In the wee hours of Monday morning, way past the bedtime of more timid souls, Esquire food writer Josh Ozersky was singing “Islands in the Stream” at a karaoke bar in Chicago, squeezing a few more drops out of life before the James Beard Foundation Awards later that day.
A few hours later, the life had been squeezed out of Josh Ozersky, 47. He was pronounced dead at 11:40 a.m. Monday at the Conrad Chicago Hotel, according to the Chicago Tribune. The Cook County medical examiner’s office was examining his body on Tuesday to determine the cause.
As soon as the news leaked out, Ozersky’s fans, peers and former enemies took to social media to express grief or to posthumously heal a rift with the writer, famous for his blunt commentary in publications as varied as the Wall Street Journal and Food & Wine. Most prominent among the latter group was David Chang, the celebrity chef who had reportedly banned Ozersky from his Momofuku empire for an alleged breach of reporting etiquette that the writer forcefully denied on Ozersky.TV. The rift between chef and author had never been reconciled, a source told me recently.
Just to add a bit more context to the feud between Chang and Ozersky, consider what Anthony Bourdain wrote in his profile of Chang in the 2010 book “Medium Raw”: “There is no question in my mind that buffalo will graze in Times Square — and pink macaroons will fall from the sky — before Josh Ozersky ever makes it through the door of a Momofuku anywhere.”
On Tuesday morning, Chang sounded full of regret. He tweeted, “Ozersky was many things and so many of our differences seem so childish now, but he could pen some amazing stuff.”
If time has a way of healing all wounds, then sudden, unexpected death does just the opposite: It leaves a scab that you will pick at forever. Maybe Ozersky’s death left numerous scabs for people to pick, but I never got the sense he regretted much of what he wrote or said, perhaps because he understood the transient nature of words and thought. He had the gift not only for penning passionate, literate prose, but also for not mistaking his strong opinions for universal truths, which may be the privilege of the critic and not necessarily the critic’s targets.
I didn’t know Ozersky personally. I don’t have an insightful story to share about slicing into dry-aged steaks with him and discussing the historical writings of Thomas Babington Macaulay, apparently Ozersky’s favorite writer. I was only a semi-loyal reader, which probably makes me like 99 percent of the people who engaged with Ozersky.
Ozersky had a political columnist’s skill at driving a wedge between author and reader in a heartbeat. On countless occasions, I’d read an Ozersky essay and immediately start composing an angry response in my head. My imaginary essays might be counterattacks on his take-down of coffee snobbery or his argument that food critics’ power has been broken or his ham-fisted breakdown of M.F.K. Fisher’s influence on food writing.
But whenever that feeling came over me, I knew Ozersky had me right where he wanted. He was a master at finding the soft, sensitive underbelly of the food-writing world and poking it with a sharp stick. I’ve heard some call Ozersky’s work “click bait” (and I might have flung the belittling term at him once or twice), but the charge doesn’t stick. It implies that his writings were as shallow or as dissatisfying as a BuzzFeed list. Reading Ozersky was, to me, always a pleasure, even when I wanted to clock him.
Yes, there was a Hemingway-esque pugilism to his writings. He always seemed primed for a fight. He was an unabashed meat eater — the founder of Meatopia, the “Woodstock of Edible Animals” — who loved berating vegetarians. He was never afraid to sacrifice the sacred cows of the industry, whether René Redzepi or high-end kitchen equipment. His fearlessness was his strength as a writer, so different from the pack of food journalists and bloggers who suck up to the rich and famous for access or free food.
Ozersky was not only brave enough to ignore Chang’s wishes that he not report on a new restaurant, he was also angry enough to stand up for himself when one of the biggest chefs in America called him out in Bourdain’s book. How many food writers would have withered in the face of such heat?
Just as important, Ozersky was tough enough to be vulnerable — to confess his sins and the sins of his father. In the former category, Ozersky conceded that he had erred when Robert Sietsema, then with the Village Voice, pointed out the potential ethical conflicts of a food writer praising the work of celebrity chefs who cater his wedding for free.
In the latter category, Ozersky wrote one of the most moving and complicated portraits of a father I have ever read, full of compassion, humor and unblinking detail. The Saveur article told the story of a man who coped with his failures — and his wife’s fatal overdose — by gobbling down foods as if they were tranquilizers. Wrote Ozersky about his dad:
“One of the reasons he was sad, I knew, was that he was a hugely talented painter, and nobody cared. My father was a failure; he knew it, and my mother and I knew it. We didn’t blame him; it was understood as the kind of cosmic misfortune that requires stoicism and big sandwiches to bear up to. But it was tragic nonetheless.”
At some point, though, I wonder if Ozersky might have mistaken strength for stubbornness. He knew his diet was unhealthy. More than six years ago, Ozersky was diagnosed with gout, the “disease of kings,” as he noted at the time. As with almost every foe he encountered in life, Ozersky dug in his heels. He wrote in January 2009 that “I won’t be altering my lifestyle at all, and that you can continue to expect the up-to-the-minute coverage of the city’s dining scene that only total bodily dedication can bring.”
I don’t want to think Josh Ozersky worked himself to death at the dinner table. The tragedy would be Shakespearean: the great food writer struck down by the very subject he adored.