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Epilogue | Peter Wheeler Kersker

Peter Kersker — restaurateur, world traveler and bon vivant — dies at 70

Peter Kersker opened Peter’s Place in St. Petersburg in 1973, a fine-dining attraction.

Times files (1969)

Peter Kersker opened Peter’s Place in St. Petersburg in 1973, a fine-dining attraction.

ST. PETERSBURG — In 1973, St. Petersburg boasted only two notable restaurants, Pepin and Rollande et Pierre on Fourth Street N. That changed when an intimate, continental-themed cubbyhole called Peter's Place Cafe International opened on Beach Drive.

The owner, 30-year-old Peter Kersker, said he wanted to offer locals a fine-dining spot the city lacked. Waiters recited menus written only on a blackboard outside. Offerings included quiche Lorraine, roast duck bigarade or a strip steak with mushroom caps and truffles. From the benchlike seating, pink cloth napkins or Persian silk screens in the men's room with explicit love scenes from the Kama Sutra, Mr. Kersker aimed to make an impression, and he did.

But that was his way. The restaurant became a favorite of the well-heeled, including visiting celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor. Peter's Place enjoyed a 17-year run, thanks in large part to the unique vision of its founder, a bon vivant who lived lavishly and large.

Mr. Kersker was educated as a lawyer, but he never practiced much. Whenever possible, he traded in his three-piece suits for an opera cape and fox fur stole, a leather top hat and a gold-headed cane that once belonged to his grandfather, a Wisconsin governor.

When he wasn't cooking at Peter's Place or chatting with customers, Mr. Kersker was flying first-class between the U.S. and London, either on business or to attend art openings or performances of Phantom of the Opera, which he saw at least 30 times.

All activities contained vestiges of the public persona that never backpedaled from his extravagant lifestyle and never spared the cost.

"He had moxie," said John Anderson, his longtime partner. "Lots of moxie."

Born in what was then Mound Park Hospital in 1942, Mr. Kersker might have been the first openly gay son of one of St. Petersburg's socially prominent families. His father, obstetrician Peter B. Kersker, delivered more than 15,000 babies.

He was precocious and talented, especially at piano. At age 8, Anderson said, Mr. Kersker played a cameo performance with the Florida Orchestra.

He began cooking at age 20 while a student at Johns Hopkins University. He preferred throwing ingredients together; cookbooks did not interest him. Baked almonds made wonderful snack food, he discovered, particularly when sprinkled with garlic powder and added to sauteed mushrooms and onions. Artichokes blended well with English muffins, topped with poached eggs and a cream sauce.

When he needed basic cooking tips, he picked up the phone and called the operator.

He graduated from Tulane Law School and remodeled an office adjoining Peter's Place with a crushed velvet love seat and paintings he rotated regularly. But creating elegance for his hometown was his first love.

"I want to help people realize that fine food is delicious and simple if served in the right combination," he said.

The restaurant quickly gained a following among museum and symphony patrons and members of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.

"A lot of Peter's Place was Peter himself," said Aaron Fodiman, a former owner of the Kapok Tree restaurant in Clearwater and the publisher of Tampa Bay magazine. "He had a very European flair about him and was very erudite. Everybody was fascinated."

His family pitched in. "His dad, who was probably the best baby doctor in the world, would come down when we got jammed and wash pots and pans," said Greg Cross, 60, a former maitre d'.

Between catnaps, Mr. Kersker also managed to handle occasional legal work for friends or visit New York or London, taking along a full-length nutria coat for cold weather. In 1976, he paid $1,460 to board the first commercial flight of the Concorde, flying from Paris to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

He stepped out of a rented limo in a fur cape for the 1988 Broadway opening of Phantom of the Opera, then hobnobbed with Andrew Lloyd Webber at the cast party.

There were bumps along the way. Mr. Kersker lost $45,000 in jewelry and silverware from his Bayfront Tower condominium to an 18-year-old man he had befriended, merchandise that had taken 20 years to collect.

In the late 1980s he met Anderson, who was then a valet at Bayfront Tower. They remained together over the next 24 years, some of them tumultuous.

"We were madly in love with each other," said Anderson, 46. "Even when we were fighting and arguing, it was out of love."

Over the years they saw the world through a travel agency Mr. Kersker ran, visiting every continent except Antarctica and Australia.

But by the late 1980s, the mystique of Peter's Place began to wear off. A scathing review in the Times commended the frog legs but panned just about everything else, including "bad to adequate food" and "snooty, apathetic service."

"Most of the time, from people I know who really knew food, it got good reviews," said Fodiman, a former president of the Florida Restaurant Association.

Mr. Kersker called the review a "complete assassination." He closed Peter's Place in 1990, but reopened with an Egyptian theme in what was then the Barnett Bank tower. It closed in 1992.

Mr. Kersker lost his condominium a few years later, though he continued his travel agency, taking groups to Moscow, Shanghai, Budapest, Hungary, and Bangkok, Thailand.

For several years, he rented a unit at Bayfront Tower, then in Palm Harbor. Several years ago, the men moved to a three-bedroom unit in Fountain Court Apartments, a modest St. Petersburg complex in which some residents get government subsidies. He could no longer afford membership in the yacht club, a longtime favorite haunt.

"This is how life goes when you don't plan and spend all of your money," said Polly Layton, 67, Mr. Kersker's sister.

His health declined due to diabetes and other problems. Mr. Kersker got around in a motorized scooter. In recent years he sold much of his china and Waterford crystal on eBay to make the $1,100-a-month rent.

On Wednesday, the apartment was still jammed with travel artifacts: a brass relief of Ivan the Terrible; colorful paintings of jungle scenes from India; and a Mona Lisa pillow that giggles when squeezed — or did, before the battery went dead.

Mr. Kersker died Jan. 16 under hospice care at Bayfront Medical Center, in the same wing where he was born. He was 70.

His body will be cremated by a funeral home that handles indigent burials. Loved ones will scatter his ashes in Tampa Bay, in accordance with the long-stated wishes of an independent man.

"I like things that make me feel good — alive," Mr. Kersker said in 1974, a year after he had put Peter's Place on the map. "And I suppose I try to project an image that's pleasing to others, but that's not paramount. I want it to be me, not a carbon copy of someone else."

>>Biography

Peter Wheeler Kersker

Born: Dec. 27, 1942

Died: Jan. 16, 2013

Survivors: sisters Polly Layton and Susan Moran; brothers Michael and Stephen Kersker.

Memorial service: To be arranged at a later date.

Peter Kersker — restaurateur, world traveler and bon vivant — dies at 70 01/23/13 [Last modified: Thursday, January 24, 2013 11:40am]
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