IOWA CITY — The kitchen makes the Friese family feel close to Kurt Friese, the former chef, restaurateur, local food advocate, politician and author, who died unexpectedly last fall at home.
To Kim Friese, he’s better known as her husband and ‘Dad’ to Taylor, 28, and Devon, 31.
Once a week or so they gather for a meal, as they did when Kurt was alive. They share their culinary talents with each other, knowledge and love of food, theory and techniques, and stories about Kurt.
“Cooking and eating together has always been central to Kurt’s family growing up,” Kim Friese said. “For Kurt, the dining table was the hub of the family and they all enjoyed cooking together. That was and is the same for our family. We all feel close to him in kitchens.”
Sunday marks the family’s first Father’s Day since Kurt Friese died Oct. 26 at age 54 of a heart attack related to an undetected heart disease, stunning family members and the community. If there’s any solace, the death was believed to be quick and, Kim Friese said, he had always said he preferred to go in his sleep.
The death still is raw, but cooking and baking and breaking bread with loved ones has helped the Friese family grieve and keep his legacy alive.
“The first couple of weeks, I could hardly do anything, but I could still cook,” Kim Friese recalled.
Kurt Friese wore many hats in the community.
He and Kim Friese ran a tapas restaurant called Devotay — named for Devon and Taylor — for 21 years in Iowa City, which closed and reopened as Linn Street Dive in January a year after the Frieses sold it.
Kurt Friese, who earned a photography degree at Coe College and later graduated from the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, gained national recognition as a pioneer in “slow food,” a movement connecting people with local food and traditional cooking.
He authored a cookbook and wrote a second book called “A Cook’s Journey: Slow Food in the Heartland,” and penned regular food and wine columns in local newspapers.
More recently, he became a political activist, winning a seat on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors in 2016 and being a familiar face at Democratic rallies and causes for state, local and national candidates until his death.
Food always has brought the Friese family together — at home, in their restaurant, with extended family, friends, neighbors and work colleagues. In his backyard, Kurt built a spit. It was an excuse to bring people together and cook for them, like the Thanksgiving he roasted six turkeys for charity.
The spit also inspired an annual cookout on Memorial Day weekend, beginning in 2011, dubbed “Lambapalooza,” during which a full lamb roasted over a fire for six to eight hours.
This Memorial Day weekend, 100-some people gathered for the first Lambapalooza without him. Devon Friese and Daniel Knowles, a friend and longtime head chef at Devotay, ran the spit, basting the lamb with a brush made of a rosemary leaves.
Kim Friese toasted to Kurt’s memory. She envisioned how excited he would be for the event and to see everyone. Devon finished with “Alla Famiglia,” or “To Family.”
That was Kurt’s favorite toast, Kim said.
Holding the event was another way to feel close to him, she added.
On a Sunday earlier this month, Kim Friese cooked lunch for her children, and Taylor’s husband, Will Gerth, at the family home on the northern outskirts of Iowa City.
She served homemade chicken soup, a side of potato salad and squeezed fresh ginger lemonade while daughter Taylor brought a loaf of bread she baked with the last of her emmer wheat.
A pot of strong black coffee sat on the dining table and Archie, a shaggy brown 4-year-old wire-haired pointing griffon, lay nearby.
Their kitchen would make an amateur — or even professional — culinary artist drool with its stainless steel range and just about any tool or gadget imaginable. Nine shelves of cookbooks line the side and front wall.
Conversation centered on topics like mother yeast, an infinity stock — a base for soups or sauces that lives on forever — and lamenting the fast-dying skill of home cooking. Typically, meals here end with planning for the next one.
“Cooking for yourself, your friends and family is the most tangible way to show love,” Kim recalled as a quote of her late husband.
Kurt Friese had a vision of a public hearth, Taylor Friese recalled. The idea was to establish a community of home cooks and home recipes to share and pass down, and grow as more people joined and cooking skills deepened.
Taylor, a professional baker for Dash Coffee Roaster who also teaches baking classes through Kirkwood Community College, in a way has started living out that vision by going into people’s homes to teach adults and children how to bake breads, pizzas and even pretzels.
“One thing my dad taught me is food is not a competition,” she said.
Family members have each tried to carry on his legacy in their own ways.
Devon Friese, who for several years worked as a manager at Devotay and still works in the restaurant industry, enjoys cooking at home for friends, and joked, “I am never getting into politics.”
Kim is helping revive the Slow Food Heartland chapter, which Kurt founded. A benefit is planned for Sept. 18 during the annual Field to Family event featuring Grammy nominated artist Greg Brown. She is also writing a book, a biographical anthology of Kurt’s writing, photographs and recipes, as well as stories that dig deeper than the politics or food he was best known for, she said.
Taylor set out to cook through a cookbook Kurt wrote shortly after opening Devotay in 1996.
Every few days, she’d post pictures of a dish — three-bean fennel stew with porcinis or chocolate bourbon truffles — on social media with a reflection. The “West Wing” program often was playing on a TV while he cooked or she picked up using bourbon in apple pie recipes.
Some dishes have been more emotional than others, like a bourbon pound cake she and her dad every Christmas promised to make together the next year.
“If there is something a loved one makes that you adore, make them teach you,” she wrote. “And if you have recipes you want to pass on to others, make them learn.”
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