You've played the game. I've played it. Most people have. "If Fate wills you to die tomorrow, what is your last meal tonight?" Another version goes, "If you are to die at dawn tomorrow, what single dish would you want to eat?"
New York photographer Melanie Dunea played the game with 50 world-famous chefs. Her 2007 book, "My Last Supper" (Bloomsbury USA, $39.95) is a stunning, coffee-table collection of their portraits and verbatim answers to a short questionnaire about their final fantasy meal. Their answers, which range from comfort food to the exotic to just being with someone they love, are revealing of their inner lives, ambitions and memories. She was inspired to do the book, she says, because she found that when she photographs chefs, they are creative, curious and usually up for almost anything.
We asked six Pittsburgh foodies to play the game with us. Like those more internationally known culinarians, our own local food folks had some fun and wild ideas. We asked them to respond to a brief questionnaire:
Tune in to the Dining In/Dining Out podcast at www.post-gazette.com/food. This week, the topic is, "What's your last supper?" with food writer Marlene Parrish, dining critic China Millman, book editor Bob Hoover and food editor Bob Batz Jr.
- What would you want for your last meal on Earth?
- What is the day and time?
- What would be the setting?
- What would you drink with the meal?
- Who would be your dining companions?
Their responses are as distinct and surprising (or not) from each other as the women and men themselves.
If you shop at Whole Foods Market, surely you have seen Lon Durbin. He's the tall guy wearing the white chef coat and chili-pepper pants, with glasses, a wispy gray ponytail and a moustache. He is the oldest of six, with a brother called "Bubba." Ask him a question, and this teacher, salesman, chef and walking library will talk your arm off. In a southern Kentucky accent. Bowling Green, to be precise.
"When I was a student at Loyola in New Orleans, a frat brother bought a bar and grill," Chef Durbin says. "I knew how to bartend, and pretty quick I was in the kitchen. When I went home to Bowling Green, I opened a restaurant, The Parakeet Grill. Let me tell you, ownership is overrated."
Mr. Durbin's wife of 20 years, Marci Woodruff, is the light of his life. "Eleven years ago, Marci -- she's from Cadiz, Kentucky --gave me a life-changing gift, a four-month stay at Anne Willan's La Varenne cooking school in France," says Mr. Durbin, 55, of Squirrel Hill. "While I studied, she had an apartment in Paris. She thinks big. Well, we sold the restaurant. After 13 years, it was time. I can cook from anywhere, so Marci got to pick where we'd live. She earned her Ph.D. in theater direction at Pitt, and her first teaching job was there from 1979 to 1983. She chose Pittsburgh. We've been here 10 years."
Mr. Durbin was executive chef at Casbah for a year and a half and taught at Bidwell Training Center for several years before joining Whole Foods Market, where he does special events, teaches classes and is the go-to answer guy.
My last supper
"This is anything I want it to be, right?" Mr. Durbin asks, arms waving. "The scene is mid-March but, please, not this mid-March. It's about 9:30 or 10 p.m. and we are outside in the courtyard of Susan Spicer's Bayona Restaurant on Dauphine Street in the French Quarter in New Orleans.
"The soundtrack is Bonnie Raitt backed by a band made up of several friends of mine who have been in bands with me. I sing. Van Morrison kinds of songs. For sure, Sam Bush is on mandolin. We made our first Communion together.
"My guest chefs are Douglas Rodriguez handling the ceviche, Tatiana Ponomorenko handling the zakouski and Susan Spicer running her kitchen. My wife, Marci, is the ringmaster, because she gives the best parties of anybody.
"My dinner companions are a mixed batch: Tony Bourdain so I'd have someone to complain with; Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro to argue politics; Bim Deitrich, my friend and mentor; and some of my old school kitchen dogs from days gone by.
"We'll first walk up the street to the Acme Oyster Bar. Then back to Bayona for Doug's ceviche and a huge Russian zakouski spread. That's followed by fried chicken (lots of thighs), mashed potatoes, dead beans (cooked to death, Southern style), 'slima beans' (same thing), sliced tomatoes, bread from the Denver Bread Co. and a few bottles of wine just for grins. Nope, no dessert. Vodka's my dessert.
