Home Cover Story IN MEMORY: Celebrating the Life of Lexington’s Chef Tom Yates

IN MEMORY: Celebrating the Life of Lexington’s Chef Tom Yates

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples…he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.
—Isaiah 25:6-9

Asked to recall a memory of Chef Tom Yates, nearly everyone will immediately go to his husky laugh and impish giggle — his unique baritone informed, refined, sharpened, and honed by his decades-long love affair with Salem menthols. His voice reflected his soul —  filled with joy, charm, innocent mischief, and no regrets. As his longtime friend Susan Dellarosa put it, “We laughed so much, mostly in church when it was wildly inappropriate. We both agreed that the silent confession time was never long enough.”

After the laughter, a food memory might pop up that could fall anywhere on the spectrum — it could be his infamous pok-pok brussels sprouts, gorgonzola mousse with pear chips, or his complex take on a Thomas Keller savory galette — or, it might just as likely be Doritos. He didn’t believe in “guilty pleasures” because he felt no guilt in the sheer joy of food, both high and low. His fondest adjective for the lower culinary echelons, always uttered with great affection, was  “skanky.” 

While his fans adored the outrageous, meticulous, James Beard level creations he dreamed up and executed over a long professional culinary career, friends and family were also just as likely to have shared poolside vienna sausages and saltines with him — a summertime staple, followed by one of his farmers’ market finds for dessert… juicy peaches or plums or watermelon wedges dripping down our arms and drawing swarms of bees to his special Tiki-adjacent base camp corner of the Signature Club.

“Food is my memory trigger. I might not remember the small details of my childhood, but I can taste them.”
—Tom Yates

Lexington chef and longtime Ace food writer Chef Tom Yates died Wednesday, February 9, 2022, at the age of 63 after a brief illness. 

His sudden death was so unexpected and shocking, Lexington’s tight-knit food community was left stunned and reeling in disbelief. Learning the news, Fox 56’s Brigitte Prather said, “My heart just stopped. What a loss for Lexington… I flew solo to a brunch event and sat with Tom years ago and loved him immediately. He and I were just talking Cincinnati chili on Monday. He supported me and my food ventures so sincerely.” 

Lexington Chef Shannon Wampler-Collins added, “I’m grateful for his support of the Lexington Women Chefs Dinner Series,” sharing what a pleasure it was to run into Tom at Lexington culinary events. 

Many echoed Prather’s incredulity, asking variations on her question, “can it really be true?”

cover based on photo by Alan Rideout

Briefly, he was admitted to the hospital on a Tuesday with what was initially suspected to be a severe case of pneumonia and likely sepsis. While treatment began immediately to address these critical conditions, it quickly became clear to the ICU team that he was also suffering from previously undiagnosed but advanced metastatic cancer, and he simply was unable to recover from the aggressive complications. All medical interventions were exhausted, and he died the following day.

A classically-trained chef and culinary school grad, he was widely known for his fantastical event productions, a decades-long tenure at DeSha’s before it closed in 2013, and his work teaching the bourbon school at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Pre-pandemic, he had spent the past several years as a right-hand man for Lexington culinary veteran, Selma Owens.

Included in his legendary event portfolio are the Mardi Gras benefit galas for Sts. Peter and Paul School, the arts and apps intermission series for Broadway Live at the Opera House, along with many events for Christ Church Cathedral, where he was a member for nearly two decades. Pre-pandemic, he was a beloved and familiar figure foraging for treasure at the Lexington Farmers Market.   

Born in Germany as a self-described “army brat,” his mastery of world cuisine was informed by an itinerant childhood that included time in Austria, Africa, Germany, and Virginia and DC,  before his father moved everyone home to the family farm in Port Oliver in Western Kentucky.  He “held fast to his German, Czech, Swedish, and African caretakers,” writing, “They formed me. Loved me. Molded me. Still, as much as I counted on them, they changed as often as our addresses, vanishing as my family moved on.  As an innocent Buster Brown-clad kid, I grew  accustomed to constant change and frequent good-byes.”

