If there is anyone in my life who has been like an uncle to me, but is not actually related by blood, it would be Rustam.
I met Rusty at the ripe old age of 21: a formative time in my life. I was transitioning out of college, spinning this way and that; not quite sure where I wanted to land, but knowing that I wanted to actualize my dream of working in the restaurant industry. He caught me mid-spin (perhaps it was a haphazard pirouette?), and helped me land squarely in a new job — surrounded by people who became my restaurant family, at a joint that quickly began to feel like home.
Rusty is a mentor to so many, a teacher to so many, a friend to so many. He is deeply skilled at his craft: a sommelier with decades of experience, a server who is able to sweeten even the most dour of patrons. It’s hard to imagine a table of people who aren’t smiling after spending their evening guided through a beautifully-crafted culinary experience by Rusty. There is certainly an intuitive aspect to what he does: an ability to gauge the metaphorical temperature of diners, to attune to their wavelength and provide them with the style and type of dining experience they desire (not to mention, the most killer bottle of wine!). There is also a learned amount of high-level skills that he’s acquired over the years of dining and wining customers; he passes these on to new members of staff and crew with a no-nonsense approach that’s grounded in care and love — for both them, his restaurant, and his clientele.
This leads me to Rusty’s next astonishing character trait: he is one of the most caring and loyal men I have ever met. Once you are welcomed in to Rusty’s “inner circle,” he’s won’t let go of you lightly. He’ll be your advocate and your companion. He’ll laugh with you and pour you a lifetime supply of stunning glasses of wine. He’ll stand up for you, and have your back through hard times and heartbreak. After 5 years of moving away from Houston, he continues to text me to check in and say hello. He sends virtual kisses at the times his friends need them most. He spreads love that is genuine, passionate, and unwavering.
During the time I worked with Rusty, I was the equivalent of a snot-nosed ballerina doing clumsy pirouettes through my life. I made all sorts of errors and mistakes; some on the restaurant floor, some off. Throughout that time, he was a powerful example, mentor, and coach. I learned tricks of the trade: industry lingo and the best way to sweet-talk customers into a pricey bottle of wine, how to steam milk and swipe credit cards and keep a good rapport with the back of house crew. More than that, however, I learned how to be a better human being. How to stand strong in my convictions, and never bullshit my truth. How to be compassionate, but never compromise unnecessarily. How to respect my elders and respect the institutions for which I work — no matter how emotionally attached or disconnected I am. He taught me sometimes in my favorite type of way: by putting me in my place, and refusing to tolerate shenanigans or backtalk or excuses. Other times, it was simply leading by example: the biggest hug or smooch after a long night, his willingness to say “I love you” and mean it, his big-hearted approach to relationships with people of all sizes, colors, and backgrounds.
I don’t think — scratch that, there’s NO way — I would’ve made it through many days working many long hours without Rusty. Thanks, chosen uncle, for imparting such a massive expanse of knowledge about wine, food, tenderness, truth-telling, humor, and cheer. Your boisterous friendliness and quiet soulfulness alike have taught me so much. Thanks for helping me learn how to live a life rooted in love and honesty and delicious food and drink. Your legacy will always on: through so many who have come through the doors of Indika, and others who have mischievously snuck in to the windows of your life. I love you!
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