"For after-dinner drinks, we'll go over to the Chart House on Chartres Street, where cooks hang out after work to tell lies and trade customer stories. I'd like to run into Paul Prudhomme there. I met him years ago and his point of view changed my life. It really did."
Meet Dan Leiphart, executive chef at Isabella on Grandview on Mt. Washington. His wife is Sherri, sous chef at Le Pommier on the South Side. The couple, who live in Mt. Lebanon, are a hoot. But trying to punctuate their conversation is impossible. Their conversation is as intertwined as their lives.
Sherri: "I started late in the food business. After W & J, as an art student, I decided I really wanted to cook. I saved up to go to Pennsylvania Culinary."
Dan: "That was before the merge."
Sherri: "Both Dan and I were only a month into class ..."
Dan: "That's where we met."
Sherri: "... and I got a job at LeMont. And I got a job for Dan there."
Dan: "This was in January 2001."
Sherri: "We both worked there after school for 12 months. When 9/11 happened, the restaurant business tanked. If you had a job, you kept it."
Dan: "After an externship at LeMont, I went to Lidia's as a roundsman, and under Chef Craig Richards, that's where I really learned to cook. From Lidia, I learned about passion and ingredients. She cooked on the line right along with us."
Sherri: "But I stayed at LeMont, and I went to the now-closed Florida location for a while. I learned a lot about efficiency and production."
(They both laugh.)
Dan: "We were about three days away from moving to Hawaii ..."
Sherri: "My sister lives there."
Dan: "... when I got a call from from Chef Kevin Hunninen at Isabella ..."
Sherri: "He's over at Cafe Brugge now. He was a classmate of ours."
Dan: "... to be a line cook. But I became sous chef in a few weeks, and, when Kevin left, executive chef."
Sherri: "There are only a few restaurants where I really wanted to work. When Mark Collins took over as exec chef at Le Pommier, he called me to become his sous chef."
Dan: "We both love our jobs."
Our last supper
The Leipharts agree that their fantasy last meal could never come to pass, that the menu is extensive and chaotic, but that as long as they are together, the last supper would be a happy occasion.
Guests: Mario Batali for his knowledge and message; Tony Bourdain, in a good mood, for his outlook, even though he can be slovenly; both immediate families; both moms; and Sherri's two grandmas.
Time and place: Late afternoon on a blue-sky Sunday in autumn. They are in a home with wrap-around windows in the Pennsylvania countryside.
In the glass: Conundrum, a California white wine; any Valpolicello; plus whatever Mr. Batali and Mr. Bourdain bring.
Five food stations: An enormous antipasti spread with Lebanese overtones: Burrata cheese, baccala montecato, stuffed grape leaves, hummus, beef carpaccio, roasted peppers, Tuscan bread, super-fruity-grassy olive oil and salumi from Mr. Batali's dad's shop in Seattle.
Asian: Sushi/maki rolls with spicy tuna and rainbow rolls, dry saute green beans and pho, the Vietnamese beef soup.
Indian: Rogan josh, garlic naan and onion kulcha, coconut lentils and curry leaves.
Italian: Fresh orecchiette pasta with a ton of garlic and bitter greens, Mom's sauce with cavatelli, braciola and pork spare ribs.
American: Roasted chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy and cold meatloaf sandwiches on lightly toasted white bread with Hellmann's mayonnaise.
Desserts: Italian and French pastries such as tarte tatin, straticella, homemade ice cream, Mom's thin pizzelles and coeur a la creme with berries.
Sherri: "And we'd have lots of very dark chocolate: Lindt, Scharffen Berger."
Dan: "I didn't used to eat it, but she brought me over to the dark side."
Sherri: "Oh, and we'd have chocolate-raspberry caramels with sea salt."
Dan: "And we'd have espresso with that, right?"
Sherri: "Of course!"
