Remembering Joe Bonwich, Food Critic and Generous Friend

Nov 2, 2017 at 9:24 am
click to enlarge Joe Bonwich loved the Billikens so much, "he began to look a little bit like the Billken as he got older," his wife jokes. - image via LinkedIn
image via LinkedIn
Joe Bonwich loved the Billikens so much, "he began to look a little bit like the Billken as he got older," his wife jokes.

On Tuesday, October 31, Joe Bonwich passed away while on a decades-delayed, second honeymoon with his wife Jennie Shipman Bonwich. Yet even in the darkest hours following his death, something amazing happened to Jennie, as she began to hear from people who knew her late husband.

Some of those calls, emails, texts and Facebook messages might have been expected, but others were unusual, in that she didn’t know the names of these people and yet many of them considered him a good, trusted friend.

In some respects, clues about this bounty of goodwill were always there. The dean of St. Louis food journalism was known to be maniacal about his old-school approach of being anonymous when visiting area restaurants, almost to the point of comedy. When the couple dined together, it was Jennie who would ask endless questions of the restaurant’s staff, while Joe wrote notes under the table, often without being able to see pen hit paper. Even if the situation resulted in an amusing mess of scribbles in his ringed notebook, the actual work was taking place in Joe’s head.

"He was always ready to focus,” Jennie recalls, in order to get facts and impressions correct. Together, “we were a real team.”

What she didn’t know until this week was that his “undercover career” as a dining critic was neatly mimicked by a lifelong habit of reaching out to people on the sly. Friends, former colleagues, other journalists who'd never even met him, folks who didn’t neatly fit into his many orbits ... all were treated to occasional messages from Bonwich: helpful or encouraging notes from a friendly voice.

“I knew he was a great man,” Jennie Bonwich says, “but I’ve heard from every kind of person under the sun. All of these different people have messaged me about him and all of them have been so loving. I just didn’t know how many people got a kick out of him.”

Amanda Doyle, an author who’s written a series of books extolling the virtues (and, yes, quirks) of St. Louis, developed a largely digital kinship with Bonwich. "He was a new kind of modern friend, but he was a real one, very much," she says. In her case, that meant him stepping up for live appearances, making networking introductions, initiating a variety of small niceties. “Here’s what even a casual friend can say about Joe: He was a generous and gentle guy, apt to send you a private note helping out with some request or need you had,” she writes. “Even one that might have gone unexpressed.”

Brendan Kirby, who literally grew up at Duff’s and now co-helms the lovely cafe Seed Sprout Spoon, was long a Bonwich fan from afar. Kirby, like many others, poured out some thoughts on Facebook yesterday, writing, “His reviews were laced with wit and positivity. His love of food, St. Louis, and Billiken basketball are something we shared and I always took his opinion of anything as something to be revered. We only spoke in the digital realm and I never knew what he looked like until now. I wish we had met in person.”

His love of Billiken basketball was so profound, Jennie Bonwich jokes, “that he began to look a little bit like the Billiken as he got older. He loved them so much. He knew everything about basketball and what they should do, so he was always shouting like crazy at the coaches.” Despite all this knowledge, she says, “I’m not sure that he ever bounced a basketball is his life.”

While his hoops wisdom was real, it’s Bonwich's take on the area restaurant scene that made him a name. He had two stints as a writer with the Riverfront Times, including a lengthy freelance run in the ‘90s. He worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a longer, 11-year-stretch, starting in 2002; he also served on the staff of its’ competitor, the short-lived daily the St. Louis Sun. He was on his second round of dining coverage for St. Louis Magazine at the time of his passing, while working a day job in public relations at the Vandiver Group.

Just 58, Bonwich leaves behind a large family, including his five daughters (Lucie Beatrix Bonwich, Lily Josephine Bonwich, Grace Bonwich Thompson, Celeste Carolyn Kuczewski and Susannah Therese Bonwich) and three grandsons.

There’s no exact count, of course, of how many friends he leaves behind, or how many lives intersected with his in ways great, small and unique.

Folks like Joe Thebeau, for example, who worked with Bonwich in the mid-late ‘90s at Data Research Associates. Back then, Bonwich introduced him to several of his favorite restaurants, which were as varied as Cafe Provencal and the U. City Grill. Of late, Thebeau writes, “Most of my interactions over the last several years have been online/FB, but the few times we did hang out, it was like no time had passed.”

Many years, around this time, Bonwich would gift Thebeau and his wife Gina some cherries he'd grown at his home. These visits from “the Cherry Fairy” became something of a tradition and “with Thanksgiving coming, we’ll be making a pie with the cherries he hand-delivered,” Thebeau writes.

As “Joe was a very positive person,” Jennie Bonwich fully expects to hear many more such stories, from quarters near and far — more stories than she would ever have guessed. Joe Bonwich may be gone, but his many kindnesses live on.

A late November memorial service for Joe Bonwich is being planned as of press time. We'll update this post if we get more details.