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Food for Fliers : A young chef and his family make it their mission to bring good, affordable, homemade fare to travelers at the Burbank Airport.

February 26, 1993|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the oldest restaurants in Burbank is now a family operation.

The youngest son is the chief chef, his two brothers handle financial matters and occasionally seat patrons, mom pours coffee and dad comes by on breaks from his barbershop a few doors away. All of the food, with the exception of some baked goods, is prepared on the premises.

But this restaurant is not located in a spot where you might expect to find a homey atmosphere. It's not exactly a quaint, quiet spot. And it's certainly not in a place where you'd expect anything but flash-frozen, microwave cuisine.

The Air Hollywood Bar and Grill is located just off the main corridor at Burbank Airport.

"There is no reason why people should have to put up with the low-quality food they find in most airports," said Jeffrey Mora, the chef in the family. "It's just not right. Just because you have a captive audience doesn't mean they should be served terrible meals and pay a fortune for them. It does not have to be that way."

The airport commissioners agree.

Last year, when the contract held by the giant Marriott Corp., which also provides the food services at Los Angeles International Airport and many other large venues, expired and the corporation did not seek to renew, the commissioners awarded the franchise for the next 10 years to the Moras.

"There were some commissioners who were unhappy with Marriott," said Robert Bowne, mayor of Burbank and a member of the commission. "Some felt the prices were too high for the food they were serving."

Bowne said there were several corporate bidders for the franchise.

"The Moras might have been a little short on experience, compared to other bidders, in handling this big of an operation," he said. "But they made a terrific presentation and we felt comfortable with them. You don't have to be a corporate giant in order to provide customer service, good food and a smile while you are doing it.

"And so far, it's been going just fine. I'm a good eater and I can tell you that their pastries are just wonderful."

In addition to the main restaurant, which seats 85, the Moras also operate three snack shops and three bars in the airport. They also provide all banquet services.

Jeffrey Mora, 30, the family member who got them involved in the restaurant business, had embarked on a different path in life when he graduated from Monroe High School in what was then Sepulveda. He took courses in child development at Valley College and became a counselor at the Jewish Community Center in Van Nuys. But after six years on that job, he felt the need to pursue his lifelong love of cooking.

"I was always helping my mom out in the kitchen," said Mora, sitting in the booth at the restaurant during the dinner hour. When summoned by one of his brothers, he dashed into the kitchen at busy times to help prepare sandwiches, salads or the special of the day, the stir-fried chicken platter ($6.75).

"This was always something I enjoyed," he said, slipping back into the booth.

After taking his first cooking class, a six-month course offered at a vocational school in Cerritos, Mora showed up at the Century Plaza Hotel looking for a job. "I had nothing to offer but my eagerness to learn," Mora said. Lucky for him, the hotel was just about to open its Tower addition and needed help in the new kitchen there. The executive chef at the hotel at the time, Raimund Hofmeister, gave him a chance to work in the area where cold foods were prepared.

The kitchen's first customer, Mora remembered, was then-President Ronald Reagan. "He had the breast of chicken kiwi," Mora said.

Six months into the new job Hofmeister granted Mora apprentice status, which meant that he took a pay cut from $6.10 to $4 an hour, but in return got to start racking up the 6,000 hours of supervised kitchen experience it takes to get a chef's certificate from the state of California.

Three years later, with his certificate in hand, Mora took a succession of jobs in local restaurants and briefly had his own place, the Lower East Side Deli downtown, until his financial partners had a falling-out and the restaurant was sold.

In 1990 Hofmeister, now head of the Los Angeles International Culinary Institute in Burbank, chose Mora to be part of the United States team for the Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt last year. The American group was not a Dream Team--superstars such as Wolfgang Puck, Michel Richard and Michael Roberts do not get involved in this kind of competition. It is mostly for chefs at large institutions, such as hotels.

But the competition is fierce and the U.S. team did well, bringing back a gold and three silver medals. And through the extensive travel he did during two years of practice sessions with the team, Mora learned what he did not want in an airport food operation.

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