I’m not good at obituaries. Never really written one. Didn’t even know Steven A. Shaw that well. But his premature death yesterday (of a heart attack while still in his 40s) calls for some recognition of one of the original internet “foodies,” a James Beard Award winning author, and one hell of a dining companion.
I first bonded with Steven over his article “The Zagat Effect” – written in 2000 for Commentary Magazine. In the article, Shaw eviscerates the guide, its methodology and its puffed-up, obnoxious owners, piece by delicious piece — like a master butcher slaughtering a sacred cow. The fallacy of Zagat’s 0-30 point score is pointed up, as is the wholesale ballot-stuffing that was always at the core of its “ratings.”
I point up this hoary history not to hack a dead horse (the interwebs long ago marginalized Tim and Nina Zagat), but to show how Steven and I met. After reading the piece, I wrote him a fan letter and he immediately wrote me back thanking me for thanking him. (Writers are like that. It’s the same way I became friends with Alan Richman and John Mariani, too. Don’t get me started on how chefs behave once a little fame or recognition comes their way.)
Anyway, he and I started a correspondence about everything from New York delis to our mutual dislike of Asian hot pots. “Why do they celebrate a dish where everything tastes the same?” is the way he put it. Since he was the author of Asian Dining Rules, William Morrow Cookbooks, 2008, it was hard to argue with him, just as he barely put up a fight when I observed that Chinese restaurants can sometimes have a very fluid definition of what constitutes beef, pork or lamb in a dish. “As long as one looks like the other, they don’t really care. Same in New York,” he wryly observed.
But Shaw wasn’t much for arguing. He was passionate and intense and a total food geek (and a former lawyer) who wanted to drill to the bottom of any foodstuff he was crazy about. When he came to town in 2009, I squired him around on a 9-hour Asian eating tour of Vegas, and bonded with him over everything from dim sum to dolsot bi bim bap.
He came across as very serious, but deep down was every bit the mensch as he was the fresser. Besides learning everything he could about restaurants and food, the thing that really motivated him was a desire to teach people about how restaurants of all kinds worked — in order to enhance the experience for everyone.*
The last time I saw him, he came to town to accept an award from a convention of Chinese restaurateurs from across the nation. His book was another small step in America’s education in the world’s greatest cuisine, and all 2,000 attendees in the audience (including Martin Yan) were most appreciative.
Before he took the stage though, he found me at one of the food stalls — me stuffing my face; he in a tuxedo and a panic. “I go on in fifteen minutes,” he said, “and I don’t know how to tie a bow tie!”
Not to worry, I assured him. And I proceeded to get his tie just right by reaching around his not-insubstantial girth to tie it from behind his neck.
“I’ve gotta lose some of this,” he said, patting his stomach. “And you do too,” he said, patting mine.
And we both laughed….the way only two guys in the same fraternity can.
Steven leaves behind a wife and an 8 year old son.
* Below is another great example of his distinctive voice — from an interview given to his alma mater, the University of Vermont.
How to Dine and Why
Riding the bus with Steven Shaw to — where else — a restaurant, I ask him why a person should consider spending a couple hundred bucks or more on a meal. He answers immediately: “Because it will give you perspective on everything else you eat.”
Shaw argues that a four-star meal costs less than Super Bowl tickets and football, unlike the meal, is better enjoyed on TV. “The meal costs far less than any similarly coveted cultural event,” he says. “So eat the dinner and watch the game.” But getting a great dinner doesn’t require a two-Benjamin outlay. Shaw offers these tips for getting the most for any dining dollar:
Try lunch. Many famous restaurants are quite reasonable for lunch, especially if you save alcohol for later. “You can go to Jean-Georges and have lunch – it’s now $32 for two courses and dessert, less than $50,” he says. “A cab driver can afford that lunch, and some of them, I’ve found, do.”
Look for spin-offs. High-end restaurants are often affiliated with lower-priced cafes. The room and food is less fancy, but eating at the café often means getting the same raw ingredients and talented staff for a substantial discount.
Do research. Newspaper food sections, books like the Zagat Guides and specialized culinary sites like www.egullet.com and www.chowhound.com offer opinionated takes on an area’s restaurants. Search engines are well-suited to finding more out about a specific restaurant. Don’t neglect human sources, either. When a car breakdown trapped him in Utah over a long weekend, Shaw became a reluctant Olive Garden regular. Through friendly chats with the staff (and a focus on bread sticks), Shaw was able to divine the Italian chain’s best dishes, and avoid its worst.
Become a regular and cultivate the staff. Curiosity, basic manners and informed enthusiasm for the food can open a relationship with a restaurant that will make dining there more rewarding. Some places – like one of Shaw’s college haunts, a Chinese place in a converted KFC on Shelburne Road – will even tailor their stock dishes to your expectations if they respect you. “If you love restaurants for the right reasons,” Shaw writes, “they will love you back.”