Remembering Steven Shaw, eGullet Founder and Culinary Legend
Steven A. Shaw was the only person I knew who proudly called himself “fat.” His alias, in his 20 or so years of writing about food and restaurants, 15 or 16 of them professionally, was actually “The Fat Guy.” The funny thing was, for most of that time he wasn’t that fat — “the slightly overweight guy” would have been more precise, but as he knew, not nearly as funny.
And what Steven was above all was funny — not so much in a laugh-riot way, but in a wry, quietly and sometimes cuttingly observant, intellectually entertaining way. The kind of guy you want to sit next to at a dinner party. The kind of guy whose emails you save.
I encountered Steven as the newly-hired restaurant editor at what was then the Microsoft Corporation’s foray into online publishing: A city guide called Newyork.sidewalk.com. Steven was an associate in the law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore who really, really liked food — he liked it so much that he started an internal company database on which lawyers could review and recommend favorite restaurants to colleagues. He liked food so much that he was a regular e-mailer of letters-to-the-restaurant editor at Newyork.sidewalk.com. “Oh that weirdo,” my boss said when I asked about the person flooding my inbox with emails about all of the restaurant recommendations we were getting wrong. In the hopes of decreasing the weirdo’s output, I asked him to lunch. The person who arrived wore a bespoke three-piece suit, a handsome fedora, and a large gut. This was Steven Shaw. From the moment I laid eyes on him, I liked the guy.
Steven became a frequent lunch date of mine because I loved his company but, more importantly, I loved eating with him. He told me about how as a lawyer he had figured out that he liked the business lunches more than the business. Inspired in part by the early death of his father, the late academic and English professor Peter Shaw, who passed away at 58 from cardiac arrest, Steven decided that he needed to do something he would enjoy with his life. In 1999, he gave up law for good and began writing about food in earnest. (And gone was that suit: from that day and for many years, Steven wouldn’t be seen in anything besides a t-shirt and black chef pants with fish on them, because “they were comfortable,” because they were the look he created, because he was Steven.)
As part of his transition, Steven started “The Fat Guy Newsletter,” which was at first an email letter to friends and colleagues. Quickly it became a blog — and this was around 1999, so Steven was practicing “Internet food writing” and producing a blog before people wrote blogs. It was full of Steven’s advice on how best to enjoy dining out at his favorite restaurants — at that time he was a huge, unabashed fan of The New York Times four-star chefs Gray Kunz and Jean-Georges Vongerichten in particular — and he had a feature that enabled users to look up his thoughts and reviews on a whole bunch of other restaurants, too. It was, at the time, innovative as hell.
Along the way The Fat Guy started getting a lot of attention from food people like me, and then way beyond. He wrote articles on food for Salon.com (including my favorite of all, “A Tale of Two Marathons,” in which he followed his wife Ellen as she ran the race by offering up his best ideas for places to eat along the route), Elle magazine, the Montreal Gazette, The New York Times, and Saveur, where I was working, among other publications. In 2002, he won a James Beard Journalism Award for his article “A Week in the Gramercy Tavern Kitchen,” which was published on his site Fat-Guy.com
Along the way, he further pioneered food coverage on the Internet in 2001 when he co-founded Egullet.org, an online community for the sharing of restaurant tips and recipes, and eventually, a place to take classes online. Egullet became a place where nearly everyone across the food world could “talk,” from celebrities like Anthony Bourdain (who was a frequent commentator), Danny Meyer, Steven’s hero Gray Kunz, and many other important chefs — many of whom eventually became friends of Steven’s — to food writers, home cooks, and just people passionate about the topic. The site would go on to become a nonprofit foundation that will leave a lasting legacy for Steven, but perhaps more than anything it was way ahead of its time and paved the way for eater.com, food52.com, and even thedailymeal.com.
Steven also wrote a couple of books: Turning the Tables: Restaurants from the Inside Out (Harper Collins, 2005) is an account of his up-close and personal experiences inside the kitchens of establishments like Gramercy Tavern, a Connecticut hot dog shack, and a North Carolina BBQ joint; Asian Dining Rules: Essential Strategies for Eating Out at Japanese, Chinese, Southeast Asian, Korean, and Indian Restaurants (Harper Collins, 2009) is a new-wave dining guide meant to enlighten and entertain as it takes Steven’s readers on a tour of North America’s best Asian restaurants, and it does so splendidly. And because he believed it was better to be fat and healthy than to be skinny and unhealthy — and possibly more than anything, he knew how to make people laugh while being insightful — he wrote The Fat Guy’s Manifatso about how Americans exercise to their own detriment sometimes, eating foods that aren’t good for them, even, in pursuit of skinny bodies, which unfortunately wasn’t published.
Lately Steven had been working at quirky.com, the website that matches inventors and their unique creations with the general public, as the community manager. He absolutely loved it. But for any of us who still followed him online — now on Facebook or Instagram — Steven’s love for food was still there. Whether it was one of the elaborate lunches he made for his son PJ or one of the seeming endless meals he enjoyed, his passion was intact. Steven had impeccable taste and only ate good food — even if we were talking about the best chili dog, he knew where to find it — and it was well-documented.
When Steven passed away suddenly, inexplicably, as he bent down to pick something up at a friend’s house while with his wife and young son on Tuesday, April 8, 2014, the food world lost one of its most beloved personages. And I lost one of the best eating buddies of all time. I could tell you about any number of outstanding meals I shared with Steven — when Christian Delouvrier took over at Lespinasse and I had parmentier for the first time, when he challenged me to a chicken wing-eating contest when I was nine months pregnant (he let me off the hook at 50 wings — each), when we tasted a sample of every single cheese on the cheeseboard at Gramercy Tavern for lunch one day, the time he and I and our spouses went to New Haven and he introduced me to clam-and-bacon pie at his favorite place, Sally’s Apizza, where his wedding reception had been. But the best Steven-and-Kelly dining experience was at the wedding of the literary agent who represents us both. The agent’s brother is a chef, his sister-in-law is a pastry chef, and he himself represents chefs and food writers of renown, so the buffet was like no other — there was an amazing raw seafood bar, lamb chops, a tower of profiteroles….and Steven and I stood before it in wonder.
“We’re going to need a strategy,” he whispered to me, tipping his head toward the food. And long after my husband and his wife had given up and tired of eating and sat down to talk preschools and naptimes for our toddlers, he and I were the dead last people bellying up to that buffet, quietly but fervently tasting as much as we could. I will miss eating with Steven, and I wish you could have done it, too.