Joe Bonwich raised the bar for how St. Louisans ate — from the restaurants they dined in to the food on their plates — and helped usher in an elite culinary scene to the metro area.
Mr. Bonwich, who worked as food writer and restaurant critic at the Post-Dispatch from 2002 to 2013, died Tuesday (Oct. 31, 2017) after collapsing at an airport in Florida while traveling with his wife on a long-planned vacation to the Florida Keys. The exact cause of his death is still being determined. He was 58.
“Joe was a friend and colleague who was far more than a newspaper writer, food critic or radio voice,” said Andy Likes, senior vice president at the Vandiver Group, where Mr. Bonwich worked.
“He had the unique ability to shift the conversation from numbers to food to one of his daughters, all in the same sentence.”
Mr. Bonwich, of Chesterfield, followed an unlikely path to becoming an authority on flavors, farmers markets and restaurants. He graduated from St. Louis University with a degree in economics and earned a master’s degree in econometrics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He took this numbers knowledge to St. Louis Magazine in 1984, where they were looking for a restaurant critic. He was a single, young guy looking for free food and didn’t mind putting on a few pounds in the search for the best dishes, recalls his wife, Jennifer Shipman Bonwich.
He got the job. His pen name there was Joanne Jankowski, his mother’s maiden name.
Later, he used his wife’s maiden name to make reservations to preserve his closely guarded anonymity in restaurants, fooling many chefs for years.
Mr. Bonwich met Jennifer Shipman when he was interviewing her for a freelance story 32 years ago. She told him early on that she was a career woman who wasn’t really interested in having children.
They got married and within five years had five daughters, including two sets of fraternal twins. For a while, they wrote a he said/she said parenting column for the magazine.
Mr. Bonwich’s passion for food was surpassed only by his love for his family. His daughter Susannah Bonwich, 24, remembers her father’s Sunday night dinner ritual throughout their high school years. He would go to a farmers market on Saturday and start cooking at 4 p.m. on Sunday. He would be mostly quiet during the loud, chatty meal, surrounded by five daughters and their various boyfriends. When there was a pause in the conversation, he would pipe up with a cheesy joke or witty remark.
He was ecstatic to be hired as the Post-Dispatch’s food critic in 2002, just before the new Let’s Eat section launched. Judy Evans, then food editor, said the section won the coveted national James Beard award the following year and was a finalist twice more.
“He was obviously a huge part of the section,” she said. Mr. Bonwich especially loved digging into the history of food in St. Louis. He researched the origins of Provel and how the odd cheese landed on St. Louis pizzas. He hunted down the first butcher who started cutting pork into “pork steaks,” another regional specialty.
“He had a real passion for culinary history, and it really resonated with readers,” Evans said. But he also had a knack for spotting what would become the region’s top dining spots.
Mike Emerson, co-owner of Pappy’s Smokehouse, remembers picking up the newspaper and sitting down in front of the cathedral to read his first review of the restaurant. It was when the barbecue spot would often run out of food due to demand. Mr. Bonwich noted it in his review and wrote: “Running out of food can be frustrating for drop-ins, but it’s also as honorable an approach as can be taken for barbecue — so I’d just recommend calling ahead.”
“I went inside the church and said a prayer for him,” Emerson said. “He changed St. Louis’ mind and made it OK for me to do business the way I did business.”
He says Mr. Bonwich had the gift of teaching without making the other person feel stupid. Those who were smart, paid attention when he sent a note.
“He was as fair as could be.”
Star chef Gerard Craft, the region’s first James Beard award winner and owner of Niche Food Group, also credits Mr. Bonwich with having a huge impact on his career. When Craft opened Niche in 2005, it was in the era before people relied on social media for restaurant reviews.
Mr. Bonwich was the first to review it.
“It was almost like a love letter,” Craft said. “I was almost in tears.”
He remembers the restaurant filling up soon after. It was a major moment for a young chef who rose to become a major player in St. Louis’ food scene.
“When he sat down in a restaurant, he always wanted it to succeed,” Jennifer Bonwich said.
Mr. Bonwich left the Post-Dispatch in 2013 to work as director of content strategy at Vandiver Group.
He continued to write restaurant reviews for St. Louis Magazine and taught as an adjunct instructor at Washington University. He was also on the board of the St. Louis Press Club. His trip to Florida was going to be the first vacation with just his wife in 25 years.
He was born Joseph Matthew Bonwich in Indiana and was an only child. He later attended Christ the King Elementary School in University City and graduated from St. Louis University High School.
Funeral arrangements are being finalized.
Besides his wife, he is survived by his daughters Lucie Beatrix Bonwich of New York, Lily Josephine Bonwich of Bloomington, Ind., (son-in-law Gerard Pannekoek), Grace Bonwich Thompson of Killeen, Texas (son-in-law John Thompson), Celeste Carolyn Kuczewski of St. Peters (son-in-law Kamil Kuczewski) and Susannah Therese Bonwich of Chesterfield; and three grandsons.