Steven Shaw (Courtesy of EGullet)
Steven Shaw’s sudden death at age 44 from an unspecified cause on April 8 drew emotional responses across the Internet from those who shared his strong feelings for food.
On Twitter and Eater and Chowhound and especially eGullet—the online forum he cofounded—Shaw was recalled as one of the original food bloggers, a pioneer who “brought together producers and consumers of food with intelligence and love,” as Gramercy Tavern and Shake Shack owner Danny Meyer wrote in one tweet.
Like others who made a mark in the dining industry after starting out elsewhere, Shaw was a lawyer by training who got a taste of his foodie future eating out at clients’ expense.
Shaw joined Cravath, Swaine & Moore’s New York office as a litigation associate in 1994 after graduating from Fordham University Law School. As he recounted in “Turning the Tables: Restaurants from the Inside Out,” his second book, the seeds of his food writing career were planted during his time with the firm. And Cravath litigation partner Rory Millson was on hand for what proved to be the transformative chapter in Shaw’s life.
It was 1994, and Millson had been summoned to Wilmington to cross-examine a witness testifying in a trial connected to a bankruptcy case in which Cravath was playing a role. Shaw was just back from his honeymoon when Millson called and told him: “We’re going to Delaware tomorrow, bring clothes.”
Millson says he and the rest of the team, Shaw included, believed that the trip would be a quick one. Instead, it dragged on for months. Early on, Shaw took charge of arranging meals for the Cravath team. To complement the frequent trips to the Green Room in Wilmington’s Hotel du Pont, where the lawyers were staying, he scouted out Wilmington’s best local cuisine, from Italian to Japanese to seafood.
Describing the assignment in “Turning the Tables,” Shaw wrote: “The trial had me living in a hotel and working out of temporary offices in Wilmington, Delaware, toiling 24/7 for almost nine weeks. True to my nature, though, over the course of my incarceration in Wilmington, I sussed out all the best places to eat and, in what turned out to be the beginning of my next career, I wrote a short Wilmington restaurant survival guide, which became a bit of a cult classic around the New York law firm scene.”
Millson says he told Shaw not to worry about keeping the Cravath team well fed, but the young attorney persisted. “He’d say to me: ‘Millson, I know you like to eat well. I’m going to arrange something.’” That, Millson says, often meant catered meals prepared and delivered by Shaw’s favorite local restaurants as the 100-hour weeks stretched out. “Steve really got into this catering thing.”
Millson, who met Shaw when the younger man first interviewed at Cravath, remembers him getting similarly excited as a summer associate, when Millson, already accustomed to working closely with Shaw, mistakenly assigned him to take a deposition—something only a licensed attorney can do. He celebrated being mistaken for a more senior attorney by exchanging high-fives with another Cravath lawyer. “Steve was a big personality,” Millson says.
Shaw left Cravath in 1998 to pursue writing full-time, chiefly through his Fat-Guy.com blog. He also contributed articles to publications like Food & Wine, Salon and Saveur. In 2001 he teamed with tech writer Jason Perlow to found eGullet, whose forums attract restaurant recommendations, cooking tips and thoughts on all sorts of other food-related topics from amateurs and experts alike. In 2002 Shaw won a food journalism award from the James Beard Foundation for his article “A Week in the Gramercy Tavern Kitchen,” which documented a stint alongside celebrity chef Tom Colicchio.
Shaw stayed in touch with Millson after leaving Cravath, sending along regular restaurant suggestions and attending parties at his former colleague’s Sag Harbor home. Once, Millson says, Shaw showed up carrying close to 100 oysters, then proceeded to teach the other guests how to shuck them. The two men also dined together frequently over the years. Millson says he was always impressed by the rapport Shaw had with even the most famous chefs, teasing them, for instance, for sending text messages while working the line in the kitchen. “He could get away with that because he was such a kind-hearted guy,” Millson says.
In making the move from Am Law attorney to professional food maven, Shaw was not the first, or the last, to head down that path.
Tim and Nina Zagat, for instance, famously produced the first primitive versions of what would become their eponymous restaurant guides during a year spent in Paris as a young married couple working as associates at Hughes, Hubbard & Reed (Tim) and Shearman & Sterling (Nina). (Nina Zagat once landed on the cover of The American Lawyer in connection with her role in the legal fight over Johnson & Johnson heir J. Seward Johnson’s $500 million estate.)
As The Am Law Daily has previously reported, online food-ordering service Seamless was founded by two former attorneys with Am Law ties. Cofounder Jason Finger—a onetime associate at New York litigation boutique O’Sullivan Graev & Karabell, which merged with O’Melveny & Myers in 2002— has said it was ordering numerous late- night meals at the office for himself and his colleagues that inspired him to start a website aimed at making that process more efficient.
The list of those with Big Law ties who are engaged in culinary endeavors also includes: Mark Kuller, who owns three restaurants in Washington, D.C., and is a former McKee Nelson tax partner; D.C.–based Sidley Austin associate Julia Mirabella, a food blogger who recently produced a cookbook dedicated to preparing mason jar salads; and Eddie Huang, a former Chadbourne & Parke associate who abandoned the law to become a chef and is now a popular blogger, author and television host. Huang’s book, “Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir,” is even getting the sitcom treatment, with ABC recently ordering a pilot for a television series based on the memoir.
The Am Law Daily reported last fall on the opening of Q, a Los Angeles sushi restaurant backed by Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan cofounder John Quinn, and two other firm partners, Tokyo office head Ryan Goldstein and class action practice chair Shon Morgan.
Morgan says it isn’t just because lawyers have busy schedules and often eat out or order in that explains why so many are drawn to the food industry. He says the frequent travel that is typical of the job exposes lawyers to many different cultures and cuisines. He notes that he and his partners met the sushi chef they hired for Q in Tokyo. It also helps, he says, that many lawyers are naturally entrepreneurial and “generally have some disposable resources” that let them attempt new ventures. “By nature, I think lawyers have active minds and are looking for new challenges,” he says.
Morgan says many lawyers are also looking for an outlet that lets them pursue interests and skills that aren’t part of their practice. Speaking of his own entry into the restaurant market, Morgan says Q presents “an opportunity to have a little side life. It’s not a new career, but it gives you an opportunity to do something a little bit different.”
For Shaw—who at the time of his death was head of community at research and development company Quirky—that little side life turned into something much more. He made it clear in his writing that as much as he enjoyed being a lawyer, he knew that practicing full-time would prevent him from honing his writing. In his words: “I realized I was more interested in my business lunches than in my business as a lawyer.”