Obituary: Tom Rapp

Tom Rapp, father of Emily and Jonathan; self-named grandfather “TR Dad” to Miller, Ruby, Tommy, Mackie and Teddy; and husband of Patricia Hurley, the mother of his children and, later, Toshifumi Sakihara, died Tuesday, January 23, at 89.

His was a life always lived as he wished to live it –– without timidity, with curiosity and with success in whatever he put his mind and passion to. In that pursuit of living fully he has been an inspiration to many, none more than us.

After a near-instant expulsion from Union College, he was drafted into the Army and sent to postwar Korea. Quickly figuring out how the system worked, he secured the job delivering mail in a heated jeep –– making himself comfortable and revered at the desolate camp. He thrived, finagling many trips to Seoul, Tokyo and other exotic places –– the beginning of a lifelong love of travel, and especially Asia.

Returning home he matriculated at Brown, and while his roommates took the cleaning chores, he snapped up the cooking duties. His lifelong passion for cooking began by feeding college friends around the table –– the simple, exquisite “dinner party food” he’d later define as his cooking style to the New York Times food editor four decades later.

His first career as an architect started after a stint at the Yale School of Architecture. Hired by his former dean, Charles Moore, the company bought a 19th century bit factory in Centerbrook, Connecticut. It was 1970 and we were both toddlers. Essex became our home for the next 18 years.

Dad’s ingenuity, low-key drive and endless curiosity was perfectly matched with a job made possible by the Carter administration in 1972 –– designing and building both a factory and hundreds of pre-fabricated low-income housing units in eastern Kentucky. Later, he met the charismatic New York art dealer Jim Brehm and created magnificent apartments in New York and an iconic house on Middle Cove in Essex.

In 1992 at age 58, his second career began. With Jonathan as his partner and Toshi as masterful pastry chef, he opened Etats-Unis, and later Bar @ Etats-Unis, on 81st street in New York –– despite knowing absolutely nothing about the restaurant business. Dad’s magnetic charm combined with their brilliant talent were irresistible –– Etats-Unis was wildly successful and went on to earn one of the first Michelin stars in America.

Following several long trips to southeast Asia, he staved off the boredom of running a successful restaurant in New York by opening two groundbreaking internet cafes in Saigon during the brief political thaw there. Apparently too groundbreaking; his visa was promptly revoked.

The last great chapter was with Toshi in distant, dusty Marfa, Texas, where they designed and built the beautiful swan song that was restaurant Cochineal. It seemed impossible to believe such a sophisticated, yet down-to-earth, restaurant could exist, let alone thrive, there. Cochineal was the apotheosis of all of our father’s talents, his love of people and their love of him. It was perfect. His last years in Marfa were spent with his two elderly cats and his partner Paul Stark, who cared for him until the end.

We will miss dad not for all his accomplishments but for his love of life and us. We’ll remember him as the dad who showed us how to care for and raise as pets both a baby squirrel we named Peter and a baby bird named Beebop. The dad who showed us the uninhabited harbors along the coast of Maine on our yearly sails from Pulpit Harbor to Essex. The dad who kneaded dough, made pottery or drew buildings with us at the kitchen table. The dad who read us The Yearling and other great books, encouraging us to “be well-read.” We’ll remember him most, though, as the dad who taught us how to dream, to live. Always patient, forgiving, there for us. Goodbye Dad, we love you, and we’ll miss you!