Dan: "And music. David Bowie would be a guest, too."
Sherri: "But ..."
The Eat'n Park restaurant group is proud of its "Senior Specials," smaller meals at smaller prices. Chances are you might even be served by a "senior special" if you catch a midday meal at the Banksville Road location. Edna Tuite, 84 years old, is a small portion herself, standing tall at 4 feet 9 inches. The Beechview resident has worked at the restaurant for 33 years. She started waitressing when her husband, Robert, went on strike at the mill. Now a widow, she has five children and four grandchildren.
"I get up at 6 a.m. and put on my makeup for the day," she says. "I work the 7 to 2 shift, but they have me stay longer some days." She worked five days a week until she was 78, then cut back to a three-day week. Suited up in her trim black outfit and red apron, she's on her feet all day. "Years ago when I hurt my leg, I asked for the window station closest to the kitchen. Nobody bothered to change it ..."
What are the secrets of a good server? "You really have to like people," she says, flashing her ready smile. "Some people might be having a bad day and just want their food. Then you have to back off. You have to pick up on the vibes."
Mrs. Tuite could be the logo for the restaurant chain's cookies. A smiley face.
My last supper
"It would have to be a day when I'm off work. So it would be a Saturday evening, say between 5 and 6. I'd wear dressy slacks. I'd want to take all my kids and their families. We'd go to Royal Place Restaurant on Library Road [in Castle Shannon]. I love their sauce. Pasta is my favorite food, so I'd have lasagna or spaghetti. No appetizer. And no sides, either. I like a good salad and they have a big salad bar. Then, I guess, black coffee, no wine or beer, and a dish of vanilla ice cream or three-color sherbet. That would be nice."
"I grew up in Detroit, surrounded by food. My mother went to culinary school. And when I was 7 years old, she opened a soul food restaurant, Mother Teresa's. You know -- ribs, barbecue, collard greens, cornbread, peach cobbler and the best mac-and-cheese you ever ate. After 27 years, its still going strong. ...
"Anyway, I started out washing dishes, peeling potatoes and at 12, I was cooking. When I was 16, I was driving a semi loaded with smokers, grills and ovens to barbecue competitions in Florida, Texas and Tennessee. After school I'd watch the Frugal Gourmet on Canadian television. I always knew I'd become a chef. But I wanted to get into fine dining. That meant education."
Mr. Carter came to Pittsburgh for culinary school. He took his externship at the Steelhead Grill with Greg Alauzen, who became his mentor. It was there that Mr. Carter met the pastry chef and his future wife. "I was about three minutes away from going home when I met Jamie Lukitsch," he says. When Mr. Alauzen was recruited to open Eleven, he took Chef Carter with him.
Six months ago, Chef Carter became executive chef at Magoo's in McCandless. The restaurant, known more for its microbrews, music and Friday night fun than as a food destination, opened in 2001 and changed ownership in 2005. Unlike the Mister Magoo cartoon character, this Magoo's has a clear, new vision under Mr. Carter's watch. "I call it my kitchen challenge."
His wife, Jamie, made a change, too. She is now pastry chef at Tambellini's (in LaForet's former space) and at the Downtown McCormick and Schmick's.
My last supper
"I'm with Jamie and our son, Jackson. I want him to learn about good food before he ever tastes bad or fast food. I like to go out, especially to a cozy place where it's relaxed and you know the food will be awesome. The setting for my last meal is LaForet, where I've had the best dinners of my life. It was so amazing there, what a shame it's gone. The chef, of course, would be Michael Uricchio. It has to be spring, because that's the best season for food. About this time of year, if I see one more root vegetable, I might hurt someone." He laughs.
"The first course is a soup -- morel mushrooms, ramps and sauteed fiddlehead ferns all served in a light broth with grilled focaccia. Then a salad of spring greens, herbs, local asparagus, hazelnuts with a Meyer lemon vinaigrette."
