first met, they walked down the aisle — and never looked back. The atheist Jewish actor and the entrepreneurial Quaker made the perfect team. Joel and Sue moved from a studio in Yorkville to a townhouse on Adelphi St in Fort Greene in the late 1960’s. During his first career as an actor, he toured in 2 national shows, did dinner theater and summer stock, suffered through commercials — did “character roles” in some major motion pictures and shared a room with Morgan Freeman while performing a play called “Royal Hunt of the Sun”. When Joel wasn’t auditioning he would watch Julia Child on TV — that is how he fell in love with French food. With no training other than some community college courses and Julia Child, along with Jacques Pepin, Joel laid the foundation for the next phase of his life. Joel had grown disenchanted with his acting career, and had a dream of opening a French restaurant.
In 1970, Joel and Sue bought a building on Atlantic Avenue with the intention of opening a French continental restaurant. The family soon realized that they would have to move in above the restaurant in Boerum Hill, or Joel would never see his wife or daughter. Joel never wrote a book, but he did inscribe his wife and daughter’s names in the pages of his second career.
Lissa + Susanne = Lisanne
Restaurant Lisanne opened in 1979 and was a successful restaurant that received high ratings in the earliest Zagat books. Joel opened the French restaurant that he dreamed about, and opened it on his own terms. He was a Brooklyn culinary visionary — 20 years ahead of his time – the menu was seasonal from week to week. He strived to demystify French food. Each night he would go from table to table holding a handwritten menu on a blackboard, so that he could explain the preparations and components of each dish.
Customers came because they knew they would get to eat the most delicious seasonally appropriate food. But they kept coming back because they knew they would be able to ask Joel about the menu, make requests for a repeat of a favorite specialty, or talk about the newest spy novel. He had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of cinema greats. Regular customers quickly became friends.
Joel made sure that the restaurant was accessible to the neighborhood. Even before the restaurant opened, Joel participated in every Atlantic Antic providing an alternative to Italian Sausage and Funnel Cake. Once the restaurant opened, there was no formal dress code. “Wear Shoes” was the response when asked if a coat and tie were necessary attire for gentlemen. Joel loved the restaurant, but by 1987 he was ready for his next career. Joel closed the restaurant, and at age 51 became a student at the Swedish Institute. As part of his training, Joel massaged fencers at the Fencer’s Club in Manhattan. There he reconnected with his love of fencing. Joel sparred with the senior group, who called him “the kid.” Joel had a fulfilling third and final career as a massage therapist.
When Joel retired from massage therapy, he maintained a strong neighborhood presence. Often he would be “volunteered” by Sue to be a chef for a neighborhood charity auction.
A couple of years ago a doctor asked Joel what he loved about his wife. I’m sure there were many answers upon his tongue — but the quickest and strongest was “she never quits.” Joel — as Sue would call him “my Renaissance man” — did reinvent himself in careers that he liked to say “appealed to hedonism.” Joel may have left his acting career in the late 1970’s, but he always had a stage presence. He did not talk much, but you always knew he had something intelligent to say. He said more with a smile than most could say in an hour. And his double takes were delicious.
There will be a memorial service at the Brooklyn Friends Meetinghouse 110 Schermerhorn St corner of Boerum Pl on Saturday, May 2 at 11 a.m. with a short reception to follow.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks for donations to be made to either of Joel’s favorite charities: The Peter Westbrook foundation: www.PeterWestbrook.org or Joel’s alma mater: www.citycollegefund.org
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