BY DANNY AGNEW / JANUARY 28, 2020 9:24 AM
If you had exactly one meal left to eat on earth, what would it comprise?
That’s the question we recently posed to several notable individuals in the culinary world — or, rather, we asked them, “If you were on death row and could create any menu for your last meal, what would be on it?”
We also provided a set of rules, which were as follows:
1. The meal must consist of three courses, plus a beverage. The typical course arrangement would be appetizer/main/dessert, but you are not tied to this.
2. The dishes can come from anywhere. Any chef/restaurant in the world, your Dear Departed Nana, etc., but they must come from somewhere specific. In this scenario, each dish would arrive in optimum condition as though it were prepared in the next room and delivered immediately.
3. No two dishes can come from the same place.
4. None of the dishes can be self-prepared. All must come from the culinary hand of someone else.
Our murderer’s row (pardon the pun) of culinary talent came back with with an avalanche of amazing dishes — a tart from St. Tropez here, some salumi from Italy there, even a burger from a certain Southern California chain of note.
It goes without saying that if said dishes are good enough to make the final menu of folks who do this for a living (and win copious accolades for their efforts), wethinks they might be deserving of a pilgrimage on your part.
Read on and decide for yourself where to start.
With apologies to Vegemite, Curtis Stone is by all accounts Australia’s most famous culinary export — the celebrity chef was the host of TLC’s international hit Take Home Chef, has served as judge on both Top Chef Masters and Top Chef Duels, and regularly yaks it up with the likes of Oprah and Ellen about the world of food. This is in addition to his Michelin-starred Los Angeles restaurant Maude (book your reservations well in advance), his butcher shop/restaurant Gwen (endorsed by the late great Jonathan Gold), and his excellent line of cookware and grillin’ meats sold via HSN (our personal favorite: the Australian grass-fed burgers). Long story short, this guy is everywhere.
“I didn’t have really excellent Mexican food until I was well into my twenties. My guilty pleasure is tacos — lots of them. I’d have a fish taco with the catch of the day from the beaches of Sayulita, Mexico.”
“I love a good steak, so much so that I opened my own butcher shop in Hollywood. I had a wonderful chulaton at Restaurante Alameda in La Rioja, Spain, when my team from Maude was there doing research and development. The fat-to-meat ratio gave the cut an incredible flavor and it was seasoned with a heart-stopping amount of salt, which made it a decadent pleasure to eat.”
My granny, Maude, made the best fudge. I do believe it’s why I am a chocolate fanatic. It is also one of the reasons I named my first restaurant after her.
“I just asked someone the other day, ‘If you had to give up red or white wine or rosé, what would you choose?’ For me, I’d have a really hard time giving up rosé. I love it and drink it all summer.”
As The Observer’s resident restaurant critic, Rayner has built a career on delivering the sort of witty, insightful, acerbic reviews that can earn an LOL from even those with no interest in the culinary scene (his 2017 takedown of Paris’s famed Le Cinq is the stuff of legend). Rayner also regularly appears as a judge/personality on various British programs including Top Chef Masters and MasterChef, and has published six books on the world of food (as well as a slew of fiction, for the record). His latest, a memoir entitled Jay Rayner’s Last Supper: One Meal, a Lifetime in the Making, is a delightful journey to Rayner creating his own “final” meal to be enjoyed now, while he is (in his words) “fit and well and able to enjoy it.” Which, in your correspondent’s opinion, makes him the perfect candidate for our little exercise in gastronomic reflection.
“My starter would be half a dozen oysters served to me at Rules, London’s oldest restaurant. They don’t need to be fancy natives. Rocks will do. What matters is the theatre: the spindle frame for the platter, the muslin-wrapped lemon, the bottle of Tabasco looking more medicinal than gastronomic. I first ate oysters here with my mother, when I was 10 years old and understood it as an introduction to the adult world. Each oyster slurped off the half shell would be an act of remembrance.”
“My main course would be a steak, cooked for me by the brilliant self-taught chef and master of live fire cookery Victor Arguinzoniz, at his restaurant Etxebarri tucked away in the wooded Basque hills not far from San Sebastian. I ate the original in 2009 and went down to the kitchen afterwards to ask what extraordinary and rare breed of cattle had supplied this steak. He told me, ‘Is 12-year-old Galician ex-milker.’ It was the first and best time I had eaten something from a retired dairy cow. I would want to recapture that moment.”
