Downsize and retire to Florida or Arizona. Perfect your golf game. Travel the world. Finally write that crime novel you’ve talked about for years.

So go some of our stereotypes about retirement plans and dreams. But Richard Miller, 69, who retired from a career of 40-some years in pediatric medicine in June 2020, took the idea of new beginnings a little more to heart. After decades of private practice in northern California and Marblehead, Massachusetts, treating problems from sniffles and coughs to newborns in serious distress, Miller and his wife moved to Maine to be closer to their three grown sons. Standard-issue retirement stuff – so far.

Also, he got a new part-time job in a new field and a new boss. The job involved standing on his feet for long, sometimes sweltering days rolling rugelach and slicing mandel bread at a hot new takeout spot in the hot new food neighborhood of Knightville in South Portland. The new boss is Graeme Miller, the chef and proprietor of BenReuben’s Knishery, also, as it happens, Richard Miller’s youngest son. Have we mentioned that Graeme Miller named the restaurant for his dad? BenReuben means “son of Reuben” in Hebrew, and Reuben is Richard’s Hebrew name.

Don’t get the idea from this that Richard Miller is a gourmet, the sort of person who eats out at posh restaurants frequently, keeps an impressive wine cellar or used to come home from long days of patients and paperwork to spend hours at the stove mastering tricky, hand-rolled ravioli or toilsome cassoulet. Don’t think he’s the sort of high-powered professional who secretly dreamed of jettisoning it all and being a chef.

Far from it. Richard Miller loves food, but describes himself as a limited cook, a “meat and potatoes man” and a “chocoholic.” “I wouldn’t tell my patients this, but chocolate is the fifth food group,” he joked. His wife, Phyllis Ellsworth, is the cook in the family, he said, praising her cooking to the skies. She can glance in the refrigerator and no matter what its contents come up with a dish “that should be served at a restaurant.”

But it’s Richard Miller who is working at a restaurant, or, strictly speaking, a knishery.

Graeme Miller sets a knish on a baking tray. At his BenReuben’s Knishery, he makes 100 to 150 knishes a day in several flavors. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

WHIRLWIND BEGINNING

Knishes are sizable, savory Jewish pastries stuffed (and they will make you feel that way, too), with potatoes traditionally, also sauerkraut, onions, beef and cheese. Eastern European, or Ashkenazi Jewish in origin, they are often sold as snacks on the streets of New York. They can be baked or fried; at BenReuben’s they are baked. Graeme Miller says he explains them to the uninitiated as “Jewish hand pies. We kind of connect the dots for Mainers that way. Empanadas are another good comparison.”

He goes on to name Cornish pasties, Caribbean beef patties and Chinese steamed bao buns. “There is some form of knish in cultures all around the world, but maybe not called that,” said Graeme, who is given to eloquent pronouncements. “Not only are knish found in all cultures already, but Judaism is that way. Judaism is found in all corners of the world. Food comes along with that. With all that diaspora, we’ve joined our hands and plates together.”

These connections may also explain why, despite a statewide Jewish population of just under 1 percent according to some counts, BenReuben’s has had “such a crazy start,” Richard Miller said.

As the business’s website put it after week 1: “Whoa – there’s a lot of knish love out there!” From just about the minute BenReuben’s opened on May 10, the store’s knishes have been selling out, and Graeme and Richard Miller, who expected a slow unrolling, with time to work out any knish kinks, have sprinted to keep up with demand.

“I didn’t think people would know what knishes were,” Graeme Miller said. “It’s been a bit of an eye opener, and we’ve had to adjust.”

After that first week, the knishery closed for a couple days so Graeme Miller could figure out how to increase production. He bought more sheet trays and more baking racks. He’d like a second oven, but for the moment, his electricity in the space, a former hair salon, is maxed out. He’d expected it’d just be him and his dad to start, with Graeme’s wife, Caitlin Miller, pitching in on occasion. (Caitlin, who has worked in the food industry since she was 14, is the human resources director at Big Tree Hospitality.)

Instead, Graeme Miller found himself persuading friends to come help as he looked around for “emergency hires”; experimenting with faster knish-making methods; and rethinking his initial plan to be both knish-maker and counter guy, a two-in-one job that turned out to be impracticable because when it comes to customers and knishes, Richard Miller said, “Everybody wants to talk. Everybody has opinions, and you can’t (chat) if you are going to bake knish.”

Still, in the current impossible hiring climate for restaurants in Maine, Graeme had one thing no one else did: a willing worker with an excellent attitude (“It’s a real pleasure for me to do this. I enjoy learning new things. That’s what is going to keep me young”), an accommodating schedule (“My schedule is pretty wide open these days”) and a deep admiration for the boss (“It’s great to see him being able to use all this knowledge he has”) – his dad.

Graeme Miller and his father Richard talk ingredients. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

MODEL EMPLOYEE

So just whose idea was this unusual hire?

“The joke was my mom said, ‘I’ll pay you to get your father out of here,’ ” Graeme Miller said, laughing.

“This is all Graeme’s idea, and I am just along for the ride,” Richard Miller said.

“I knew that I wanted to name the place BenReuben’s,” Graeme Miller said. “Whether I had intentions of him working here was really up to him.”

Richard’s new job dovetailed with a promise his wife had extracted, namely that in retirement, he’d learn to cook. She’d cooked for her husband and three boys for 30 years. It was his turn. Richard Miller had always liked to bake, but Graeme Miller began teaching his father a few savory dishes and concepts – meatloaf (“panade,” his son corrected), dark roux and gumbo, and mayonnaise, among them.