He loves meat, and pork especially. Picture this: a pork platter with pork terrine with truffles, cranberries, cornichon, Dijon mustard and freshly baked baguettes; a warm pork confit with garlic scapes, a little balsamic vinegar, a poached egg and cornbread; and the reigning prize of the pig, slow-roasted pork belly with apples, turnips and shallots.
"I love, love cheese, and I belong to Terrance Brennan's cheese-of-the-month club," Mr. Carter says. "If I could make an artisanal cheese plate with my favorites, I'm already in heaven. Cowgirl Creamery's washed-rind Mt. Tam; the best of the South, John Folse's Fleur-de-Lis from Louisiana; and Wisconsin Pleasant Ridge Reserve. On the side, I'd have quince paste, good bread and shagbark hickory nuts, the ones that taste like you're eating the state of Vermont!
"The entree is simple. Elysian Fields Farm lamb loin and tenderloin with creme fraiche potatoes and lamb jus fortified with rosemary and finished with truffles and butter with fava beans. In the glass, a pinot noir from the Northwest.
Dessert is easy, too. "My wife, Jamie, will make the lemon tart from LaForet. That tart and my mother's carrot cake are the two best desserts in the world.
"This has to be my last dinner on Earth, because eating all that, I think I'm ready to explode."
This Uptown restaurant in the Doubletree Hotel focuses on local products and contemporary dishes. It is better known as the home of "Alchemy Tasting Dinners." Early on, the 12- to 24-course, ultramodern presentations focused on the groundbreaking, sometimes surreal dishes made famous by Spain's chef Ferran Adria. But Mr. Sousa refined his techniques and now the dishes are all originals.
He's come a long way from his roots.
"I was born in McKees Rocks, half Italian, half hunky," he says with a laugh. "My dad and granddad owned Sousa's, a steel workers' restaurant and bar on Chartiers Avenue. I hung out there, but didn't get into cooking. I tried college, but was 'undecided.' Out of ideas, I traveled around Europe vagabond-style. I fell in love with Prague. I came back and enrolled in Pennsylvania Culinary, finishing in '98." He then worked with chefs Greg Alauzen and Toni Pais. After a stint in Arizona, he cooked his way up at the Duquesne Club, Kaya and Soba before taking over the Bigelow Grille three years ago. Mr. Sousa, 33, lives in Polish Hill with his wife, Holly, and their two daughters, Devon and Sophia.
My last supper
"The scene is the ancient city of Prague, in an ultra-modern spacious loft with wraparound windows to see the skyline. A big kitchen opens to the dining area. It's about 9 p.m., after cocktails.
"With me are my family and close friends. I'll invite Albert Einstein, Jackson Pollock, George Orwell and blue-collar poet Charles Bukowski. Comedian Tracy Morgan and the 1971 Rolling Stones will come too, to add balance.
"Baskets of my Grandma Marge's Polish pagash, a potato-cheese bread, are on the long table, where we'll eat 10 leisurely courses, family style. The kitchen is crowded.
"[French chef Auguste] Escoffier himself makes the first course, fois gras, his choice of prep.
"My late dad never got to enjoy my success. I want him to make his cold squid salad.
"Aunt Liz and Uncle Tom ladle out their Slovak mushroom and sauerkraut soup.
"Mom makes homemade potato and cheese pierogies.
"My grandfather does his tripe in red sauce with pasta.
"Back to Escoffier for a lamb course. Again, his choice of prep.
"Ferran Adria grills fresh sardines.
"Ferran Adria grills wall-eye pike.
"My Grandma Yvonne's nut horns are passed as a pre-dessert.
"The last course is a flight of desserts by the Spanish pastry chef Paco Torreblanco and it will be an amazing surprise.
"And although I'm happy to drink beer, we'll have wine. My grandfather will pick the red, probably a sangiovese. Someone will bring a ridiculously rare Hungarian white wine that's been hidden away in somebody's cellar in Prague since the war years.
We'll finish with champagne, everyone raising a glass to toast, 'Daj Boze zdrowie! Sto lat!' -- 'God give you health! And very best wishes!' "
Marlene Parrish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-481-1620.