ELMWOOD PARK, N.J. -- Not many 18 year olds will decide to buy a luncheonette one day and go into business for themselves.
But that's exactly what John "The Cook" Wareka of the popular Wareka Deli in Elmwood Park did 35 years ago.
Wareka was washing dishes at a catering company when he was approached about buying the little luncheonette that was in a converted garage. He quickly borrowed $3,000 with the help of his father and said he has never looked back.
Today, Wareka is known throughout the area for his awesome roasts, soups, salads and sandwiches.
He didn't really have any formal training in cooking, and didn't graduate from culinary school. If he ran into issues with his "experiments" in cooking, he would call his mother Barbara and get some advice.
His business grew into catering when a friend approached him for help with a party.
"One day I'm helping a friend with food for a party of 20 people and my next call is from Hewlett-Packard asking me to cater an event for 300 people," he laughs.
Today, the thrill of cooking and trying new things isn't lost on the hardworking man who works alongside his wife of many years, Wendy.
"You know what we fight about everyday,"? he asked. "What's for dinner."
Part of his success is trying new things, and by offering comfort foods like meatloaf and roasts. It's also about offering healthy items, like his best-selling chicken cutlets.
"People are into eating healthier today and that's good," he said.
He gets his ideas from watching food shows on TV and from cookbooks and magazines. But he always puts his own spin on things.
"I always say 'that looks good but let me try it this way'," he said. "There are never mistakes, someone is going to like it."
But cooking and catering isn't his only speciality. He also loves to help others, whether it's assisting a new cook or a restaurant owner solve a problem or coming up with a meal plan.
"I would really like to go into the restaurant consulting business. But I would have to change myself first," he said with a laugh. "You know, I'm always right, I would need to tone it down."
For now, he's busy as ever serving the regulars, and seeing a lot of new faces too. He isn't sure what will happen in the future.
"My son, also John, is in college and loves sports so he will probably do something with that when he graduates," he said. "But you never know, I might meet that right apprentice who will click and want to take over. Or, maybe my son will graduate from college and hate his job and take over."
But, he says, at only 52, he has a few good years left in him.
So, the stuffed cabbage fans waiting for the three or four times a year Wareka makes it (the cabbage has to be perfect, he said), there's still time to enjoy it for a while.
Wareka Deli and Catering is located at 199 Market St., Elmwood Park. Call 201-794-0966.