“Dessert would be a Mont Blanc, that virtuous interplay of meringue, whipped cream and chestnut purée punched up with Armagnac, but it must be served to me by the British chef Henry Harris at his now closed restaurant Racine. Henry makes the best Mont Blanc I have ever eaten, and in my pursuit of my last meal on earth, I ate them all over the planet.”
“The drink would be a liqueur glass filled with advocaat and a depth charge of cherry brandy, the red swirling out from the yellow of the boozy custard. It’s a terrible drink, but it’s the first booze I ever drank, when I was nine years old, courtesy of my mother who felt I should be introduced to alcohol early. She had once been a nurse and therefore called it ‘blood and pus.’ That added to the frisson.”
With a slew of Michelin Stars, James Beard Awards and other assorted accolades to their credit, restaurateur Guidara and his partner chef Daniel Humm co-founded and preside over the hospitality group Make It Nice, which includes New York’s legendary Eleven Madison Park as well as NoMad restaurants in New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas and the healthy fast-casual concept Made Nice. Additionally, they’ve co-authored four cookbooks inspired by their restaurants and the city of New York. Recently, the pair announced they would be ending their partnership, with Guidara going on to create a new hospitality company. And while this does indeed mark the end of what Eater called “one of the most impactful partnerships in modern restaurant history,” we’re excited to see what comes next.
Double Double animal-style from In-N-Out with a Coca Cola. Literally, truly, my happy place. Every time I touch down in L.A. or Vegas it’s my first stop, so it’s only fitting that it would be one of my last bites of food before crossing over to the other side. And yes, I know that’s a FILTHY choice for the appetizer, but so be it.
“My mom passed away a long time ago, but to this day I remember the pasta she’d make. It was old-school — she’d make the sauce once every few months, put a ton of it in the basement freezer (all good Italian Americans have a basement freezer) and we’d slowly consume it until it was time to make more. I remember it included red wine and tomato paste and Italian sweet sausage and tons of other stuff. We’d eat it with prosciutto tortellini that we’d buy at Balducci’s in the village. It was perfect.
On the side, a small sausage pizza from Grimaldi’s, with garlic powder, and a side of ranch dressing for dipping.”
The chef behind New York’s wildly popular Thai/Filipino haunt Pig & Khao, Cohen honed her craft in the kitchens of David Burke and Daniel Humm (among others) before competing on season five of Top Chef. After the show, Cohen spent a year traveling and staging in Southeast Asia, immersing herself in the techniques and flavors of the region — lessons she brought to bear at her aforementioned Lower East Side hotspot, which has earned accolades from The New York Times, New York Magazine and The Huffington Post and netted Cohen a StarChefs Rising Star Award.
“Thai fried egg salad from Soei in Bangkok, Thailand. The first time I ate at this restaurant a few years ago I fell in love with it and I make sure I visit it once a year when I go to Thailand. The menu changes but the one thing I always make sure to order is this Thai fried egg salad. It is a very simple dish using wonderful fresh ingredients, and this is the best version out there. I’m not sure how the chef gets the egg so crispy without overcooking the egg yolk, but I try to figure it out every time. The dish consists of three fried eggs (with a runny yolk), a dressing made with fish sauce, lime juice, a pinch of sugar (and I think maggi) garnished with red and green fresh Thai chilis, white pepper, raw garlic slices and cilantro. Super simple but absolutely delicious. I can’t wait to eat it again in a few weeks.”
“Pepperoni pizza from Johnny’s Pizzeria in Mount Vernon, NY. Every year for my birthday I eat the same thing: Johnny’s pepperoni pizza and a Haagen Dazs cake. It’s a tradition I’ve been doing since I was a child and something I will continue doing for as long as they stay open. The crust is super thin and crispy, with a delicious sauce and just the right amount of cheese. They used to have the little pepperoni ‘cups,’ which were amazing. But maybe 10 years back they switched to the larger thin ones (which I don’t love), but it’s still damn good.”
