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Remembering Johnny Apple

“I gotta go down the way Apple would go down.”

R.W. “Johnny” Apple, the legendary New York Times reporter who died this fall of cancer at 71, was as famous for his bylines on food as for those on politics. A man of Falstaffian appetites who understood that sitting around the table of great food and great company was the best revenge of all, Apple circled the globe for his stories but made Washington his home. And he was a regular at many local restaurants.

Last December, after he was diagnosed with cancer, Apple and his wife, Betsey, moved from Georgetown to an apartment nearer George Washington University Hospital. Not coincidentally, the apartment was a block behind Equinox, one of the reporter’s favorite Washington restaurants. Apple’s name appears at least 80 times in the reservation book.

Cooking for Apple pushed Equinox chef Todd Gray to better learn his sources and contextualize his cooking. “He helped me to hone my vision,” says Gray, adding that Apple was as much a mentor as old boss Roberto Donna.

Gray recalls sitting with Apple and his wife at the restaurant shortly after the diagnosis and listening to Apple’s resolve: “He said, ‘I’m not gonna stop traveling. I can’t go down that way. I gotta go down the way Apple would go down.’ ” That meant continuing to be the gourmand he was. “Oysters and pork—all of it.”

A brave declaration, but it proved hard to keep. Toward the end, the great eater had lost much of his legendary appetite.

“In the spring, I was trying to get him to eat more raw food. I knew it would be good for him. John wasn’t having it. ‘Goddamn it, I want to eat real food.’ But I’d bring him things—just-picked berries from out near the Rappahannock. Spinach and chard from the Tidewater. The first asparagus of the season. Just snap it back and eat it raw. He loved it: ‘Goddamn, that was beautiful asparagus.’ He wanted to know where it came from, the story behind it.”

Gray laughs softly. “He loved the story.”

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