Walter Nicholls, a longtime food writer for The Washington Post and other publications, died Sunday morning from complications due to liver cancer. He was 64.
A former caterer, Nicholls first approached Nancy McKeon, then an editor for The Washington Post Magazine, about contributing stories to the publication. It was the early 1990s, before e-mail was a commonplace communication tool, and Nicholls sent the editor a handwritten letter. He soon started contributing small, front-of-the-book features for the magazine.
A native Washingtonian, Nicholls had original, off-beat ideas, derived from his intimate knowledge of the area, McKeon remembered. He once told her about a convent that had launched a wholesale communion wafer business. “It was unbelievable,” McKeon said about Nicholls’s grasp of the District. “He knew all these funny corners of the city.”
When McKeon took over the Food section in 1993, she brought Nicholls along with her. She eventually hired him as a full-time staff writer in January 1996. Among other things, Nicholls was known for his Foraging column, in which he sought out all manner of food and drink, whether Amish produce or Spanish wine. His wanderings turned him into an expert in international food, reflected in his stories about the Eden Center , Little Mexico restaurants and Asian dining in Wheaton, among other topics.
“I sat adjacent to Walter for several years and always found him delightful and funny with one of those infectious laughs that made you join in regardless of the banter,” recalled former Washington Post Food staffer Carole Sugarman, now food editor and restaurant critic for Bethesda magazine. “He was very opinionated about food, but knew what he was talking about. He was knowledgeable without being a prima donna.”
Nicholls’s work ventured far beyond so-called ethnic food. In 2007, he wrote about tilapia, the fish that chefs hate but the public loves. He was also one of the first to profile Sophie LaMontagne and Katherine Kallinis, the Canadian-born sisters behind Georgetown Cupcake.
“We’ll never forget the day we first met Walter,” LaMontagne wrote via e-mail Monday afternoon. “He knocked on Georgetown Cupcake’s door in 2008, on our second day in business, and spent the entire day with us. He witnessed and wrote a wonderful article about the birth of our business, and he put Georgetown Cupcake on the map. We owe a great deal to Walter, and we will always be thankful to him for sharing our story. We are so saddened by this news, and will miss him dearly.”
Later in 2008, Nicholls took an early retirement, but he never stopped writing. In late 2008, Nicholls was named Washington Bureau Chief for BizBash, a media company that serves the meeting and event-planning industry. His food writing continued to appear in various publications, among them: Flavor magazine, Arlington magazine and the Georgetowner, where he published an installment of “What’s Cooking, Neighbor?” as recently as May 21. Nicholls also served as a regional rep for Cook Flavoring Co., a California enterprise that produces vanilla products and other flavorings.
“I called him and asked if he wanted to do another story,” said McKeon, who serves as an editor for FW, a fashion magazine for The Washington Post. “He said, ‘I can’t. I’m too tired.’ ”
Nicholls was diagnosed with liver cancer less than three weeks ago, McKeon said. His condition deteriorated quickly. McKeon said she spent part of Saturday night with Nicholls, and “he was talking,” though in pain. By Sunday morning, he had died.
Memorial services are pending. Friends say services will likely be held both in Washington and at Keyser Farm, which Nicholls co-owned in Rappahannock County.