“He was picking up these recipes so naturally, I said, ‘Well, do you want to come work for me?’ ” Graeme Miller said. ” ‘That’d be helpful and we’d get to hang out.’ ”

Hard work aside, that’s pretty much how Graeme sees it.

“I don’t know if I necessarily think of him as an employee as much as a partner in the business,” he said. “It feels somewhere between a partnership and a friendship. I’ve always looked up to him as a role model. Now working side by side, I get to have the jokes and talk about the things we see around us and the food we taste, and that is falling a little more into the friendship realm.”

Actually, one thing Richard Miller likes about his new job is that he is not a partner. He ran his own small practice for decades, and at BenReuben’s, he is enjoying the comparative lack of responsibility.

“Since I’m not the owner, it’s not as stressful. I don’t have a non-breathing newborn in front of me. When I go home from the knishery, I am done. Graeme might have to go back, but not me. If I burn the noodle kugel or forgot to put in the sugar, oops.”

He also appreciates the structure and variety that working two days a week – more when he’s needed – brings to his retirement. His son starts his days at 5:30 a.m., but he gets to the knishery closer to 7 a.m. They stay until the work is done, 4:30 to 5 p.m. Between his shifts, usually consecutive, Richard Miller spends the night with his son, daughter-in-law and 20-month-old granddaughter, Scarlett, at their Scarborough home.

“I get to play with my granddaughter so there is some extra benefit there,” he said.

On a recent morning, Richard Miller stood at one bench in the work area behind the counter, following his son’s instructions to make poppy seed filling for rugelach (though he is no fan of that traditional Jewish flavor) and to chop beets for roasted beet salad. The knishery also sells pickles, preserved lemons, sweet and savory kugels, stuffed cabbages and more. Graeme Miller stood at an adjacent bench – within easy talking and touching distance – rolling, cutting and filling piles of dough to make the 100 to 150 knishes for that day’s production. Father and son worked together comfortably and amicably.

“I am going to have my father employed A, as long as he’ll have me, B, until I can find some staff to ramp up production,” Graeme Miller said. “My dad is a multi-talented individual. Having him only roll rugelach and mandel bread would not be utilizing his immense capability.”

“I could become the kibbitzer (Yiddish for a person who offers unsolicited opinions) or the greeter eventually,” Richard Miller joked about his potential career advancement.

Family photos hang on the wall and sit on shelves at BenReuben’s Knishery in South Portland. Graeme Miller opened the knishery, which he named after his father, in early May. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

FEELING THE LOVE

Graeme Miller said he named the knishery for his father because of “tradition.” His mother is not Jewish; his father, and father’s family, were keepers of Jewish tradition in the family, and Graeme considers himself Jewish. BenReuben’s Knishery is a sweet, homey spot with sky-blue walls, area carpets, stained glass art (cut by dad, drawn by mom), shelved cookbooks (“Yiddish Cuisine,” “The Gefilte Fish Manifesto,” “Knish: In Search of Jewish Soul Food”), rustic counters, handmade pottery and plenty of potted plants.

But its standout feature – not counting the food – are the dozens of fabulous framed old photographs and snapshots of family members like Great Aunt Pearl (the rugelach recipe is hers), Uncle Milton (“he’s an enormous figure in my wife’s side of the family,” Graeme Miller said), Great Grandmother Fannie (the mandel bread and noodle kugel are based on her recipes) and dozens more. Even though the knishery serves some highly untraditional items like the “Cinna-Knish” (cinnamon buns by another name), the message that tradition – and family – matter comes through loud and clear.

“Food is a great way to transport tradition through generations,” said Graeme Miller, who trained at Farmstead in the Napa Valley and Eventide Oyster Co., Hugo’s and The Honey Paw in Portland. “I’ve always wanted to be a well-rounded cook, so have dabbled in fine-dining and molecular gastronomy, but I’ve always been drawn back to tradition. There is something about taking my culinary skills and applying them to old recipes, interpreting and preserving them and introducing them to the next generation.”

“We have a motto here at BenReuben’s,” he continued, “and that is ‘What would Grandma Fannie do?’ ” Recently, it struck him that the “brandade” knish sounded fussy and French. What would Grandma Fannie do? He renamed it the whitefish knish.

Graeme Miller has his great-grandmother Fannie’s overstuffed “Ledger,” which is filled with recipes – handwritten and torn from newspapers and magazines. They date from the 1920s through the 1950s. He treasures the ledger and is using some of Fannie’s recipes at the knishery. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

At one point during an afternoon interview, Richard Miller said, unnecessarily, “We’re a close family.” By this point in the conversation, Graeme Miller had already praised his “outrageously incredible mom.” Also, his wife: “I would not have been able to do this without my lovely wife. She has been a rock and an anchor and a sail all at the same time.” Richard Miller had praised his son’s marriage: “They are a good team. They have a great partnership.” And, no surprise, father and son had expressed their admiration for each other.

“Graeme has great people skills, always has,” Richard Miller said of his son. “We thought he would be a good game show host, or a weatherman. He has a bubbling personality. We’d go camping, and he’d invite everybody back to our campsite for marshmallows.”

As for Graeme Miller, he said his relationship with his dad has always “been outstanding. When it comes to the luck of genetics, I feel like my father was a gold strike, an absolute bonanza.”

It’s a common platitude in kitchens, both professional and home kitchens, that the secret sauce for scrumptious food is love. If you think about this, you know it’s a lie, though a sweet one. Plenty of moms, dads and grandparents cook with much love but minimal skill. Love aside, the green beans are still mushy, the stew meat still tough, and the scalloped potatoes still thin and watery. At BenReuben’s Knishery, Richard and Graeme Miller are cooking with love in abundance. And the knishes, by the way, are at once inventive, nostalgic and delicious.


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