Twin Cities cookbook author John Michael Lerma dies

John Michael Lerma was bigger than life. Everyone who knew him would agree. And that’s why it’s so hard to believe he passed away yesterday at the age of 52.

His longtime partner, Chad Olson, wrote this on Facebook last night:

After a long period of illness and a deteriorating medical condition, today I made the painful decision to pull John Michael off of life support. He passed quickly this afternoon in no pain. He was the center of my life for 16 wonderful years and he will be greatly missed. I will always love you my dear sweet JM. It was his wishes to not have a funeral but a gathering of those who loved him. As soon as I can arrange a place and time I will post so all those who are interested can attend.

John Michael had a passion for food, wine, Italy, his grandmother’s recipes, movies, books, gardening and gatherings. He had a big, effusive, expressive personality, and no one who met him ever forgot him.

Cookbook author John Michael Lerma carving the Thanksgiving turkey in 2008 with his partner, Chad Olson. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)

I first met John Michael in 1999, after I moved into the house across the street from him in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood. I was coming home from a meeting one night, and the power was out on our block. Everything was pitch black – except John Michael and Chad’s home, which was as brightly lit up as if the power was still on. I knocked on the door, and this gregarious man opened the door, warmly welcoming me to a small cozy living room lit up by what seemed like dozens of candelabras. Typical John Michael – who needs power when you have candelabras?

Over the next decade, I spent countless evenings and holidays with John Michael and Chad. He always cooked, and it was always fabulous. My favorite? His cheesy potatoes, a recipe from his grandmother included in his first cookbook, Garden County: Where Everyone is Welcome to Sit at the Table. Check out the cover – his dinner companions exemplified the eclectic mix he wanted to include. His partner Chad, my son Wyatt, their friends Dan and Ron in drag, and our friend Leslie.

Twin Cities cookbook author John Michael Lerma in a photo from 2008. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)

He baked birthday cakes for my son. Harry Potter, above, was a hit – but even better was the three-dimensional Pooh cake for Wyatt’s second birthday. Wyatt stared at it, and just said “Poooooh” in awe.

And then there were the pies. Every kind and flavor you can imagine. His second cookbook was all about pies. He’d have testing parties before he went on the Food Network’s National Pie Championship (which he won many times). Most were amazing, but there were a few duds. I remember a watermelon pie that was surprisingly good, and of course, the pie he’s most famous for – his Vidalia Onion pie. Just try it, you’ll see.

Twice, a group of us traveled to Tuscany, a place that John Michael fell in love with. He led culinary tours to IL Rifugio in Cortona, and also to Casa Sirena in Isla Mujeres, Mexico.

Everyone who met him has a John Michael story – share them here if you’d like. I’ll cherish my memories – as John Michael always said, big hugs.

  • Kassie

    Pretty sure I’m making that onion pie in the next few days.

  • thewired1

    Me too. In fact, I just pinned it.

  • Kat

    JM was larger than life. There will be a hole in my life for a long time.

  • Nicole

    We were just virtual friends but I loved his Facebook posts and recipes and was proud to come across his recipe book that led to our virtual friendship. I wish he could have met my daughter to try her delicious pies. You will dearly missed JM.

  • Elaine Abshire

    JML was such a wonderful guy. Knowledgeable about so many different things. Great story teller about his travels, childhood, family and life in general. I had the pleasure of working with him and found him a good teacher of anything we asked. His lessons in life, cooking, and just being approachable. Sense of humour and his visits to the tv markets making a name for himself. Legacy beyond words. Loved him like a little brother. Sure will miss him; his many cookbooks; recipes; and of course his classes for food that he did at Frattalone’s demonstration. He is so blessed to have so many people to have been touched by this great guy. Mentor to many. He is with our Lord and now at peace no more demons to take over his body. Rest in Peace JML..will certainly miss slogan hugs….God Bless ….he will be remembered and treasured forever!.Hugs to you Chad and family!

  • Mary

    I never even heard of the guy

  • Chris DeWitt Frantz

    I took a class from John Michael lerma and fell in love with him. I am so sad to hear this news. I have never met anyone so full of life. Heaven will be full of pies.

  • Shelley Cordes

    My daughter Heather was lucky enough to have John Michael as her StepMonster for the past 16 years. She loved that little house on Niles, and I would hear stories about Wyatt and you, Laura. I feel blessed that I was able to share the responsibilities of raising her with her two wonderful Dads!
    Shelley

  • Mike Hnida

    Laura I was at that Thanksgiving dinner in 2008. It truly is hard to believe that John Michael is no longer with us. I too spent a lot of holidays with JM and Chad, and Mona. I will truly miss those times and cherish those memories.

  • Deb Cooper

    Although I was only able to meet JM a few times through a friend we shared, Tami Cabrera, I always wished I’d known him better. The passion for life he enjoyed is so evident within the writings of his wonderful cookbooks. I think I like his passages within them, describing memories of his life growing up on a farm, his grandma, and the love for Chad, just as much as I enjoyed the recipes themselves. JM’s spirit will have a place at our Thanksgiving table this year – I am going to find one of his fabulous creations to make for all of our guests to enjoy in his memory.

  • Maria Barlett

    On my never ending search for pie-lore, I once stumbled upon a picture of what seemed, to me, to be the most beautiful pie in the world. I searched for the maker of this wonder and it was, of course, John Michael Lerma. I looked him up on Facebook, wrote him a “fan” post, and he friended me. I was so glad, and followed his work from a distance these past few years. My deepest sympathies go out to those who knew this kindhearted artist best.