Despite how many dead animals we pile onto our plates, we don't spend much eating time thinking about our own death. Sure, there's the rare sparring with fugu or fishing through a box of Sno-Caps at those Left Behind movies, but death-row inmates aside, most of us don't think much about our last meal.
Except for chefs. Apparently it's a constant discussion they have late at night when they drink, a way of getting at some essential truth about each other. So photographer Melanie Dunea decided to ask 50 of the world's top chefs what they'd do for their last meal, and then shot them in a way that summed up their choice for her new book, My Last Supper (Bloomsbury USA). It turns out there's a lot you can learn about people by the last thing they want to eat, and about our food-obsessed culture when the people are culinary pacesetters like these.
While some piled on the caviar, foie gras and truffles (Thomas Keller, Hélène Darroze and Gary Danko) and one made an absolute pig of himself (Mario Batali), the majority of the chefs picked incredibly simple foods. Scott Conant and Tyler Florence wanted fried chicken; Jacques Pépin, a hot dog.
Gordon Ramsay and April Bloomfield asked for roast beef; Jamie Oliver chose a big bowl of spaghetti chased with rice pudding; Laurent Tourondel would have a tuna sandwich with bacon, a Krispy Kreme doughnut and a Corona. Even Wylie Dufresne, famous for his exotic combinations like pickled beef tongue with fried mayonnaise, asked for scrambled eggs, a cheeseburger and a steak. "There's always a return to childhood or some country-ass thing. The word Mom comes up at least a third of the time," says Travel Channel host Anthony Bourdain, who played the last-supper game many nights when he was cooking. "If someone comes up with a fancy answer, all the chefs will shout him down, yelling 'You liar!'"
Ramsay, host of Hell's Kitchen and recipient of 12 Michelin stars for his many restaurants on both sides of the Atlantic, told me that he picked a roast because he's burned out on caviar and chocolate fondants. But then he started reminiscing. "We used to go to Sunday school and go to the park, and we had to be home at 2 for lunch," he said, recalling the roast-centered family meals when he was a boy back in Scotland. "You never missed it, or you were in serious trouble. It's how I went through my early years of childhood." Still, he resisted the obvious Proustian implications and stuck to the argument that while a civilian foodie would compile an elaborate, complicated meal, a chef appreciates the perfection in simplicity--a sentiment shared by Florence, a Food Network host. "One of the most brilliant meals I've ever had was at Il Cibreo in Florence. Or real authentic dim sum in Hong Kong," says Florence, who grew up in Greenville, S.C. "But if you've been around the block a few times, they're just a notch on your belt. I am proud of where I come from, and I think the food is as good as any rootsy cooking: fried chicken that will make you cry and Coca-Cola out of the bottle."
Coke? Fried chicken? If that's what the best chefs in the world really want, are we being suckered by their trendy, sophisticated meals? Sort of. If you want perfectly blended, intense flavors--the most exciting treat for your taste buds--then cash in your IRA, hold the maître d' hostage until you get a reservation and eat at a restaurant where one of these top chefs cooks. But when it comes to our deepest desires, it turns out that food isn't just about taste. It's tied right into memory and the longing for the sensations of when we felt happiest or most loved. Suzanne Goin, chef at Los Angeles' Lucques and AOC, put a plate of ripe tomatoes with basil on her list even though she didn't eat heirloom tomatoes as a kid--her dad didn't like salad, so they never had any. But those tomatoes were served at the first staff meal she ate at Chez Panisse, site of her dream job. "My meal is sort of like the edible sound track to my life," says Goin. "I chose Lang & Reed Cab Franc rather than some amazing million-dollar Burgundy, and I realize it's because it's the wine my husband and I fell in love over."
Restaurant owner Danny Meyer, who built his New York City dining empire on providing comfort food in upscale settings, understands the dynamics at work. "If someone can hand us those memories and maybe do it better than we remember it being done, it's the culinary equivalent of a big hug," he explains. "What I crave at the end of the world is the beginning of the road." And it's not just the culinary cognoscenti who feel that way. Over the past six years, Meyer's chefs have delivered food to hospice patients. "We brought a plate of chocolate brownies to a woman, and it may have been her last meal," says Meyer, recalling the dying woman's delight in the baked treat. "Loved ones don't know how to put a smile on someone's face, but we did it with the brownies."
Actor Mike Randleman has spent the past four years documenting prisoners' last meals on the blog Dead Man Eating, and he says nearly all requests are for comfort food: 80% are for cheeseburgers, steak or fried chicken. "You go back to something that made you feel good at one time," says Randleman. "It always makes my day when someone picks candy. An assorted bag of Jolly Ranchers or a box of Whoppers. It's straight back to youth." For his own last meal, Randleman, who has thought about this a lot, would take a cupcake.
At first I thought I'd pick a huge plate of ribs, my favorite food, followed by a piece of chocolate cake. But then I realized what I truly want is an unimpressive bagel smeared with a bit of cream cheese and piled high with Nova Scotia salmon. You really can't change who you are.