Bruce Wieszala has spent years working with seriously luxurious food, shaving truffles, searing foie gras and roasting suckling pigs with a deft hand.
Ask the Bistro Europa sous chef what he'd order for his last meal, though, and none of that fancy stuff matters. "That's easy," he says. "My mom's chicken soup."
Mary Wieszala's chicken soup is "very comforting, something I can always rely on," said her son, who worked at a top Atlanta restaurant and appeared with his boss on "Iron Chef America" before returning to Buffalo. "It always makes me feel better, no matter what."
Last meals have held a special fascination for people throughout history. It's a window into the eater's heart, as famously noted by 19th century epicure Jean Brillat-Savarin: "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are."
Today, dinners modeled after the Titanic's last supper sell out quickly, said Andrew Caldwell, author of "Their Last Suppers: Legends of History and their Final Meals."
"People love to talk about it," said Caldwell, who's working on follow-up volumes on the last meals of musicians and movie stars, with a spinoff television series in production.
With that in mind, we asked some Western New York eaters what they would choose for one last meal, facing death or perhaps worse, a lifetime of protein shakes. Their answers were revealing, thought-provoking, and good tinder for your own pondering.
Lindy Ruff, Buffalo Sabres head coach, chose his wife, Gaye's, chicken chowder.
"It's more of a stew than a soup, full of chunks of potatoes, chicken, corn. It's got bacon bits, and it's covered in cheese.
"As a farm kid in western Canada I grew up on potatoes and gravy and chicken or steak. The gravy mixes with the potatoes, and the corn is something that just hits home."
J.J. Richert, chef, Torches restaurant, headed for the water: "A day boat trip out to an island with some fresh crab legs and some dry-aged ribeye steaks. Starting a little fire on the beach, which is only accessible by boat. Simple drawn butter, fresh lemon and Tabasco green for the crab. Rake some coals out of the fire and grill the steaks with salt, pepper and a little olive oil.
"Icy cold Budweiser in the can. A nice Groth cabernet. Finish it up with a right snifter of 20-year-old Lagavulin, enjoying it with the setting sun."
Tom Ragan, of 103.3 WEDG's Shredd & Ragan, would start with a hometown "pitza" from Senape's Tavern, Hazelton, Pa., made with romano and scamorza cheese, and several bottles of Bordeaux.
"Add a gallon of mushroom soup from any bar mleczny (milk bar) in Poland. Finally, if there's room, add a charcoal-grilled tuna steak. The tuna should have been a classically trained pianist, conversant in at least two languages, and needs to have had at least one run-in with its local authorities."
Mylous Hairston, anchorman, Channel 4 WIVB, also went for "mom's finest."
"I remember the fried chicken smothered in butter, mashed potatoes with gravy, and cornbread. Of course, I would also finish the meal with yellow cake with chocolate frosting. Yes, I could eat the entire cake in one sitting, with a few glasses of milk.
"Don't tell my trainer Pat LaDuca that I even thought about this meal. She'll be on my case at Gold's for sure."
Janice Okun, Buffalo News restaurant critic, said the setting was important.
"I want to be on an uncrowded beach in Maine; I want it to be dusk on a hot and sunny day. I want to be wearing my oldest jeans -- the ones with the stretched-out waist.
"And I want to eat a traditional clambake -- starting with chowder, the real New England kind. Which means it is based on thinnish broth, not LePage Library Paste. Then I want clams and mussels right out of the pit that someone else has dug and tended.
"Also, lobster pulled in exactly 30 minutes before it was cooked. And big potatoes. And corn from the field across the street. And much too much melted Irish butter.
"I might even have room for dessert -- who am I kidding? I will have room for dessert. Because it will be blueberry pie, baked with the tiny little blues that grow wild in Maine. I want watermelon, too, cold as can be, and I'm willing to indulge in a watermelon seed-spitting contest as I eat. I want horseshoes later.
"To drink? Lemonade, squeezed from fresh lemons poured from a frosted pitcher that's been garnished with mint. And beer -- right out of the icy bottle."
Aven Rennie, partner, Magavern Magavern Grimm, knows exactly what she wants, including brain food.
"First course: sliced Florida avocado, with spoonfuls of crudites and baby lettuce leaves, arugula, shredded cabbage, and sugared walnut meats, drizzled with dressing.
"Second: chunks of steamed Maine lobster tail, with chilled tomalley mayonnaise and roe mayonnaise, lemon juice and melted butter.
"Third: potato and cheese gnocchi, with homemade marinara sauce, sprinkled with Parmigiano and Pecorino cheese shavings.
"Fourth: small crock of cassoulet, Castelnaudry style.
"Fifth: French bread and cheese: Boursin, Port Salut and Stilton.
"Sixth: one serving of Floating Island dessert, decaf Earl Grey tea.
"Seventh: Courvoisier, when I am alone, with puzzles: a 5-star Sudoku and a Times crossword puzzle, any Wednesday version, with few puns."
Cindy Konovitz, assistant dean, University at Buffalo, thought of a vegetarian appetizer-based meal.
"I would select only vegetarian items including falafel, mini pieces of 'eggplant Italiano,' bruschetta, veggie spring rolls, vegetarian stuffed grape leaves, mini spanakopitas, vegetarian stuffed mushrooms, and other vegetarian hors d'oeuvres, especially from other cultures, like Thai, Vietnamese and Indian.
"I would like dessert to be small pieces as well, around the size of petit fours, including baklava, fruit tarts, vanilla or chocolate bars (the gooier, the better), and chocolate covered peanut butter balls. For beverages: water, tea and orange juice.
"I would like to eat overlooking the water, perhaps on a beach, with friends and family."
Sandy Starks, interpretive program director, Forest Lawn, works at a place that's big on endings.
"Breakfast: corned beef hash and eggs with Al Cohen's seeded-rye toast and tub butter from the Broadway Market.
Brunch: Eggs Benedict and steamed asparagus. Real peameal bacon and fresh eggs from my egg share at Farmers and Artisans, and homemade hollandaise sauce.
"Lunch: Char-grilled hamburger with carmelized sweet onions, goat cheese and roasted red peppers on a Costanzo's roll.
"Dinner: Caesar salad, with anchovy and tons of garlic. Fresh pasta, homemade red sauce, garlic and fresh seafood. Must have some spice in it as I will not have to worry about my heartburn issues. Bread with roasted garlic as a spread -- who will care what I smell like? The garlic will protect me from any evil on the other side.
"Dessert: Cheesecake, my mother-in-law's recipe, New York-style with sour cream topping."
Lisa Ludwig-Kramer, Shakespeare in Delaware Park, isn't putting on airs.
"Pizza Junction pepperoni pizza with a side of baby dill pickles. Little Debbie Swiss Cakes for dessert. Drinking a grape Cosmopolitan. Honest to God. I'm a simple gal."