by Dana Sleger//
When Chef Bill Vrazel was a young boy, he spent many summers at his grandmother’s house, and because she was disabled and bedridden, it was up to him to help cook the family meals. At 6 years old, he stood on a milk crate while stirring a pot of red spaghetti sauce and would shout to his grandmother, “Na-Nee, it’s bubbling real fast. What do you want me to do?”
A few seconds later, she would shout back the answer from two rooms away, “Turn down the heat till you see only a little re, and stir the pot until it boils slowly.”
She was a culinary genius and he was a willing student. at match, plus training at e Culinary Institute Of America, eventually gave the Mississippi Gulf Coast Vrazel’s Fine Food — a 240-seat restaurant full of wonderful memories for patrons that dined there from 1986 until it closed in 2012.
For 25 years, the restaurant was an iconic locale on Beach Boulevard before it closed four years ago, and truth be told, just about anyone who walked through those doors misses everything about that elegant place: the ambience, the sta , the beach view, that fantastic French bread served with every meal, and the food … oh, the glorious food.
Eggplant LaRosa, Seafood a la Vrazel, Flounder LA Crab, Trout Tamboli and Crabmeat Au Gratin were just a handful of favorites served from a menu of classic regional cuisine that fused hints of Italian and French in a Creole style packed with one-of-a-kind avor.
At the top of Chef Vrazel’s list of ingredients he loved to work with was the abundance of fresh Gulf seafood, followed by fresh basil, garlic and olive oil. He also has a list of fond memories that could ll a book. From serving the always entertaining ladies of the Red Hat Society, to weddings and receptions in the courtyard, to engagement rings hidden in signature desserts, to working with family, there was never a dull moment.
And he has some funny memories, too, that still make him laugh.
“One evening a big fellow and his lady friend came into the restaurant for dinner,” Vrazel says. “He called for the chef so I went out to see him. He told me he wanted a big fried seafood platter and I said, ‘Great, I can do that.’ en he asked, ‘How big of a platter do you have?’ So, I showed him the biggest platter we had and he said, ‘Oh, no, that is not big enough! What other kind of platter do you have?’”
“I told him that is the biggest we have, but just then a waiter was delivering someone’s dinner on a waiter’s tray, and that fellow said, ‘There!’ while pointing to the tray. In shock, I said, ‘The waiter’s tray?’ He replied: ‘Yep! Take it and fill it up, I mean, mound the seafood on it and bring it to me. I don’t care how much it costs.’”
“You got it,” Vrazel told him. “I tell you he didn’t put a dent in all that seafood, but the crew ate well that night.”
Even though Katrina could have shut the doors permanently in 2005 when the restaurant was destroyed, Vrazel rebuilt it as a sign of hope for the Gulf Coast and for his well-loved staff who needed the work.
“After Katrina would have been the ideal time to close the restaurant because we were offered a generous amount to do so,” he says. “The Coast needed us, and if nothing else, rebuilding helped bring a sense of normality and hope. We were the first business on the beachfront to reopen and I think it did indeed help people’s mentality that if we could recover, they can recover.”
And sure enough, that sign of hope became a beacon of resilient fortitude. For another six years, patrons would continue to visit. Vrazel’s to feast on favorite dishes and make special memories until the doors closed for the last time in 2012.
If you ever had the opportunity to chat with Chef Vrazel, it’s no secret his strong faith in God has always been his anchor and his compass. While serving as a chef, he also was ordained as a deacon of the Catholic Church.
“Although being a deacon did not require me to do ministry over work, personally, I felt the tug of the heart for ministry,” Vrazel says. “I also felt the restaurant was a gift from God and when the Lord wanted me to let it go, he would ease my mind to do so.”
He struggled with the decision of closing for a while and even listed the restaurant on the market for a year with a
few nibbles of interest, but it wasn’t until he attended a Jesuit retreat center in Louisiana when he got the green light.
“I prayed for guidance, got my answer and was at peace that the next time someone expressed an interest in buying the restaurant, it would be God’s will,” he says. “Two weeks later, that call came and I knew the time was right. I have no regrets and thank God every day for the restaurant and for the opportunity to do what I am doing now.”
So, what is Chef Vrazel up to these days? Every morning he attends mass and then goes to his office at the Holy Family Church to assist in a variety of responsibilities in his role as a deacon serving the church and community in whatever capacity needed.
And when it comes to spending time with Louise, his wife of 42 years, he considers those moments a treasure. He adores his wife and the life they have created together.
“The Lord blessed me with the most beautiful person to spend my life with,” he says. “She helps me be a better person and I hope I do the same for her.”
The couple loves to travel, do mission work, and spend time with their children and 21 grandchildren. He still enjoys being at the helm in the kitchen, and every Sunday he cooks a big meal for his loved ones at the family home in north Pass Christian, which they call “Sonlight Hill” because of the special way the sunlight filters to the ground throughout the 10-acre property.
“It looks like rays of light from heaven that remind me of Jesus, the light of the world,” he says.
Between working for the Diocese, cutting 10 acres of grass, tending to his chickens, spending time with family, judging the occasional food competition, offering professional counseling, and serving on the advisory board for the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College Culinary Arts program, he stays quite busy.
With God as his guide and his beloved wife by his side, Chef Vrazel is as happy and content as he can be.