“Crème brûlée donut from Doughnut Plant and an egg coffee from Hanoi, Vietnam (Ed. note: more on that in a second). There’s nothing I love more than a good donut and I am lucky enough to have Doughnut Plant only a few blocks from my restaurant. My favorite donut they have is the crème brûlée, but I only like getting them in the morning when the donuts are super fresh and the brulée’d sugar on top is still super crispy.”
I think the best coffee in the world comes from Vietnam, and in Hanoi they make egg coffee, which is Vietnamese coffee topped with sabayon. It’s super strong and rich and decadent and tastes like tiramisu in a cup.
As the CEO of Eataly USA, Farinetti (son of Eataly founder Oscar Farinetti) is a key figure in what has blossomed over the last 12 years into a global empire — 35 locations in 15 countries with more on the way, each boasting an outsize footprint (Eataly Los Angeles encompasses a staggering 67,000 square feet) dedicated to Italian culinary awesomeness. Overseeing the sprawling markets to the in-house restaurants to the online experience, Farinetti has a direct hand in creating the overwhelming (in a good way) experience that has made Eataly so popular stateside, earning himself recognition as one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business 1000 in the process.
“Culatello di Zibello D.O.P. from Antica Arenga in Parma, Italy. Italy has a great tradition of salumi, and the most important, with no comparison, is the Culatello di Zibello. Massimo Pezzani is one of the best culatello makers ever. To have it there, and cut by him, is an experience from a different world. You may not consider it a ‘dish’ per se, but you would be wrong. Making the best culatello is much more complicated than almost anything else. And eating there in the Bassa Parmense … it just tastes better.”
“Agnolotti di Lidia Alciati al Tovagliolo from Guido Ristorante in Piedmont, Italy. This is THE definitive Piedmontese dish — where I’m from. Using their mother’s original recipe, no one does agnolotti like them. They serve it without any condiments, on a cloth napkin — just like their family eats it at home. As soon as they are ready, most families like to steal a couple from the pan before adding any sauce — you cannot resist.”
“Chargrilled Turbot from Restaurante Elkano in Getaria, Spain. It is difficult to be simple. Elkano does simple to perfection with the best grilled turbot I have ever had. I was there on vacation with my business partner Alex and our Spanish friend booked our table, so we were taken care of so well. The owner stayed with us and he portioned for us, telling us the story about the fish, allowing us to appreciate its many different flavors — from the spine to the head. No side dish. You don’t need it.”
Barolo Borgogno Liste 2013. Barolo is the king of Italian wine. This cru is very small, in the center of Barolo and only two producers make it. 2013 is probably the best vintage in the last 20 years. This Barolo could age 50 years … it is immortal.
Voted Eater’s Austin Chef of the Year in 2018, Nuñez is the chef behind Suerte, a masa-centric Mexican hotspot in East Austin that proffers an updated creative take on south-of-the-border flavors (seriously, the duck breast y mole negro with fennel masa dumplings must be tried). No wonder that it’s earned raves from The New York Times, Food & Wine and Texas Monthly (among many others) and become a go-to spot for locals and visiting foodies alike.
Tuna Tostada from Contramar in Mexico City. I’ve been going there for years now and always order it, it is so good and tastes the same every single time! Something that is very hard to do in a restaurant. I guess the only thing that would be better than trying this tostada for the first time ever is knowing that this is the last time I will be eating it — great start to my last meal.
“Grilled pork neck from Tong Tem Toh in Chang Mai, Thailand. Salted, dried then grilled pork with the best chili dip that I will never be able to recreate (Nam Pring Ong), so good that I went back the next day to eat there because I couldn’t stop thinking about this dish.”
“Pepperoni Pizza From Lucali in Brooklyn — the crust, the cheese, the meat and the fresh basil makes for a great example of why sometimes less is more.”
“Lime Agua Fresca from the park ‘La Alameda’ in my hometown of Torreon Coahuila.”
