As a concept, the “celebrity chef” is a relatively new one and therefore prone to overuse and misuse. The status accorded some chefs can be based on the flimsiest of reasons. They may, for example, have done little more than host a TV show, from which they have spun off enough cookbooks to wipe out all the trees in Jefferson National Forest.
Then there’s a chef like John Nucci.
You probably have never heard of him. The Silver Spring native, whose death last month was ruled a homicide, couldn’t imagine doing anything but cooking for a living, even after a soulless cipher of a human being shot Nucci in the spine in 1989 and paralyzed him from the waist down.
With a customized stand-up wheelchair, Nucci continued to cook, at his own restaurant in St. Mary’s County. He called himself “Robo-Chef.”
Staff writer Emily Langer tells the story of Nucci's fateful night in her excellent obit from Sunday:
On the night of Feb. 28, 1989, between 1 and 2 a.m., the 27-year-old Mr. Nucci had just gotten off work as a sous-chef at the Capital Hilton in downtown Washington. He went for a drink with a woman he was dating.
The couple were walking to a nearby parking lot where Mr. Nucci had left his gray Buick when two men emerged from behind a van. One of them put a gun to Mr. Nucci’s head and demanded a ride.
While Mr. Nucci drove, according to news reports, the assailants sexually assaulted his companion in the car. They told Mr. Nucci to go to the Beltway, where they abandoned the woman on the side of the road.
The men then forced Mr. Nucci, at gunpoint, to continue driving around for several hours. He would later tell his family that they ordered him to take them to his family’s home in Silver Spring so they could rob his parents.
When he refused, the men ordered him to pull over on the side of the Beltway, just inside Prince George’s County near the New Hampshire Avenue exit. They told him to get out of the car. They already had his wallet, and with it his identification and address.
Mr. Nucci threw his keys across the road and tried to flee, but he was shot four times. One of the bullets hit his spine.
The assailants found the car keys and drove away, leaving Mr. Nucci for dead. Before losing consciousness, he crawled onto the road, where a driver spotted him and flagged down a trucker, who used a CB radio to call for help.
That Nucci not only survived the shooting but lived to cook another day — and not complain about it (at least to the point where it became a public matter) — is nothing short of remarkable. He apparently wasn’t looking to land some mawkish, inspirational cooking show on the TLC network.(As if any TV exec would have the guts to give a chef in wheelchair a show.) Nucci apparently wasn’t looking for handouts, sympathy or unearned laurels. He was just looking to cook, an opportunity he created for himself.
John Nucci died at age 50. He was the kind of chef that any young cook should want to emulate. Nucci knew the desire to cook comes from some inescapable urge deep inside — not from a passion to star on “Top Chef” one day.