Jeanne Uzdawinis had a vision for a restaurant that would nourish not only its customers but its Lincoln Square community.
The result was Cafe Selmarie, 4729 N. Lincoln Ave., co-founded in 1983 with partner and friend Birgit Kobayashi and still going strong.
Kobayashi said she and Uzdawinis were both enthusiastic bakers who lived near each other but had never met until Uzdawinis whipped up something for a neighbor’s event.
“Jeanne sent a hazelnut cheesecake,” Kobayashi said. “ ‘Oh my God,’ I thought, ‘I’ve got to meet this woman.’ ”
The two finally met in a grocery store and later, over coffee, decided to start a neighborhood place that would offer just pastries and coffee.
“That was all we had our sights on,” Kobayashi said.
Over time, Cafe Selmarie, on Lincoln Avenue in the heart of the North Side Lincoln Square neighborhood, expanded its offerings to include breakfast, lunch and dinner six days a week.
Uzdawinis, 63, died of ovarian cancer Oct. 8 in JourneyCare in Glenview, according to her husband, John Boesche. She had lived in Lincoln Square, just blocks from her restaurant, for more than 35 years.
Uzdawinis grew up in Indianapolis, where she learned home baking from her mother. But cooking for a career wasn’t at the top of her list, her husband said. Love of dance took her to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem to study modern dance for her first year of college.
A job in the education department of the Indianapolis Zoo led to two years at the University of Wisconsin at Madison to study zoology. But she also took some dance classes there and finally decided to return to dancing, moving to Chicago to study at Columbia College, where she got a bachelor’s degree in modern dance.
She danced professionally in Chicago for two or three years with the Mordine and Co. Dance Theater.
“She got tired of waking up sore every morning,” Boesche said. “She ‘defected’ and decided to become a pastry chef.”
She was already thinking about opening a restaurant, but knew she needed some solid skills beyond her love of cooking. At a time when restaurant kitchens were often closed to women, she managed to find her way into several cooking jobs.
That included about two years with the since-closed Rolf’s Patisserie, where Boesche said Uzdawinis really learned the art of baking and pastry-making.
She began making pastries out of her house, eventually got a couple of restaurants as customers and then began renting a commercial kitchen. That was where Kobayashi came in, first as an employee and within weeks as a partner.
“Wholesale accounts kept us going initially,” Kobayashi said. The business grew, guided by a simple approach.
“Jeanne insisted on consistency and quality,” Kobayashi said. “That was the business model.”
The business grew with the addition of sandwiches, then soups and finally, about five years in, with a full menu of breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Along the way, Cafe Selmarie became not only a neighborhood gathering place, but one that attracts a wider audience, including politicians (Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel is said to be a fan of the granola), musicians, actors and Chicago television personalities.
That’s no surprise to Carol Bobrow, a longtime friend who met Uzdawinis when she replaced Bobrow in the Mordine dance company. “She was the most reasonable person; she just did everything right … and treated everyone so well.”
Bobrow said no one in Lincoln Square knew more people. “She was kind of like the unofficial mayor. The cafe is the heart of her neighborhood.”
“The cafe was definitely an integral part of the neighborhood from the beginning, and Jeanne was an integral part of the neighborhood too,” Boesche said. Some of its customers have grown up with the place, from first dates to wedding cakes to birthday cakes for kids to graduation parties for some of those kids.
“She was extraordinary and I was born under a lucky star to meet her and be part of this wonderful cafe we created,” Kobayashi said. “We’re a fixture in the neighborhood and we plan to stay.”
Uzdawinis is also survived by her daughter, Madeleine; a sister, Kathy Laham; and a brother, Phillip Uzdawinis.
Visitation will be from 3 to 8 p.m. Saturday in Drake & Son Funeral Home, 5303 N. Western Ave., Chicago. A celebration of her life is being planned.
Megan is a freelance reporter.
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