“Forge,” as the tattooed, mohawked chef is called by his friends, has competed on Iron Chef America, won The Next Iron Chef, and served as chef de cuisine at BLT Prime, one of New York’s most celebrated steakhouses. And that was before he earned a Michelin star for his eponymous Tribeca restaurant, opened his own top-shelf steakhouse American Cut, and partnered with chef Soulayphet “Phet” Schwader on the celebrated Laotian restaurant Khe-Yo. His latest project: an Italian Meatpacking District spot called Davide, for which he’s partnered with none other than his pops, the legendary Larry Forgione.
“My dad’s crab cake with smoked onion remoulade from An American Place, circa 1986. It was the first time I remember eating at a ‘fancy’ restaurant and I just remember eating it and being amazed that food could make you feel so happy. And in school in second or third grade they asked everyone to write their favorite food, and everyone made fun of me because I wrote ‘crab cake with smoked onion remoulade.'”
“I was traveling through the hills of Oaxaca, tasting and meeting the mezcal makers with the Del Maguey crew (Steve Olson and Ron Cooper). When we stopped at Santo Domingo, the family had prepared a lamb barbacoa. The hide was even still hanging on the laundry line. They were cooking it in a stone kitchen over an open fire in an earthenware pot, the whole thing was covered in avocado leaves. They told us they only kill one lamb a year but were so excited we were coming. The woman who cooked it found out I was a chef and asked if I liked it, and I was so overcome with emotion that I actually started to cry, which has never happened to me before with food!”
Laurent Tourendel’s passionfruit crepe soufflé. We were opening the first BLT Steak and I’d never even seen crepe soufflé before. And I just remember everyone tasting it together and knowing that the restaurant was going to succeed.
One glance at Eduardo Garcia should let you know that he’s not your typical chef — after spending his formative years hustling in the kitchens of Seattle while attending culinary school, Garcia took to the high seas working as a private yacht chef, spending the next decade “flavor hunting for exceptional food experiences.” Returning to his native Montana, Garcia co-founded the food brand Montana Mex before losing his arm in a hunting accident that nearly took his life. Re-learning his craft with the help of a bionic hook, Garcia became the subject of a documentary feature film and now travels the world bringing his artful blend of culinary talent and outdoorsmanship to the masses (anyone with an combined interest in food and nature would do well to check out his stunning video series Hungry Life in partnership with Yeti).
“A sashimi plate — Ebodai/Butterfish, Mirugai/Geoduck, Toro/Bluefin Tuna, Tai/Snapper — prepared by Yutaka Saito, formally the owner and chef of Saito’s Japanese Café in the Belltown neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. I worked at Saito’s while in culinary school and to this day feel the impact of that training in both how I work as a chef and live life in general.”
(Ed. note: while Saito’s unfortunately closed back in 2009, those looking to experience Chef Yutaka’s cuisine can find him in New Delhi, where he’s been been steadily introducing the Indian population to Japanese flavors at Simply Sushi.)
“Grilled lobster tails cooked over coconut husk coals, with a simple Ix Ni Pek salsa — habañero, tomato, onion, cilantro and lime. Served with fresh tortillas and black beans cooked in a clay pot. Made by my Dad, Manuel Garcia, RIP.”
“A Tarte Tropezienne from the Place des Lices in St. Tropez. As I young chef I spent every summer working out of the south of France on a yacht, and loved the simple decadence of this tart. Anytime the yacht was in St. Tropez I would spoil the crew and make sure that there was ALWAYS a giant Tarte Tropezienne in the crew mess.
“Martinelli’s Sparkling Apple Juice. As a kid we grew up with very little, if any, processed foods or sugars in our diet. On special occasions such as Christmas, Mom would get one bottle of Martinelli’s. One bottle split between the four of us was gone in seconds. Sometimes I would shoot it, other days I would sip it painfully slow to savor the moment. As an adult, we ensure there is Martinelli’s at very family event and now we buy it by the case!”
Chef Paul Donnelly’s culinary journey reads more like a travelogue than a resume: a native Scot, he staged at Gordon Ramsay’s Amaryllis while attending culinary school in Glasgow, before making his way to Thailand for a stint at the Michelin-starred Nahm. He then spent a decade in the kitchens of Sydney’s famed Merivale Restaurant Group, picking up Australian influences before ultimately arriving in New York to open the celebrated Chinese Tuxedo. In the historic former Chinese Opera House space on Doyers Street, Donnelly’s experimental take on Chinese cuisine has earned rave reviews and made the Chinatown hotspot one of New York’s most sought-after tables.
