Rocky Yeh’s annual “Goutmas” celebration was the pinnacle of his radical hospitality, an annual Christmastime celebration for friends, especially restaurant and bar workers that couldn’t get time off to celebrate in traditional fashion. Rocky, one of the Seattle bar and restaurant world’s most beloved personalities, who died from sudden heart failure over Thanksgiving weekend at the age of 42, showed his love for friends by feeding them the perfect food. As with people, all foods were welcome at his table — and his yearly holiday meal(s) spotlighted what were actually his year-round attitude and actions.
I met Rocky the same way so many people did — in a bar, while carrying cake in my purse. Purse-food people were Rocky’s people, and he told me so, and that we should be friends. In the almost dozen years since, we shared countless epic feasts — in Seattle, Vancouver, New Orleans, and Shanghai — and had hundreds of conversations over lunches about Washington Husky football, obscure ingredients, and the movie The Hebrew Hammer — the last one being a staple of Goutmas.
Goutmas gave a chosen family to those who didn’t have or want to join their own, and a place for those who didn’t celebrate Christmas to find friends in the darkest time of the year. Two days of feasting would kick off on Christmas Eve with a meal that encompassed traditional Christmas dinner dishes — ham, a roast, stuffing, creamed spinach tarts, and baked potatoes — as well as foods that reflected Rocky’s own Taiwanese heritage, like wontons, barbecue pork, and noodles, plus whatever else he felt inspired to make that year, including but not limited to Spam, pigs in a blanket, and hot dogs.
From late afternoon until the last bartender rolled in from finishing a shift, the food would roll out. Christmas Day kicked off with dim sum, then a double-header of whatever movies were playing, followed by a hotel bar crawl — a dual-purpose parade that got the revelers drunk, but also delivered giant trays of the previous night’s leftovers to the few folks who had the misfortune of having to pull a holiday shift. The night would end with a Chinese seafood feast in the International District, the final stragglers — survivors, really — cracking crab and slurping noodles over Tsing Tao beers at Ho Ho Seafood. It was a celebration for those for whom the standard celebration didn’t suffice, and it was peak Rocky.
What the “Rocky effect” means
Rocky’s job was selling liquor — as Pacific Northwest market manager for Maison Ferrand’s many spirit brands, most recently — but it was the underlying ethos of the hospitality industry that he embodied more fully than anyone else. Even when — or especially when — he wasn’t on the job, Rocky’s purpose and passion was making every person, anywhere, feel welcome.
Whether you knew him personally, met him while sidled up to any bar in town (Spur, in Belltown, in my case), or simply have eaten or drank in the greater Seattle area (and, likely, anywhere else in the world), you have likely felt the “Rocky effect.” When Rocky died, you could say that the world became less welcoming without him, but in fact, the opposite was true.
Around the world this month, Rocky’s friends (which was almost anyone he’d ever met) honored him by doing the kinds of joyous, generous things he did constantly: sending a bottle of Champagne to a friend’s hotel room, organizing a fundraiser for Make-A-Wish (a Rocky favorite, as the biggest giver of Disney trips for kids with life-threatening conditions), and ordering the whole menu at a restaurant. Anyone whose life Rocky touched thought, “What would Rocky do?”
Watching this unfold (and, okay, as the recipient of a bottle of Champagne), I realized how many of the good things in my life were inspired by watching Rocky — right down the muffuletta I asked my cousin to bring when she flew into Seattle from New Orleans this week: Rocky frequented New Orleans and would come back toting multiple sandwiches, for no reason other than that they were good and made people happy. It was the only motivation he needed to do anything, no matter the cost or time it took.
On his Facebook page and blogs around the cocktail world, tributes have poured in, each underlying the lengths he went through to make sure every single person he met, knew, and saw was as happy as could be — not to mention as well-fed as possible. He once brought congee to my office because he was in the neighborhood and we’d had a fair amount to drink the night before. He showed up early at my parties, because he knew I worried nobody would come. He once cooked a giant feast in a hotel kitchenette he’d rented at the last minute because his house wasn’t usable and he refused to let the rest of us down.
Hearing my stories of Rocky, in isolation, you might think, “oh, they were close” — and we were good friends. But what the de facto Facebook memorial shows is that in his short life, Rocky managed to be that generous person, that hangover curer and dumpling-lunch planner for hundreds, if not thousands of people. It wasn’t that I had a special relationship with him; it was that he was a special person.
Part of that specialness was his role as a connector: He always knew the right person for you to meet, whether you needed a friend, a source to talk to for a story, or a tailor for a suit. Rocky saw the best in everyone, but he also saw where everybody overlapped, where people should meet or cross paths. Besides introducing me to people who became good friends, it got me out of countless jams. Rocky “had a guy” for everything — I would say that he was my guy “guy”: when I needed a “guy,” he would find one for me.
He fell into that role through the same things that drove everything for him: an open and welcoming nature. Rocky’s stock answer to what to order was “both,” or “all.” But it wasn’t (just) about gluttony — it was a way of life, and it was about making everyone happy. In Rocky’s world, everybody was always invited everywhere, the table could always get longer, more drinks could be poured, and somehow, stomachs could be stretched.
Despite his professional work in the bar industry, he never threw a party in which everyone — infants, toddlers, children, elderly parents — were not expressly included. Goutmas was one of the few traditions I didn’t worry about losing when I had kids and started to think about where they could or couldn’t go: Children, like adults, could attend Goutmas for as long as they could make it without throwing up or passing out.
There were no requirements to friendship with Rocky, and his role in the world was to extend that invitation to everyone, to bring the idea of radical, extreme hospitality to every party, bar, restaurant, and friendship. It was something he did so naturally, so gently, and so entirely without judgement, that until the tributes poured in by the thousands, it seemed only impressive. Now, in context, writ large, it’s obvious that it was revolutionary.
Award-winning Seattle-based food and travel writer Naomi Tomky is the author of The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook.