OBITUARY: TOM YATES, 1958-2022
Lexington chef and longtime Ace food writer Chef Tom Yates died Wednesday, February 9, 2022, at the age of 63 after a brief illness. Initially admitted to the emergency room for suspected pneumonia and sepsis, the ICU team discovered that he was also suffering from previously undiagnosed, but advanced metastatic cancer. His condition deteriorated rapidly; all medical interventions were exhausted and he died the next 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 Culinary Arts: Bourbon Style Cooking School at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. 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, countless Derby soirees, and many events for Christ Church Cathedral, where he was a member for nearly two decades. Pre-pandemic, he was a beloved and familiar figure 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.” After graduating from WKU, Chef Tom lived in Manhattan and worked briefly on Broadway before making 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.”
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.”
He retired from the food industry in 2020, 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. Both parents are buried together just below the Amphitheatre and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. 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 husband and partner 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.
A Celebration of Life and interment of ashes is planned for later this Spring at Christ Church Cathedral.
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.
Include “In Memory of Chef Tom Yates” in the notes of your contribution.
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. Flowers may be delivered to the reception hall for the Memorial, once scheduled. A tree will be planted in Tom’s honor at the Old Episcopal Burial Ground when weather permits.