Friday, 11 April 2014

RIP Steven Shaw, eGullet Founder and Proto-Food Blogger (1969-2014)

Steven A. Shaw, a.k.a. Fat Guy, the founder of eGullet and one of the world's first name food bloggers, passed away on Tuesday aged 44.

I am not going to recite a list of his achievements here, nor will I recount to you how well I knew him, because I didn't.  Like most eGullet members, I had some interaction with him.  It was perhaps the measure of the man that he always tried to help his fellow members.  I cold-emailed him a few years ago for a quick interview for an article I was writing about a kerfuffle brewing on eGullet (I can't recall for the life of me what it was now), and he graciously engaged with me in a back-and-forth over a couple of weeks.  

After we wrapped up and I thanked him for his time, he said it sounded like I really liked restaurants, and he sent me a few chapters from his book "Turning The Tables".  The book's premise was that it would teach an everyman guest how s/he could get the best treatment from restaurants, and its thesis was simply "do unto restaurants what you would have them do unto you".  From my limited engagement with him and those who knew him, that was how he approached life in general.

For us here in Asia, eGullet's influence was not particularly far-reaching, due mostly to the fact that it was fundamentally a "Western" (i.e. North American and Western Europe) board and its participant base here in the East was not large.  The Asian boards on eGullet are essentially moribund these days, but Shaw's and eGullet's legacy, of making food blogging a part of the cultural mainstream, has had a massive impact on the restaurant and hospitality industry worldwide, especially in Asia.  How many of you bloggers reading this has ever taken a freebie from a restaurant?  How many of you PRs reading this are looking for the right blogger on which to spend your social media marketing budget?  You are only doing this because it was Shaw's (and his partner Jason Perlow's) pioneering efforts at the the turn of the millennium that made the world first realise that a free-posting forum, with random unedited scribblings about food, could reach a large audience and influence opinion.

But more fundamentally (and certainly this is true for me) it made us realise that there were fellow nuts out there who also engaged regularly in the quasi-intellectual analysis of food, and that being part of this community was always educational, sometimes even enjoyable.  This blog, and my stop-start food-writing career, owes its very existence to eGullet, and the few years I happily posted there.  I also met a few dear and very unique friends through its pages.  I shan't mention their names here to save their blushes but in particular, I enjoyed finally meeting a hulking North American gentleman who spends ten months a year in a fenced-off compound in the Gulf States, only to spend the remaining two drinking, eating and causing mayhem to make up for lost time.  Or the linguistic consultant in Melbourne who speaks eight languages fluently and also happens to make some of the best macarons you will find anywhere.

But, of course, what struck me the most about Shaw's passing was that his very worthy life came to an end far too quickly.  How many of us, caught in the ecstasy of a spoonful of a particularly exquisite double-boiled soup, the crunch of a gorgeous artisan pain au levain with Normandy butter, or even your first sip of 1990 Armand Rousseau Chambertin, felt like you could go on living that moment forever?  The tragedy of life is that you can't, and in the rat-race that we all run, it takes the passing of a giant like Steven Shaw, at the tender age of 44, to remind us again of that brutal truth.

Vale, Fat Guy.  Thank you for being a small part of my life, but for transforming it in a way that I could never foresee.

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