Remembering Jill Lewis, co-founder of Austin Slow Burn and a true friend
When I named this column in honor of a local cook and sometimes writer for this paper who died in 1995, I should have realized I'd be writing obituaries for other food business people in the years to come. Still, writing about the death of my friend Jill Lewis is something I'm just not prepared for. Jill was diagnosed with esophageal cancer the week of her 53rd birthday in March, and she died on June 4. It's a cruel irony that someone who embraced big flavors the way Jill did would be taken by a disease that made it impossible for her to eat, but if she wasn't going to get better, I have to be thankful her suffering didn't last any longer than it did.
Jill Lewis possessed what I like to call the hospitality gene – she was a born caregiver. After I'd known her a few years, it didn't surprise me to learn she'd been a volunteer firefighter and a certified emergency medical technician while still in high school, no more than it surprised me that she learned every aspect of the restaurant and bar business on the job. It wasn't just that she was willing to step up and get the job done; she also had a natural gift for sharing sustenance with others. That innate skill was in evidence whether she was waiting tables, hosting one of her legendary New Year's Day open-house parties, marketing her product to a new vendor, or enticing a customer to try Austin Slow Burn samples at an in-store demo. Her energy, her open heart, and her enthusiasm were irresistible attractions.
Here at the paper, we knew Jill best through her longtime association with The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival. Jill and her husband, Kevin, entered every year – first as individuals, and later as commercial bottlers. It's difficult to imagine that event without her, and discussions are ongoing about the best way to honor her memory at the festival this year. Her fellow members in the Austin chapter of the women's culinary service organization, Les Dames d'Escoffier, have established a donation page at www.giveforward.com where friends and Austin Slow Burn fans can contribute to a fund to cover Jill's medical expenses.
Jill's family and friends gathered last Sunday for a memorial service, and her loved ones will scatter her ashes at her favorite spot near the lake. Perhaps sometime later when the wound is not so fresh, we'll have a party to celebrate Jill's remarkable, too-short life. At the moment, my most vivid memory of Jill is her and Kevin arriving at my annual potluck birthday bash in matching chile pepper regalia, toting some incredibly spicy concoction that the other guests would devour immediately. If there's a banquet table in heaven, I'll bet the angels have tingling lips!