A beloved chef’s last supper

Beyond the womb, no place on Earth was safer than inside Joe Gadansky’s embrace. His famous hugs surrounded and enveloped — and held us close enough to feel his heartbeart. I got to go there one last time on Easter Sunday. Some cosmic, inexplicable force drew me away from U of L’s Elite Eight game against Duke to attend something that would prove more important: a Motherlodge Arts Exchange event organized by my old friend Ray Rizzo. The garden at Galerie Hertz was teeming with the creative energy of beautiful people. Ray, the master of grand entrances and happy surprises, led me through the surrealism and into the kitchen, where I spotted my favorite chef and trotted into the comfort of his outstretched arms.

I hadn’t seen Joe since the LEO Reader’s Choice party at the Kentucky Center for the Arts in September of 2010, when his wizardry was earning stellar reviews for the newly opened Bard’s Town restaurant.

He had since transitioned to a lucrative career in financial services but was presiding over the preparation of an Easter feast by Wes and Wavy, two Bard’s Town chefs. They did the heavy lifting and sporadically consulted our mentor. He lauded their work ethic and marveled at their amusing, bloodless bitching. Wherever Joe saw strengths, he issued praise that resonated.

He sat sidelined because he had fallen hard and hurt his back the day before, during a diabetic episode. Diabetes requires a high level of self-care that didn’t agree with Joe, who was always preoccupied helping others. Everyone knew it was his Achilles’ heel. I pitched the portable insulin pump as a panacea for the busy, Renaissance diabetic.

“I don’t really see myself as a pump kinda guy,” he said.

“Joe, you’re as pump-worthy as anyone I know,” I replied.

Rewarded by his laughter, I returned the favor by changing the subject. I reminded him that dull knives are the leading cause of kitchen injuries, because I thought I had spotted one. “Steve, I assure you, that’s no buttery blade.” Vexed by my unwitting insult but prompted to redemption by a signature word, I mustered my best Julia Child falsetto: “Damn those buttery blades!”

With food and forgiveness on my mind, I confirmed that Joe had seen “Big Night,” my favorite foodie film, which climaxes when an Italian chef serves an omelette to his estranged brother before they eat and embrace in poignant silence.

In turn, Joe observed that there’s music in silence — in the pauses that punctuate melodic phrases. I agreed, “They’re called rest notes for a reason.”

Our last hour together, a meaningful reunion peppered by minutiae, ended on high notes. Joe’s last dishes — a hoppin’ John cassoulet and a lowcountry shrimp boil — were huge hits. “Mardi Gras in a bowl — and pure ambrosia,” I belched between bites. As exuberant reviews trickled into the kitchen, Joe was as gleeful as I’d ever seen him. As love languages go, cooking was his mother tongue.

As I left, we resolved to reconnect. I drove home in the afterglow of a resurrected friendship, wondering why I had lost touch with such a beautiful soul.

The following Friday at 1 a.m., Ray called to tell me that Joe had died Thursday (April 4) of internal bleeding. He was 41.

I’m profoundly grateful to Ray for bringing Joe — and so many other stars — into my orbit.

It was music that united us. I met Ray via Java Men, his jazz trio, in the mid-1990s, when Joe was living with Ray and his mother, Mary, who regarded Joe as her third son. I came to view “Chez Rizzo” as the heart of St. Matthews. It was there that I came to know Joe, his loving parents, his charming wife Amy and other models of goodness. At a packed visitation, Joe’s dashing brother, Chris, said, “Joe didn’t have friends; he had brothers and sisters.” And Chris’ wife, Cori, told me, “Joe made us promise that if anything ever happened to him, that we’d help take care of his daughters.” And so they shall.

When I was 10 years old, my father died. My piano teacher, Althea Stephens Parmenter, described him as “a man so loved that, in his having been, he is.”

And so beloved is Joe Gadansky.