Jeanne Marie Uzdawinis, co-founder of one of Lincoln Square’s most enduring eateries, died Sunday of ovarian cancer. She was 63.
Her Cafe Selmarie restaurant, at 4729 N. Lincoln, started in 1983 as a storefront with a pastry case filled with tortes, cheesecakes, eclairs and good coffee.
It was four years before Starbucks expanded from Seattle to Chicago, and Cafe Selmarie had “maybe the first espresso machine in a three-mile radius,” according to her friend and co-founder, Birgit Kobayashi.
It expanded into a multi-room neighborhood anchor where customers came to celebrate milestones and dine on homey chili and chicken pot pie, as well as salted-caramel brownies and honey-lavender macaroons.
Regulars include Mayor Rahm Emanuel. He has dined there with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and fellow Obama White House alum and adviser David Axelrod.
Ms. Uzdawinis could often be seen walking the four blocks from her home to the restaurant, “and she had a smile and a greeting and a conversation for everyone she met,” said her husband, John Boesche. He said the restaurant will continue.
Before opening Cafe Selmarie, Ms. Uzdawinis worked at Gordon, an influential restaurant that started in the mid-1970s and helped transform Chicago’s meat-and-potatoes reputation. She also apprenticed at Rolf’s Patisserie.
Weeks after they met through a friend, she and Kobayashi decided to go into business together. They combined their middle names to christen the restaurant. Ms. Uzdawinis’ middle name is Marie, while Kobayashi’s is Selma.
Ms. Uzdawinis said, “ ‘I want to open a cafe in my neighborhood for my neighbors and my friends,’ ” Kobayashi said. “She wanted to provide something for her community.”
Their pastries were standouts, especially their morning buns. “All the basic food groups are there — sugar, butter and nuts. It’s missing chocolate, but if you have a morning bun with cappuccino, you have a complete meal,” a tongue-in cheek Ms. Uzdawinis told the Sun-Times in 1991.
In the 34 years they were in business, the women saw their clientele evolve through different life stages. Some customers met on first dates at Cafe Selmarie. “A few come back and get engaged, and we [made] some wedding cakes” for them, Kobayashi said.
Before entering the culinary world, Ms. Uzdawinis studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Student housing and apartments were already booked up, so she lived on a farm. There she learned to savor freshly gathered eggs and vegetables, her husband said.
Later, she earned a degree in modern dance from Columbia College Chicago. She performed with Mordine and Company Dance Theater. But after two years, she re-thought her career choice, her husband said.
“She was a little tired of waking up sore every morning,” he said.
She credited Chef John Terczak of Gordon with boosting her career. When she applied for work, “She was literally laughed out of some of the fine-dining restaurants in town and it was because she was a woman,” her husband said. And though Terczak once threw her flourless chocolate cake against a wall to show her the undercooked creation was pasty enough to stick, “He was very willing to accept men or women. He didn’t care. He wanted talent.”
Ms. Uzdawinis was a gifted knitter with a big circle of friends at Knit 1, 3856 N. Lincoln. In hospice, she used one of the soft blankets she made.
Arrangements are pending. She told everyone “I want a party” to celebrate her life, according to her husband.
She is also survived by her sister, Kathy Laham, and brother Phillip Uzdawinis. Visitation is scheduled from 3 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14 at Drake Funeral Home, 5303 N. Western Ave.
When cancer treatment made her fingers grow thin, her husband took her wedding ring for safekeeping. But when she stabilized for a time, “I decided to bring her ring back and slip it on her,” he said on her CaringBridge page. “I wanted us both to remember our commitment to each other.”
He asked their daughter Madeleine to be a witness. She sat on her mom’s hospital bed.
“Jeanne was very quiet; a lot of pain medication at that time,” he wrote. “I showed her the ring. She looked a little surprised. Then I held her hand, repeated my half of the wedding vows, and slipped it on her left ring finger. I have to say it was difficult to get through the ‘In sickness and in health’ part. But the ring stayed; good fit. She just quietly looked at me with maybe a little wonder or curiosity.
“The next morning she was a little more clear-headed,” he wrote. “We were sitting quietly when out of the blue she said, ‘By the way . . . I agree.’ I asked ‘With what?’ She said, ‘With what you said last night,’ and smiled.”