“We loved all the articles everyone wrote about Heather MacDonald’s fundraiser last month but no one thought to mention Bob!” The waitresses at Wilbur’s Family Restaurant in Hampton were looking out for one of their own. “Everyone else got mentioned and had their pictures in the paper. It’s a shame you all overlooked Bob because we really couldn’t have done it without him!”
At over six feet tall, with a great smile, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, and a laugh that's infectious, Bob Rodgerson is usually hard to overlook.
But being the one-man cooking dynamo behind the spaghetti fundraiser for Heather MacDonald at Wilbur’s last month, he spent all day hunkered down in the kitchen making everything go smoothly. He was the one person who was easy to overlook that night.
So, this one is for you, Bob!
After tours of duty in Grenada and Beirut, Bob retired from the Air Force several years ago. Living in Winchendon Springs, Mass., and trying to figure out what he wanted to do next, he stopped at a restaurant called the Greeks.
“Thought I could get a part-time job, like about 15 hours a week. They hired me on the spot to be a cook. I had no experience whatsoever but I caught on pretty quick. The first week I worked 12 hours, the next I worked 60, and it stayed that way for the next two years!”
Then a move to New Hampshire brought him to Wilbur’s and he’s been there ever since. He loves fixing home-style food and has added one of his favorite recipes to the menu.
“I make my Mom’s bread pudding,” he says with a grin as sweet as the whipped topping. “It’s easy and everybody loves it because it’s memory food. I use our raisin bread — that gives it a real homemade taste.”
When asked if he has any secret tips or recipes, he lowered his head and peered through his eyebrows as he answered.
“Haddock nuggets – our Friday night special," he said. "It’s a great seller here. And it’s a secret recipe of mine but I’ll let you in on it. Mix up the eggs with some milk and put the fish pieces in. Now, here’s the secret part,” he said looking over his shoulder to make sure no one was listening. Leaning over, he whispered with that signature twinkle in his eye, “You leave it in the refrigerator overnight.”
Then, standing up straight and tall, proud of his culinary tidbit, he said with a laugh, “Guess it’s not a secret anymore!”
A bachelor, though “always looking,” Bob doesn’t cook much.
“I mostly eat sandwiches that I grab at the store already made up," he said. "Sometimes I get a chicken, broccoli Alfredo dinner — that’s my No. 1 favorite! I never cook for myself at home. Just heat and eat. Keep it simple! Plus, I spend so much time at the restaurant, either I’m not hungry after looking at food all day or I just eat there. It’s nice because we’re like one big family... customers, waitresses, all of us, so I always have company.”
What day is his favorite to work?
“Sunday is our busiest day so it goes by quick," said Rodgerson. "I like to joke around in the kitchen — especially on Sundays. We’re real busy and everybody’s wound up so I try to get us all laughing. Sometimes I give them a real treat — I sing,” he said with a chuckle. “I remember the time there were four older ladies eating when I started singing. I think their hearing might have been a little off because they told the waitress that I should be on [American] Idol!”
When asked if he was singing the night of Heather’s benefit dinner, he laughed, “I was so busy that night I pretty much don’t remember what I did. But it was a great night! It was a team decision to do the dinner and we stayed a team through the whole thing.”
Just how much food does one have to order and cook to feed a crowd? And how long does it all take to pull together? From memory, Bob recited the list:
“We used 80 to 100 pounds of spaghetti, 40 gallons of sauce — I kept 5 pots going at a time — 600 meatballs, 22 loaves of bread," he said. "I didn’t have to keep track of the beverages but we went through plenty of those, too!
"Normally, we cook for and serve a little over 200 people a day — that’s a 13-hour day. At Heather’s event we cooked and served over 300 in four hours. Everybody had lots of energy. Everybody was happy!”
When asked if he’d like to do another one sometime in the future, he said without hesitation that he'd "do it again in a minute."
"It never seemed like work to me," said Rodgerson. "The waitresses here are the best! They know all the regulars and they take an interest in every one of them. And from what we saw at Heather’s dinner, it works both ways!”