Extremely sad news hit a very tight-knit Madison community like a ton of bricks on Friday, July 13. Chef Rod Ladson, the executive chef at Bonefish Grill on Madison’s west side, had died of a heart attack. It was a huge and sudden shock to family, friends, and community members who loved the generous and beloved Madison chef, businessman, mentor, and selfless supporter of his community. Ladson was just 50 years old.
Kaleem Caire, founder and CEO of One City Schools, was one of those community members and longtime friends of Chef Rod that was devastated by the news. “Rod was one of the most generous people I have ever met. When I asked him for guidance on developing our healthy meals program at our school, he instead offered to help build our kitchen, hire our chef, develop our program and host cooking demonstrations for our families,” Caire tells Madison365. “He followed through on his commitment and created what is arguably the best healthy meals program for children in schools in Dane County and probably our state.”
Caire and Ladson were scheduling time to get together to plan out the new year with the new One City school opening in the fall.
“I am really going to miss him,” Caire says.
Jenny Meicher Santek, a local financial advisor and chair of the Board for Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, first met Chef Rod about three years ago, just after Bonefish Grill opened here in Madison.
“Right away, we became friends and business partners. He had my back and I had his,” Santek tells Madison365. “We both knew what it took to help each other be successful. Since we first met, he has done about 20 private cooking demonstrations for me and my clients; among other charitable events we did together.’”
Chef Rod was also a big believer in the saying, “Food brings people together,” Santek says.
“He knew the importance of breaking bread with someone and he took that very seriously,” she says. “He wanted every detail to be perfect.”
Ladson was married to Lisa Wiltz-Ladson for 21 years and is survived by daughter Nichela Ladson and son Travis Small. A “Rod Ladson Memorial Fund” at The State Bank of Cross Plains has been set up where proceeds will go to help daughter Nichela with her last few years of college.
Ladson was born Feb 2., 1968, in Georgetown, South Carolina. He graduated from Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Connecticut, and attended Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he studied graphic design and culinary arts.
Ladson was the executive chef at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida and assisted in opening of the Islands of Adventure. He moved to Madison when daughter Nichela was four years old to be closer to family. Here in Madison, he was the culinary maestro at Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse and later the executive chef at Bonefish Grill on Madison’s west side.
Ladson was the very popular host of two cooking segments on WMTV-Channel 15 in Madison. Ladson shared his sense of humor, vibrant personality and his love for food by hosting many cooking classes and catering events. He was also a culinary and restaurant consultant, assisting in restaurant startups around Dane County.
Ladson always knew the importance of giving back in the community. He worked with the Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association to improve health outcomes for black men and boys. He was the professional judge at the Men Who Cook fundraiser for the Kappa Psi Omega chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority every year where he helped the sorority raise money for scholarships.
“For so many years, Chef Rod Ladson has been a personal friend and community partner with the Kappa Psi Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. in Madison,” AKA Kappa Psi Omega Chapter President Nichelle Nichols tells Madison365. “At our annual Men Who Cook scholarship fundraiser, he brought that local celebrity feel to the cadre of chefs who judge and vote for each dish prepared by local community men in the friendly competition.”
Ladson was also a long-time partner with the AKAs for their annual Walk It Out Health Fair (happening next weekend) where he would do one of his popular cooking demos every year.
“He was a crowd favorite, because he would bring in all the ingredients, prepare and cook them in front of the crowd, talk about healthy seasoning and ways to cut out the fat or salt and still savor the taste of food,” says Nichols. “What people loved about him was his authentic passion, his sense of humor, and his honesty about learning how to make dishes healthier to combat diseases and conditions that plague the black community.”
Chef Rod answered questions from the crowd and was generous in sharing the recipes. In fact, he was very excited about having a cookbook to share this year at the event.
“We’re devastated by his passing on so many levels. We have lost a friend and we really can’t replace Chef Rod and what he did at our Walk It Out event,” says Nichols. “Plus, his role as managing partner at Bonefish Grill was special for many, he always looked out for anyone that came in and asked to see him or wanted to use his restaurant for special events. Chef Rod took his passion for cooking and shared it with the community and we were happy to partner in his passion and purpose to impact the community.”
Ladson is the author of a cookbook “It’s What You Add” that he wrote in collaboration with 100 Black Men of Madison. Ladson was a very active member of the 100 Black Men of Madison where he worked to improve the quality of life of young people within the community and to enhance educational and economic opportunities for all African Americans.
“Chef Rod was a good friend of mine and an even better friend to the Madison community. For years, Rod has a been a leader in the Madison community, branching out beyond the 100 Black Men and sharing his talents with other organizations in the area,” Chris Canty, vice president of the 100 Black Men of Madison, tells Madison365. “As an avid home chef myself, Chef Rod, on more than one occasion, brought me behind the scenes into his professional kitchen to demonstrate specific techniques that would help build my foundation as a better cook. Those experiences have always stuck with me and I think of those moments fondly when I’m cooking for my friends and family.”
Canty says that his favorite thing about Chef Rod was watching him teach others how to improve their skills in the kitchen.
“Rod was passionate about coaching people whether it was leading a cooking seminar on healthy cooking for the AKA Walk it out event or being a judge at the Men Who Cook Competition,” Canty says. “Chef Rod was always willing to offer advice on how to help people become better cooks and lead healthier lifestyles.
“I will always consider Chef Rod a close friend and someone who had a passion for his family, his community, and of course, amazing food!” Canty adds. “He will be missed, but his legacy will live on for many years to come.”
Santek says the quote that Chef Rod was probably best known for in his classes was “A recipe is only a guide.”
“He always said, ‘If you really like one of the ingredients, add a little more,’” she remembers. “Being a novice cook myself, I especially appreciated this because I was so nervous I would mess up a recipe if I didn’t measure it out exactly! Every time I cook now I can hear him saying, ‘A recipe is only a guide.’
Santek remembers how Ladson took great pride in his staff at Bonefish Grill.
“He pushed them to be the best and most knowledgeable. He wanted every person who walked through the doors of the restaurant to feel like they were a VIP,” Santek says. “At my cooking demos, he would hand out complimentary Bang Bang shrimp appetizer coupons and he would say that there was one caveat to redeeming them, ‘When you come to Bonefish, I want you to ask to speak to the Chef because he is a friend of yours.’
“Simply put, everyone loved him and he will be greatly missed,” she adds.
A community memorial and celebration of the life of Rod Ladson will take place Saturday, July 21, 5-10 p.m., at Marshall Park, 2101 Allen Blvd, Middleton.