For several decades, the black canopied La Baraka restaurant on Northern Boulevard in Little Neck has survived and thrived because of an extraordinary couple.
A refugee from the turmoil and devastation of World War II, Lucette Sonigo tells her life’s journey in a beautifully crafted autobiography, “Behind the Smile.”
Lucette’s welcoming smile greets me and all who pass through her doorway into the charming restaurant she and her husband Jean-Luc created.
I was always taken by her charm and the warm environment she created, with every table bearing fresh flowers and always impeccably served, consistently outstanding food.
Although her husband is the chef of the renowned restaurant that has served fine French cuisine for almost 40 years at the same location, she is the draw that keeps customers coming back.
Having dined at La Baraka for years, I never knew her challenged life’s story. I never knew what was “behind the smile.”
The book she wrote a few years ago is a testament to the human spirit and tenacity in times of turmoil, struggle and then survival. It’s all about her tale of hope and encouragement that she called her “gift” for being unflappable in what life brought her. A lesson for all of us!
It reminded me of my mom, who at the age of 2 was carried by her brother across Europe from her protected home in Kiev, Ukraine.
Lucette was born on April 24, 1941 in a wheat-producing small village in the northern part of Tunisia. German troops marched into her town and shook the countryside and her world, killing her mom and sister in what became the war-ravaged country. She barely survived.
Sadly, soon after the bombing, she lost her father, too. She writes that he probably died of a broken heart and spirit after seeing his beloved wife and daughter dead.
Lucette was now an orphan, but her 6-year-old brother Guy became her guardian angel and protector under their grandmother’s roof. Somehow she and Guy survived the war and made a life for themselves.
I believe in the saying that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” And this is true of Lucette. She made a new life for herself and her five children, married Jean-Luc and came to America.
It’s a tale of true strength and survival that made me turn page after page.
But you must visit La Baraka yourself to feel the love, warmth and devotion the two have created in what people call “our home away from home.” It’s not just another restaurant. It has a soul. And yes I eat there often and my favorite onion soup quiche, pate and salmon are always perfectly prepared.
But I must admit Lucette’s ability to have resilience to overcome her war-torn, bombed-out home to raise a family, including 12 grandchildren and six great grandchildren, is a testament to the human spirit.
In her book, she shared a Jewish proverb I’d like to share with you:
“Who gives should never remember
Who receives should never forget”
That’s her guiding life’s story. We are all so fortunate to be part of her world.
Visit La Baraka at 255-09 Northern Blvd. in Little Neck. To make a reservation, call 718-428-1461.