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In memorium: Longtime restaurant critic Lauren Chapin

By LISA GUTIERREZ and STEVE PAUL
The Kansas City Star

Lauren Chapin, The Star’s restaurant critic for the last eight years, died Wednesday at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City.

Chapin, who recently turned 50, collapsed while working out on Monday and had been at St. Luke’s since then. Her death was caused by a ruptured aneurysm that developed within an AVM, or arteriovenous malformation, at the base of her brain, family members said.

Brain AVMs, a tangle of abnormal blood vessels, are rare and usually congenital.

Chapin lived in Liberty with her husband, Timothy Finn, The Star’s pop music critic, and their two daughters, Brenna, 16, and Maren, 14.

Chapin’s restaurant columns have appeared in the newspaper’s weekly Preview section and articles and other features ran frequently in the weekly Food section, now FYI/Food.

In 2005, Chapin was a finalist for the James Beard Foundation award for best newspaper columns, the Oscar of food journalism.

“This is a profoundly sad and difficult day at The Star,” the newspaper’s editor, Mike Fannin, said Thursday. “We will miss her talents and surely her amazing spirit. We have lost one of our bright lights. And now, our prayers are with the family.”

Chapin was widely respected in the local food community, and news of her hospitalization and death spread quickly among chefs, restaurant operators and wine purveyors.

In an essay in 2002, Chapin described the “food epiphany” she experienced at the age of 11. She spent the day in the mud pulling potatoes with her siblings, parents and grandparents at the farm in Rushville, Mo., north of Weston, that had been in her family since 1887.

“I made my first deep connection between food and family,” she wrote. “It kindled my passion for food and all its cultural symbolism. It’s what led me to this coveted job as restaurant critic.”

Chapin was the oldest of Loren “Corky” and Rosamond Chapin’s four children. Her brother, John Chapin, of Rushville, and two sisters, Kristan Easter-Brown of Kearney and Robyn Cado of Kansas City, survive, as do her parents, who still live on the farm.

Her father’s job as a mechanic with TWA gave her and her siblings a ticket to see the world. Chapin, who graduated from the University of Missouri, visited China and Japan and one winter break during college back-packed across Europe.

In her journeys she formed a global outlook and well-earned experience in ethnic cuisines of the world.

“Food is about more than sustenance,” she wrote in that essay six years ago. “It is about culture and customs, all those things I learned traveling as I did.”

She often wrote of her travels in her reviews, as when she recalled falling in love with Baileys Irish Cream while studying one year at Oxford University. “One sip of that sweet, smoky, creamy, chocolaty aperitif, and I didn’t feel the English chill anymore. Another sip and I was smitten.”

Finn said his wife was an adventurer: “She just had a real lust for new things and new places and new friends.”

She earned a master’s degree in writing, publishing and literature at Emerson College in Boston, where she also gained practical restaurant-world experience.

Starting in the late 1980s she worked as a freelance photographer. She taught photography at William Jewell College in the mid-1990s and for about 10 years she worked as a freelance photographer alongside The Star’s society editor, Laura Hockaday.

Hockaday was impressed with how hard Chapin worked and how much she loved meeting people at the events they covered.

“Sometimes we’d cover as many as five events in one night,” said Hockaday, who retired in 2000. “She was totally capable and dependable and lots of fun to work with.”

In 1997 Chapin earned a certificate from the Court of Master Sommeliers and the following year she began writing freelance restaurant columns and food stories for The Star.

She joined the staff in late 2000, succeeding her husband as restaurant critic.

“She liked food that was original, inventive or innovative,” Finn said. “And fresh. The quality of the ingredients was paramount. She liked to eat something that somebody put a little bit of extra attention into. She could appreciate a good hot dog as much as foie gras.”

Much of what Chapin admired and championed about food involved hand-crafted, locally grown meats, fruits and vegetables. She kept two vegetable gardens at home and, for a while, a menagerie of animals that included chickens, peacocks, geese, a cow, a llama and a pot-bellied pig.

“To outsiders, it might seem like Lauren’s life was all about food and drink. But those who knew Lauren well also knew her days were really focused on her daughters,” said Jill Silva, The Star’s food editor.

One of Silva’s favorite Chapin reviews was of Benton’s Steak and Chop House, where Chapin took her daughters for a fancy, back-to-school dinner two years ago.

“Benton’s is just the sort of place that demands ladylike behavior,” Chapin wrote. “Suddenly the girls stood up a little straighter, pulled up their sundress straps and brushed their bangs off their foreheads.”

Chapin was just beginning to teach her daughters how to cook, putting each in charge of getting dinner on the table one night a week and coaching them by phone from work, Silva said.

In recent years Chapin became an avid bicyclist and for five years straight she joined thousands of bikers at the Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.

It was there, biking to the top of a steep and daunting mount called Cobalt Hill in 2005, that she learned that she possessed a “warrior’s heart,” she wrote.

Her family was able to donate her heart and other organs, said Chapin’s sister, Robyn Cado.

“It is so tremendously comforting to know that she’s helping so many other people, which is exactly what she would want,” Cado said.

A celebration of her life will take place at 1 p.m. Dec. 20 at the John Gano Memorial Chapel on the campus of William Jewell College in Liberty.


On Family and Food
Here are excerpts from two of the “Cream of the Crop” columns that earned Lauren Chapin a nomination for the James Beard award in 2005.

“Sweet Strawberry Memories”

Every summer my family and I went to my grandmother’s farm near Lamar, Mo.

The soil was studded with flint rocks and a creek trickled across a dirt road in the back fields. Honeysuckle vines covered the dome of her root cellar while a tangle of pastel-colored rose moss encircled it. It was a riotous display of color and honeyed aroma.

But as much as I remember those sights and smells, a strawberry patch always reminds me of my grandmother.

We’d eat fresh strawberries, which we kids helped pick, with every meal. We learned to stay on the straw-lined paths between the rows and gingerly lean across the mounds to search out ripe berries buried beneath the sea of greenery.

We’d eat as many as we picked. Occasionally we made bad choices, accidentally popping a rheumy one in our mouths. The only remedy for that gnarly, moldy taste was a spectacularly juicy one, preferably one warm from the sun.”

“Reaping Rewards from the Sweetest Season”

Like planting potatoes in the spring and digging them up in the fall, harvesting summer’s sweet corn crop was a family affair.

Although Dad planted, hoed and picked the corn, the four of us kids shucked it. He hauled in bushel gunnysacks of the stuff on the hottest, stickiest days. We groaned about the messy job we were marshaled to do, but the sooner we shut up the better.

We climbed into the bed of the 1964 sky-blue Ford pick-up, and he drove us out to the middle of the pasture. Our Black Angus and granddad’s Herefords lumbered toward us and bumped against the truck and each other, impatiently waiting for the sweet husks. They flicked away the flies and horseflies with their tails; invariably one of us got bitten or, worse still, slimed when one of the cows sneezed.

We sweated in the July heat and bickered about who wasn’t shucking fast enough, usually my youngest sister.

Somebody always smooshed a fat corn worm. The creepiest part was peeling back the husks, not knowing how many worms were nestled just between the layers. The toughest part of the job was breaking off the green cob at the base of the corn with our hands.

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