His childhood friend Carole Chaney, who attended middle and high school with him in western Kentucky, recalls, “he always had a kind spirit and loved Doritos. In eighth grade, we spent hours listening to records in Mrs. Hagan’s room.” 

Tami Wilson recalls the summers she spent working with him when the two were hired as costumed characters at Beech Bend Park, “cooking, laughing, and crying. Listening to Simon and Garfunkel, Elton John, and Bette Midler. When we all had a day off, we would go to his father’s farm in Barren County, visit his grandmother, and swim in the lake, swinging from ‘grapevines’ on the hillside.” They stocked a kiddie pool with snacks, and floated it onto the lake where they could access it from their innertubes. She also confesses, “long before he became so proficient in cooking, he asked me once where he could find a spice called ‘Astor,’ not realizing that it was a brand name” for a spice company. 

After graduating from WKU, Chef Tom lived in Manhattan and worked briefly on Broadway before returning to Kentucky to make his permanent home in Lexington. He wrote, “Food is my memory trigger. I might not remember the small details of my childhood, but I can taste them.”

Photo by Alan Rideout

His first foray into cooking for large off-site events began with the tango. “Taylor Made Horse Farm hosted a benefit production of Luis Bravo’s Tony-nominated ‘Forever Tango’ that featured the iconic partner dance. With proceeds benefiting the Race for Education and Operation Read, the evening featured a two-hour production at The Lexington Opera House that showcased the sexy Argentine dance.” During the planning and prepping for 300-plus tango revelers, he immersed himself in Argentine cuisine, and prepared an “authentic array of exotic fruits, bowls of lime-spiked ceviche, fried plantains, salsas, and stacks of beef empanadas overflowing from large wooden street carts,” but remembered that the crowd “seemed to be most smitten with a small bowl of chimichurri sauce nestled next to a huge slab of beef on a carving station. It must have stirred emotions.”

Friend Patricia Webb says, “From Operation Read to Taylor Made Farm, he made a difference.” 

He left the food industry at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, but continued his extraordinary work as a food writer and photographer. He had recently begun sharing his passion for culinary photography via his Instagram profile at @canonchef. In the early days of the pandemic, he wrote, “As a kid, I believed that if I could swing high enough to fly over the swingset my world would turn upside down and inside out. My private little Wonderland.

Now, as an adult, the world is upside down and inside out. No swings attached.”

He is preceded in death by his mother, Miriam T. Yates, and his father, Major Owen T. Yates Jr. who was awarded the Legion of Merit. He was also cared for in childhood by nannies Frau Olga and Ababa, and his stepmother Marge Yates, who married Major Yates when Tom was 14. 

Tom is survived by his partner and husband of 36 years, Michael Jansen Miller of Lexington; brother in law Jon Miller (Jennifer) of Brandenburg; and sister-in-law Vicki Miller Singleton (Bill) of Irvine; along with half brother Mickey Yates.


M E M O R I A L 

A memorial and interment of ashes is planned for Saturday April 2 at Christ Church Cathedral at 1 pm. 

A reception will follow immediately in the adjacent Grand Hall.

Flowers may be sent to the Cathedral’s Reception Hall for Day of Service.

Memorial donations may be made to:

the fund for the London Ferrill Community Garden 

at the Old Episcopal Burial Ground, 

℅ Christ Church Cathedral


The Lee Initiative, co-founded by Kentucky chef Edward Lee.

Please include “In Memory of Chef Tom Yates” in the notes of your contribution.

A tree will be planted in Tom’s memory at the Old Episcopal Burial Ground when weather permits.

Updated information about the Memorial will be posted at the facebook group, “I Knew Tom Yates: 1958-2022,” an online community celebrating the life and legacy of Chef Tom.

This article also appears on page 10 of the March 2022 print edition of Ace. 

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