Serjei Cahuantzi, 1977-2013

Tragedy seems to find us all. No matter how much light we emanate, how many laughs we induce, how many people we love, or how many love us back. Serjei Cahuantzi was certainly loved by many — his friends, family, and customers alike. He was a man who lived in the moment, but his life ended Sunday, Jan. 27. At 4:30 p.m. on that day a drunk driver lost control of her car and caused a major accident; Serjei’s SUV flipped several times and he was pronounced dead at the scene. He was well known in the food and beverage industry in Charleston, working at both 39 Rue de Jean and Joe Pasta as a bartender where he got to know people from both sides of the bar. Serjei’s good friend Josh Alford remembers Serjei for being unselfishly generous and “always with a story to tell.”

Serjei valued family above all and had many, many friends. “Anything at all you needed,” says Josh. “He was willing to go the extra mile.”

Serjei was generous to his family, setting up a savings account for his nephew Jack’s college fund when he was born. In lieu of flowers or memorials, the family asks you to send donations to Jack’s fund c/o Marilyn Cahuantzi, 1811 14th Street North #106 Arlington, VA 22209. This is how Serjei would have wanted his legacy to live on, says Josh. —Taylor Weil

We once loved a lover of life. A couple Sundays ago, for a moment, the world unexpectedly stopped. A car crash. It just couldn’t be real. He was only 35, after all. Last Saturday, as Charleston’s food and beverage community gathered to celebrate his life, it was clear that Serjei Cahuantzi had more than just one family.

Walking to the St. Luke’s chapel, I looked down at my outfit. It’d been a while since I’d worn so much black. Having never met Serjei’s mother, father, two brothers, or sister, I stood off to the side. I felt slightly alone. The only one I knew was Roka, his beloved brown pit bull, held by one of his brothers.

Familiar faces soon walked through the gate. Hugs followed by a few tears, followed by a loss of words. By noon, my party of one had grown to 20 or so — some I’d worked with the previous night, some I hadn’t seen in several years — dressed up in suits and blouses instead of T-shirts and jeans. Instead of getting drinks after work, we gathered beside a chapel.

I looked around for a moment, observing all the pockets — the pockets of families that belonged to Serjei. To no one’s surprise, the crowd kept growing. By 12:30 p.m., our own group had grown to more than 50 servers, line cooks, bartenders, chefs, and general managers — just one of a dozen groups. Everyone wore sunglasses.

I looked down at the program with Serjei’s picture. We were all stuck in a bad dream. A friend beside me brought a handkerchief, blotting his eyes every five minutes or so. I had never once seen him cry. The service lasted close to two hours.

I realized during that time, we weren’t servers or line cooks or bartenders. No, that wouldn’t adequately define our roles. We were a family. We stuck together no matter the circumstances. We celebrate in times of happiness and in times of sorrow. We may not work the nine-to-fives, but we help Charleston’s community celebrate with good food, good wine, and good company. And we know how to throw one hell of a party.

Close to the end of the service, Serjei’s brother, beginning his final speech with, “I know this may not be appropriate,” shot back a mini bottle of Grand Ma. “One, two ways,” he said, leaving the other half on the altar. Immediately, it was evident where the f&b crowd sat as all of us cheered. If I had thought about it, I would have brought bottles of Grand Ma myself, but I would’ve needed at least 200.

We placed red and white roses on the altar and gathered outside once again. My friend who sat next to me with the handkerchief took a deep breath and said, “Well, good thing it’s Saturday, I’m going to Burris for a bottle of Grand Ma if anyone wants to join me.”

It’s probably what Serjei would have done. Take a shot, celebrate, live every day like it’s the last. Even though he now lives in the stories left behind, they’re enough to tell for another lifetime.

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