Nathan Fong wasn’t part of the Canadian food elite.
“He was food royalty,” said Vancouver chef Quang Dang, a close friend. “He was respected by culinarians at every level all around the world.”
Only a royal – or someone with Mr. Fong’s expertise, confidence and immense charm – would be brave enough to send back a plate of sablefish at a three-Michelin-star restaurant and tell the chef it was too salty.
“He was right. The chef agreed and thanked him for the honest feedback,” said Michel Chicoine, Mr. Fong’s husband, recalling their dinner at Mugaritz in San Sebastian, Spain.
Mr. Fong, an award-winning food stylist, media personality, chef for the British Columbia government and advocate for the gay community, died in Vancouver of a suspected heart attack on March 30. He was 61.
Although trained as a chef, Mr. Fong turned his multifaceted work into a unique role that was more akin to that of an ambassador. He connected people and promoted chefs, often launching careers, through his various media platforms, which included 27 years on Global BCTV News, columns for the Vancouver Sun and a weekly radio show, Fong on Food.
He travelled extensively for pleasure and magazine writing, but also as the provincial government chef, cooking up storms of seafood at trade shows, diplomatic receptions, galas, competitions and events around the globe.
He probably did more for B.C.’s geoduck industry than any marketing campaign conceivable when he persuaded the Duchess of Cambridge to eat a raw slice of the giant elephant trunk clam on a stop in the Okanagan Valley during the 2016 royal tour. The Duke declined, explaining that the phallic shape was “presentationally … quite challenging.” Giggling, the Duchess said she was surprised by the “firm” texture. The British tabloids had a field day.
“Oh my god, he must have told that story a million times,” Mr. Chicoine said this week.
For years, Mr. Fong was the go-to meal fixer for local publicists and tourism agencies. When food writers, chefs promoting cookbooks and television producers came to Vancouver, he would shepherd them around from restaurant to restaurant – and often ended up in front of the camera, as he did for the NBC Today Show during the 2010 Winter Olympics.
“He was a social monster,” Mr. Dang said. “He was at every single event.”
But at all events, he also took the time to talk to everyone he knew and introduced them, in turn, to the people who might help them. “He gave back 200 per cent,” Mr. Chicoine explained.
Which is why, whenever Mr. Fong asked for volunteers to cook – whether it be for the Passions Gala that he founded, the BC Seafood Festival, his legendary dinner parties and even his own fabulous foodie wedding –no one turned him down.
Nathan Mark Fong was born on March 16, 1959, in West Vancouver. He was the eldest of four children. His parents, Edna and Robert Fong, owned the IGA grocery store in Dundarave, where he worked as a shelf stocker throughout his teens.
It was a family that loved food. And after studying commerce at UBC, Mr. Fong pursued his true passion, cooking, at the Dubrulle Culinary Institute. He was in the same class as Rob Feenie (the Iron Chef who founded the world-renowned Lumière Restaurant) and Barbara-Jo McIntosh (the owner of Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks). The three became fast friends.
After graduation, Mr. Fong launched a catering company, but soon moved into food styling before anyone even knew that food styling for television commercials and photos shoots was a legitimate job. He won numerous awards, including the inaugural IACP/Julia Child Award of Excellence for food styling in 1998, and had a roster of high-profile clients, including White Spot Restaurants (for 35 years), A&W, Samsung, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.
Mr. Fong’s proudest achievement was the annual Passions Gala for the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation. Since he founded the wine-and-food extravaganza in 2002, it raised more than $1.6-million to care for people living with AIDS.
“He was the Mother Teresa of the gays,” Mr. Chicoine says. “He made sure no one went hungry. What most people didn’t know is that he was HIV-positive. It wasn’t a problem. It was controlled for a long time. But that’s why Passions was so important to him.”
The one medical condition that Mr. Fong wasn’t always good at controlling was his diabetes. As much as he loved food, he stopped eating when he was feeling low and got frightfully skinny.
This had been an exceptionally tough year: Several close friends had died; he and Mr. Chicoine separated; and then, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, the international trade shows were cancelled and he lost more than 25 per cent of his projected income.
Just before the travel ban took effect, he went to Scottsdale, Ariz., to visit a friend. “So he could feel sad without feeling bad about feeling sad,” said one of his best friends, Stephen Clark.
He caught the last flight home and went straight into quarantine, where he seemed to be relishing the opportunity to clear out his freezer and re-watch the entire PBS collection of Julia Child videos.
He and Mr. Chicoine were in constant touch and planned to go on a date as soon as the world went back to normal. He was also planning a trip to India. He had lots of reasons to feel hopeful.
But the social isolation “was killing him,” Mr. Dang said.
Last week, he fainted and hit his head. On Monday, when he didn’t answer the door for a grocery drop-off or respond to texts, Mr. Chicoine was called and raced over.
He found Mr. Fong on the floor in the kitchen, where he had presumably been cooking his breakfast. The stove was still on. The remains in the pan were charred to a crisp.
“It was the only time in his life he burnt anything.”
Mr. Fong leaves his husband, mother, three siblings and extended family.