British Columbia

'Our very own Julia Child': Vancouver chef, writer Nathan Fong dies at 61

Food stylist, chef and and former On The Coast food columnist Nathan Fong, beloved for his warmth, passion and philanthropy, died Monday.

Fong was a key member of B.C.'s culinary scene and raised millions of dollars for charity

Nathan Fong, a key member of B.C.'s culinary scene who raised millions of dollars for charity, died Monday aged 61. (Nathan Fong/Facebook)

Many in B.C.'s culinary world are mourning the sudden and surprising death of chef Nathan Fong, who died Monday.

A trained chef by trade, Fong's love for food led to a multi-faceted career as food stylist, commentator and columnist — including a stint as CBC On The Coast's food columnist in the mid-2000s

Many will remember Fong, 61, for his warm and vivacious personality, says longtime friend Fred Lee, who first met Fong when Lee was a publisher with Xtra West magazine and Fong wrote the food column, back in the 90s.

"Like many, I'm still processing the news ... He will sorely be missed, for sure," Lee said. 

Lee described Fong as a relentless champion of Vancouver's food scene, turning Vancouver chefs like John Bishop, Umberto Menghi, Rob Feenie, and Hidekazu Tojo into household names. A huge fan of Julia Child, Fong was overjoyed to receive a food styling award from the culinary world icon in 1998. 

"He always had a story and he could tell you anything he ever wanted to know about food," he said.

"He loved to eat. He loved to cook. In a way, he was our very own Julia Child."

Nathan Fong with his idol, Julia Child, in 1998. (Nathan Fong/Facebook)

'Bigger than life personality'

Lana Popham, B.C.'s minister of agriculture, said Fong would be remembered as an ambassador, whose "bigger than life personality" touched many.

Lana Popham, B.C.'s minister of agriculture, and chef Nathan Fong at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center in March 2019. (Geoduck from Canada/Facebook)

"Like many who knew him, I'm shocked and sad ... many future plans we were making together left undone," Popham wrote in a statement.

Fong had spent more than a decade working with B.C.'s seafood industry and the province to promote B.C. seafood at trade shows and events around the world.

One illustrative anecdote was the time he served geoduck, a large clam native to the West Coast, to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on their visit to B.C.

Nathan Fong and Chef Hidekazu Tojo, left, serve the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during their 2016 trip to British Columbia. (Nathan Fong/Facebook)

The delicacy has a rather obvious phallic shape — "Prince William said they were presentationally challenged," Fong quipped — but Fong said the Duchess was game to try his preparation: slices of geoduck with cucumber and a miso-hot mustard sauce.

"She said 'It's delicious ... but it's firm, firmer than I thought.' ... Bad choice of words!" Fong said, laughing, adding the British tabloids had a field day.

Watch Chef Nathan Fong talk about serving geoduck to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on their visit to B.C.:

B.C. Geoducks gaining in popularity

5 years ago
Duration 6:38
Chef Nathan Fong shows us how he prepares the delicacy

But Lee said Fong's loss will be most keenly felt in his work with the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation, a care facility in the West End that supports people living with HIV. 

Fong was the mastermind behind the Passions Gala, an annual fundraiser to raise money for the facility. In the 16 years Fong ran the gala, Lee said he had raised almost almost $1.7 million.

"From humble beginnings at Barbara-Jo's bookstore where I think he raised $7,000, [to] last year when the event topped over $220,000," Lee said. "That was the kind of impact Nathan had on our city."

'He showed me the world'

Fong's husband, Michel Chicoine, said their house was always filled with love, people and parties.

"He showed me the world," Chicoine said, through tears. "He was a great husband."

Michel Chicoine with Nathan Fong. They were married for four years, but together for almost two decades. (Submitted by Michel Chicoine)

At this time, with physical distancing measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, he says it will be difficult to give Fong the funeral he would've wanted. He says friends and family will plan a proper celebration of life for Fong when people can get together again.

"We'll wait until this wave goes through, and we'll give Nathan what he deserves.... He's a man of honour and he should be honoured for who he was, and what he gave to the community. I think he deserves that."

With files from On The Coast, Lien Yeung