Monday, December 21, 2015
"Too weird to live, too rare to die" A Tribute to Mitch Omer
Minnesota has lost someone truly great. Mitch Omer was the co-founder and lead culinary artist of Hell's Kitchen in Minneapolis and Duluth. Omer's food was a slice of Americana with a touch of weird and was described by many as the "best hangover food." Everything is made from scratch, including the ketchup and peanut butter (and let me tell you, it is the best damn peanut butter ever made. I will fight you on this.)
Hell's Kitchen became a haven for those who identified outside of the norm: it was one of the first companies to hire people with piercings and tattoos to run both front of house and behind the scene, Ralph Steadman art cover the walls as chandeliers made from sharp kitchen hang from above (my particular favorite decorating aspect is the paintings in the bathrooms. They are holograms that shift from skeleton to person as you look at them), and on the eve of the historic passing of same sex marriage in MN, Hell's Kitchen was the first company to offer a chance for a couple to celebrate their wedding at the restaurant for free (which they ended up giving to five different couples).
But behind all this is Mitch himself. I met Mitch through his step-son, Nate Gerdes. Nate is one of my best friends and many of my memories from high school and trips back home to MN involve him and our mutual group of friends. I was over at Nate's house when I met Mitch. The man was... overwhelming. He was full of life and was so unapologetically himself. Awkward high school me wasn't sure how to process this and was kinda afraid of him because that is my default mode. But Mitch was also one of the sweetest, smartest adults I knew and the few conversations I had with him were always an experience. He had a tattoo of Ralph Steadman's autograph on his arm and was annoyed when people (i.e. me) sat on his part of the couch when I came over to watch The Simpsons. But I also remember his laugh when a particularly funny part occurred and how it vibrated the room and made everyone feel welcome.
But the restaurant itself was always a fixture in my life. There were countless times my friends and I would go over and have meals there. My family took me there for my 21st birthday to have my first legal drinks in the United States. We spent Father's Day there when A Hard Day's Night (Beatles tribute band one of my music teachers was part of) played there. Whenever friends or loved ones not from MN come to visit, I make a point of taking them to Hell's Kitchen because it has the BEST DAMN FOOD. I had always imagined, wherever my hypothetical wedding took place, I would hire Cynthia, Mitch, and Katy Gerdes to cater and they would be there to help with the food and to celebrate with everyone. My parents sent me a jar of the peanut butter for Christmas last year and I have a copy of the cookbook they released even though I don't cook.
While the restaurant will live on, it feels weird to not have Mitch here. His lifeblood was the heart and soul of the restaurant and the world is just a little less full and weird without him. If there is an afterlife, I hope he is vibrating the clouds with his thunderous laugh.
Rock'n'roll in Peace, Mitch Omer. Thank you.