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Restaurateur Mark Kuller’s Third Course
Comments () | Published September 12, 2013
The photo that went on invitations to his 60th-birthday party: at age 17, in a coat his father bought for him in Manhattan. Photographs courtesy of Mark Kuller.

Mark Kuller was a straight-A student. As a high-school senior, he got the top score in the state on the New York actuarial exam. He was written up for his achievement in the local paper. His mother hung the article on the fridge.

His father’s reaction was more practical. A head for numbers like that? Put it to use counting cards.

Two starkly different paths had been set, and Kuller, the first to leave home, followed his mother’s. He went to NYU on scholarship, then to UCLA to study law.

He relished the times his father took him into the city to eat at Katz’s, the famous delicatessen on the Lower East Side, or any of the old-school Italian joints his dad adored, to stuff himself with sausage parmigiana and other tref treats forbidden in Millie’s kitchen.

The big, blowout meals at the fancy restaurants, when his father was flush, were something else again. He loved the way Solly would backslap the maître d’s and waiters, slipping them $100 bills. Loved the way he dressed up to go out, putting together a kelly-green jacket, kelly-green pants, and kelly-green shoes. It took more than charisma to wear an outfit like that. It took balls.

But it was his mother he tried to please. Law was serious work, befitting a serious mind. She would never go so far as to say there were no other possibilities for a brilliant Jewish boy, but the law seemed such a natural fit for his quick and analytical mind, not to mention a clear path to the secure and stable life she desperately wanted for him.

• • •

He was 17 when Millie was diagnosed with cancer, and she died during his first year of law school.

Her death broke him. Made him question God and doubt the rightness of the universe, that such a good woman could be snatched away for no good reason.

(Above) Kuller’s polar-opposite parents, Millie and Sol. (Below) Kuller and his second wife, Kristin Connor, on their wedding day in 2010.

She left him in charge of her assets. She couldn’t trust that Sol, whose gambling had left them with no food on the table some nights, would do the right thing by Jason and his brother Glen. Mark Kuller became, in a sense, father to his own father and protector of his younger brothers.

He graduated from UCLA, worked at a law firm in Los Angeles, and came to Washington in 1982 to take a job at the Treasury Department, working on policies to close tax loopholes. Colleagues from that time describe him as tough, aggressive, and driven. “You have to love this work,” one of them, Rick D’Avino, says. “It’s very intense, very detail-oriented, and can be very, very draining. Mark loved it.”

He had married before leaving LA and soon had two children. He settled into the kind of existence that so many come to Washington to find—a life of long hours and constant demands but, in the slivers of free time, immense rewards.

He knew his mother would have glowed with pride. A lawyer with a bright future, a family, a big house in a nice neighborhood: It was everything she had dreamed of for him.

It was, for a long time, everything he had dreamed of for himself.

• • •

After Millie’s death, Sol had packed up and moved with Jason and Glen, both teenagers, to Las Vegas. Without the countervailing influence of his mother, the push-pull of the household was gone. It was all push.

It was mainly Mark’s influence, Jason Kuller says, that enabled him to resist the life that consumed his father. Jason came east, graduated from Georgetown and then Duke law school, and went to work for a firm in Texas.

Mark and Jason followed the path Millie had laid out for them. Glen followed Sol.

In 11th grade, Glen had written a paper for English class about harness racing—as he referred to it, “the trots.”

“There is no thrill,” he wrote, “like having the winning ticket on the horse of your choice. I enjoy it immensely.” Millie had beamed and bragged for weeks about Mark’s newspaper article. Well, so now Sol could exult, too: Glen was blossoming under his street-smart tutelage.

Sol might not have been a positive influence, but he was an inspiring teacher. Pupil surpassed mentor. Glen became the biggest bookie on the West Coast. If his father lived large, Glen lived larger. He had apartments on both coasts and spent money nearly as quickly as it came in. Restaurants, cars, clothes, women, drugs. He had a prodigious appetite and ballooned to more than 400 pounds. He had inherited Sol’s gift for jokes, and everyone who came in contact with him—upstanding citizens and criminals alike—loved to be around him.

One night, Mark joined Glen for dinner at Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois in LA. It was during the World Cup, and Brazil had just defeated Italy. Glen ordered Champagne for the entire restaurant, then stood up and, whipping his white napkin over his head, worked diners into a frenzy with shouts of “Olé! Olé! Olé!”

There was something about Glen that was deeply, scarily thrilling to Mark. Like watching an acrobat without a net. The fearlessness, going at life without hesitation or calculation. Not that he himself could be like that, even if he tried. But he always walked away from their times together with a greater sense of life’s possibilities.

And as the years went on, a greater sense of Glen’s precariousness. All the more, probably, because he was a coast away. It was impossible to be any kind of influence with that distance between them. Anyway, there were already so many other influences.

Three times Mark had gone to check Glen out of drug rehab. The question wasn’t if his brother would finally hit bottom; it was when.

It was unimaginable, Mark thought, that they came from the same family. They literally existed at opposite ends from each other. DC, LA. Establishment respectability, underworld glamour. Taxing, spending. Building a nest egg, burning through a fortune.

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  • Xxx

    huu, thank you for your anti-Semitism!

  • Emily

    the real question is: does he want to open a bakery?

  • huu

    After years reading the Washingtonian Food and Wine sections, blogs and articles, It seems to me if you are not Jewish you will never benefit the favors of Todd Kliman
    Maybe, to be succesful half of Washington restaurants should convert

  • huu

    jh

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Posted at 10:00 AM/ET, 09/12/2013 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles