“When Sebak can’t get out on the town, the town comes to him.”
I can’t lie. Like most Pittsburghers familiar with the work of WQED documentarian Rick Sebak, I always thought it would be fun to go to dinner with him.
He’s a great conversationalist and anyone who’s seen any of his documentaries— Kennywood Memories or Things That Aren’t There Anymore or Things That Are Still Here or A Hot Dog Program, to name just a few—know he’s a great story teller. He also loves food, Pittsburgh food in fact, and he dines out frequently. He knows just about everybody and every type of cuisine in the Steel City. He really is this city’s “Man About Town.”
Recently, I got the chance to sit down and have a meal with the man himself. Although, admittedly, it wasn’t what I originally imagined it would be. At the end of August, Sebak fell and ruptured the quadriceps tendon in his left knee. He was leaving work one evening and carrying a case of Pelligrino water. He fell a short distance off some steps and the tendon blew out. He had surgery the next morning at UPMC’s Montefiore Hospital and started the road to recovery. After two weeks in the hospital he and the 55 staples in his knee were moved to a rehabilitation unit at Magee Women’s Hospital where he expects to stay until next month.
It can be tough getting through an injury that seriously limits your mobility and leaves you constrained to one place for so long. But in true Rick Sebak fashion, he has been making the best of it by doing daily updates on Facebook talking about the food he’s been eating in the hospital.
So, in mid-September, Current Visuals Editor Jake Mysliwczyk and I went to Magee to have dinner with Sebak. I thought it would be fun to critique hospital food with a legend like Rick. Looking back, I should have known this wouldn’t be a traditional hospital dining experience.
“The food’s on the way,” Sebak told us shortly after we arrived. At first I thought he had ordered it from the facility’s dining service, but hospital food for Rick Sebak has been more than the stereotypical mystery meat and gray mashed potatoes. For one thing, Sebak says hospital food has gotten much better over the years. In fact, he muses, once he’s out he may have to come back for the potato-crusted cod he’s been eating (we tried it later on and it was pretty tasty).
Secondly, he’s Rick “fucking” Sebak, Man About Town. And when he can’t get out on the town, the town comes to him.
“I’ve gotten tons of food gifts,” says Sebak, who has to be the model patient. He’s cheery, sunny and generally of good temper. “A friend brought back these mints from New Jersey that I love. Ben Sloan, who I don’t know, is the executive chef at Kaya and he called up and said he wanted to bring me fried chicken. I’ve had so many visitors like that. People have just been wonderful and, honestly, the time has just flown by.”
Sebak’s hospital meals have generally fallen into two categories: hospital food he’s doctored up and food that people bring in. As we prepare to go to the facility’s dining room, Sebak begins plucking items from the window ledge beside his chair: a bottle of hot sauce, a container of small mini cherry tomatoes, other sauces, real silverware and plates.
“My sister and her man, Bill, brought me dinner and she brought plates and silverware and I told her to leave them,” Sebak says. “Just because you’re in the hospital doesn’t mean that dinner still can’t be an experience.
“When Ben Sloan came from Kaya, he brought me his own bottled hot sauce, called Jammer Sauce and I kept it. And then I asked my camera man to bring me some crushed red pepper. It’s all about presentation.”
On the delivery front, Sebak’s hospital stay has been a never-ending parade of friends bringing him local delicacies. “Since I’ve been here, I think I’ve only ordered dinner three times,” Sebak says with a chuckle. “It all started as a surprise. My friend Zach Tanner and his wife were my first visitors and they brought me an O-dog with Fries from the Original Hot Dog Shop when I was still in Montefiore.” Ever the documentarian, Sebak began posting about his meals on Facebook. His friends enjoyed them and they led to more deliveries.
As we chat about food and Pittsburgh, Andy Wincko of Pittsburgh Smokehouse enters the room with enough food to feed the whole floor. Our dinner consists of smoked brisket sliders, Texas baked beans, vinegar coleslaw and bacon steaks—a large piece of thick-cut bacon on a skewer that tastes every bit as good as you think it would.
“This bacon is incredible,” Sebak gushes. “I had it for second breakfast yesterday with an apple. I wanted to put something on the plate so at least it didn’t look like I was only eating a big slab of bacon!”
Food and the dining experience are a big part of Sebak’s life. “I swear Rick didn’t choose this place because of the quality of care but because of the quality of the menu,” Wincko says with a chuckle.
“The quality of hospital food has definitely improved over the years,” Sebak says. “But I think that’s indicative of our culture which has also put more importance on food and dining.”
The food on this evening was delicious but the company and conversation were even better, which bolster’s Sebak’s argument that any dining experience can be special with the right mix of food, atmosphere and company. As we begin to clear the table, Sebak insists on doing the dishes because he was, after all, the host. And a good host always makes sure his guest leaves with a doggie bag.
“Now, look you guys,” Sebak says as we prepared to leave. “I have so much stuff, you take this food with you. It’s too much.
“Except,” he says with a pause and grin. “Leave that bacon for tomorrow’s second breakfast.”
Charlie Deitch is the Pittsburgh Current Editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org