“I’ve had some great appetizers in my time, but one stands out — and I can confidently say I have eaten it hundreds of times. The Steamed Green Lip Abalone at Eaton in Sydney, Australia is absolutely exceptional. Lightly steamed in soy and ginger, finished with a rich house-made XO sauce, which is packed with black beans, shallots, dried scallops and a butt-load of chili, finished with some fresh cilantro — it’s a seafood lover’s dream come true.”
“My main course is a weird one, the ‘fry up.’ It’s actually a breakfast dish in my native Scotland, but it has all my favorite things on one plate: the creamiest haggis, the richest blood pudding, the crispiest potato scones, smoked bacon, square sausage with two fried eggs and baked beans — all washed down with Irn-Bru. Not the healthiest, but 1) cures any hangover, 2) FUCK it’s delicious and 3) who gives a shit if you’re about to get sizzled like the sausage you just ate anyway. As a child, my pops would make this for all the cousins who spent the weekend at my grandparents’ house, but until the age of about 10, I was only given boring old corn flakes — I later found out that this was due to my misbehavior. One weekend I just kept my trap shut, and on Sunday morning my grannie rewarded me with the best ‘fry up’ I’ve ever had (my aunt Christine’s comes in a close second).”
Easy. Dan Hong’s ‘Stoner’s Delight’ at Ms. G’s in Sydney. People queued up for over an hour just to eat this — I mean, you can’t go wrong with deep-fried Nutella, cinnamon doughnut ice cream, salted caramel, Mars bar brownies, all topped with salted potato chip praline. MIND BLOWING.
(Ed. note: we had to look it up, turns out this is an insanely popular Scottish soda that tastes, according to various reports, like “liquid bubble gum” and/or “rusty nails.” Presumably a combination of national pride/nostalgia led to this choice on Paul’s part.)
Born and raised in Italy, Halilaj worked as Chef de Partie of the 5-star Hotel Principe di Savoia in Milan before lending his culinary voice to illustrious Roman outfit Obica Mozzarella Bar, helming the kitchen at their New York outpost and running their global expansion program. Now calling Austin home, Halilaj has leveraged his formidable chops to open Il Brutto, a “neighborhood Italian spot” where Halilaj’s commitment to the authentic cuisine of his native Italy (he makes all pastas by hand, no extruder) has press and diners alike referring to it as the best Italian food the city has to offer.
“Raw Sicilian Red Shrimp, Sicilian Langoustine & Sea Urchin from Trattoria iI Marinaio in Milan. Milano is known for being noble and fancy, and then you stumble upon this place that is very casual and not what you’d expect from a place that is so well-known. It’s one of the freshest fish spots you’ll find in Milano, so fresh it feels like you’re eating something caught by a fisherman and put directly onto your plate. I feel very connected to this place because it focuses on providing great cuisine rather than relying on being famous for its chef. I would eat this every single day of my life.”
“Japanese A5 Wagyu Strip Steak from Morimoto in NYC — Morimoto is one of the most elegant Japanese spots in New York City, and with the great New York energy. It combines the vibe of New York City with the attention to execution and precision of Japan. The magic reminds me how these animals are being taken care of. It’s so special that the actual (Kobe beef) cut goes above the cooking techniques. Flavors full of complexity — elegant, fatty, delicate, balanced.”
“The ‘Beat Bobby Flay’ Tiramisu by Chef Amanda Rockman, Culinary Director at New Waterloo. While she also created the tiramisu on the menu of my restaurant, Il Brutto, I specifically love her version of the non-traditional tiramisu she created — and won with — on ‘Beat Bobby Flay.’ It’s a classic dessert that reminds me of growing up in Italy. However, her interpretation of the dessert is anything but classic. It’s well-balanced, interesting and unexpected.”
“A glass of Tenuta San Guide Sassicaia. For me, it’s simply the best. I love this wine because it’s complex — it’s a very long experience in the mouth due to its acidity. The aromas of black currant, violet, blackberry and black pepper make it impeccably balanced.”