The restaurant industry lost such talents this year as Sam Beall, Michel Richard and Phil Keiser, but their influence lives on. Here’s a quick look at a few of the stars who died and the lasting mark they leave on the business.
Jerry Amato, Mother’s
One of the more colorful restaurants in the anything-goes adventureland of New Orleans is Mother’s, a place steeped in local culture and history. But it’s no museum piece, thanks to the lasting stamp of Jerry Amato, who died this year at age 65. He’d acquired the place with his brother, John, in 1986 from the descendants of Mother herself, Mary Landry. The restaurant was 48 years old then and known as a place where longshoremen, reporters and other local characters could get a true po’boy. Jerry and his brother added a host of other signature New Orleans dishes to the menu as lures for tourists, and doubled the size of the place. But they kept Mother’s cafeteria format, such menu oddities as a debris sandwich, and a bald assertion of having the best baked ham in the world. The blend of old and new New Orleans kept Mother’s a popular option for locals and visitors alike.
Amato died after a long bout with cancer.
Stuart Anderson, Stuart Anderson’s Black Angus
Eccentricity seemed a necessary ingredient for success in the early days of chain restaurants, and Stuart Anderson easily met the requirement. His Black Angus concept promised a full steak meal in the second half of the '60s for $2.99. You just couldn’t get dessert there, because that might’ve slowed table turns. The chain—a predecessor of such western-themed brands as Texas Roadhouse, Logan’s and Bonanza—grew to 120 full-service restaurants before shifting consumer tastes trimmed the herd to about 45 stores. Anderson bowed out of the business 30 years ago, but tried a comeback in 2010 when he bought a lone unit, reportedly to preserve the store’s jobs. It closed two years later.
Anderson died this year at age 93.
Sam Beall, Blackberry Farm
The crowds who delight in every “Bam!” from Emeril Lagasse may never have heard of Beall, a fine-dining chef turned innkeeper. But he was a favorite of fellow chefs because of his personal warmth and passion for farm-to-fork dining before the term became a cliche.
Some might have also envied the life he fostered for himself, turning his family’s getaway in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains into what Travel + Leisure anointed the best inn in North America. The setting was also Beall’s home, providing a way for him to be with his young family while living as restaurateur, chef and innkeeper in the bygone European fashion. The former French Laundry chef was killed this year in a skiing accident in Colorado at age 39.
His father, Ruby Tuesday founder Sandy Beall, noted that Sam was given only half a life, but still got more out of it than most people by living it at double time.
Jim Delligatti, McDonald’s
As one of McDonald’s first franchisees, Jim Delligatti hit on two ideas that would make the chain and its operators untold billions of dollars. He’s best known as the man who came up with the notion of the Big Mac—essentially two McDonald’s burgers stacked together. Initially, the two beef patties were sandwiched together with no bread between them. But the hand-held meal was hard to eat. A third piece of bun was added to separate the burgers, and the Mac was born.
But Delligatti also played a role in developing McDonald’s original breakfast menu. He started selling pancakes and sausages to steel workers coming off the overnight shift.
Delligatti died in November at age 98, without collecting a penny in royalties for his innovations.
Eric DiStefano, Geronimo
Any list of the most successful restaurants in Santa Fe, N.M., would almost certainly include Geronimo, a fine-dining restaurant tucked inside a 260-year-old onetime adobe home. The talent behind the restaurant was chef and co-owner DiStefano, who cooked there for 18 years. Using ingredients that could range from elk to Scottish salmon, the Pennsylvania transplant made the restaurant a local institution and a multiple James Beard award nominee. He was celebrated by peers as a mentor to young chefs, many of whom went on to open their own places.
DiStefano died in February at age 52 from a blood clot formed as he was losing weight in preparation for a knee replacement.
Phil Keiser, Culver’s
Keiser was the first non-Culver to become CEO of the hamburger chain, but the 20-year veteran of the business was still a member of the family, as the privately held business makes clear in a remembrance on its website:
For every restaurant you helped reach their best
For every team member you treated like family
For every farmer you championed tirelessly
And for every guest you made sure left happy
Thank you, Phil…for everything
It’s signed, “Your Culver’s family.”
The epitaph is followed by 12 screens of tributes and recollections of Keiser from people inside and outside of the 580-unit chain.
Keiser died this year at age 60 from what Culver’s said were natural causes.
Albert Kumin; Four Seasons, Windows on the World
What Escoffier was to fine dining, Kumin arguably was to the art and craft of baking, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Although born on the other side, he came to North America in 1948 and landed a job at the Ritz-Carlton in Montreal. But it was later, at the ovens of New York City’s Four Seasons and Windows on the World, that he would become world-famous.
Kumin’s deftness with delectables led to a stint in the White House kitchen during the administration of Jimmy Carter.
He also baked at the other end of the spectrum, supplying all of the baked goods for Howard Johnson’s, at the time one of the industry’s largest chains.
More recently, Kumin taught at the Culinary Institute of America and opened his own training facility, the International Pastry Arts Center in Katonah, N.Y.
He died this year at age 94.
Michel Richard; Citrus, Citronelle
Fine dining was still a starched, formal affair when Richard started making his mark as a chef-owner, bringing a whimsy to French cooking that played well to a clientele who wasn’t preoccupied with using the correct fork. He was also one of the first chefs to burst the notion that fine dining was local almost by definition. From a lone Citrus restaurant in Los Angeles, he expanded to Washington, D.C.; Atlantic City, N.J.; and Las Vegas.
He won the Best Chef James Beard Award in 2007, a year before the Beard Foundation selected his Central Michel Richard in Washington as Best New Restaurant.
Richard died this year at age 68, reportedly from the aftermath of a stroke.
Doug Schmick, McCormick & Schmick’s
After tooling through the West in a Volkswagen bus, a newlywed University of Idaho graduate spotted a Help Wanted ad in the window of a landmark Portland, Ore., restaurant around 1970. That led Doug Schmick to a partnership with another employee of the restuarant, Bill McCormick, which led to the purchase of their employer, Jake’s Famous Crawfish, and the launch of their own concept, McCormick & Schmick’s, which the pair eventually sold to the public. McCormick went into politics, serving as the U.S. ambassador to New Zealand; and Schmick kept his hand in the restaurant business, serving on the boards of The Cheesecake Factory, Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza and Chuy’s.
Schmick died in June at age 68 from complications from multiple myeloma, a form of cancer.
Benoit Violier, Benoit Violier’s
American restaurateurs learned two key facts about Benoit Violier when they read his obituary in early 2016: His namesake restaurant had just been named the best in the world by La Liste, a ranking compiled with painstaking deliberation by the French Foreign Ministry; and he had died by shooting himself to death. The third stunner of a factoid might have been the celebrated chef’s age: 44.
The death touched off considerable soul searching within the fine-dining community about whether worldwide fame was worth the pressure and maniacal focus. Lose a star in one influential guide and you could be labeled a has-been. Winning that extra star could mean an enormous bump in financial well-being for you and your family.
“I feel a heavy responsibility to be named number one,” he told The New York Times roughly a month before his suicide.
Dr. Henry Heimlich
Virtually every restaurant has a reflection of his contribution to health: The poster showing what to do if a customer should choke on a morsel of food. Dr. Henry Heimlich, the inventor of the procedure, died in mid-December at age 96. A few months earlier, he used the emergency measure that bears his name to save a fellow resident of the continuing-care facility where both lived. Heimlich succumbed to a heart attack.