Ten years ago, Michael Hebb was running three renegade restaurants and a catering business, giving interviews to Food and Wine, fending off investors, and nurturing a reputation as Portland’s “food provocateur.”
Then he left it all and moved to Seattle, leaving a wake of drama but returning to his calling: kindling meaningful conversations around the dinner table. Starting with a series of underground dinners called One Pot, Hebb has spent the last decade furthering his legacy as a provocateur with his successful “Death Over Dinner” project, which brings people to the dinner table to talk about difficult subjects.
Drawing from his studies in architecture and ancient Greece at Reed College, Hebb began to think of the table in terms of the symposium — a place for ideas, community, food, and drink. “I realized with the table sitting there, people didn’t know how to use it really,” he says. He notes links between family meals and reduced instances of drug abuse. “I wanted to spend the rest of my life reinvigorating the table and placing it at the center of culture again.”
Though Hebb has worn many hats in Seattle, including as the founding creative director of the City Arts Festival and as an instructor in the UW’s Digital Media department, he may be best known for Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death, sparked from a conversation with doctors about the medicalization of death in the United States.
“Medical professionals did not have a way they could be compensated for talking about end-of-life awareness,” he says. Hebb is pleased to see that the culture around end-of-life care has begun to change. “We’ve seen in the last five years an extraordinary cultural shift, but it’s just now showing its effect in the medical establishment.” And he’s been part of that: over 100,000 events have taken place in the last four years — and that’s a conservative estimate, he says. In 2013 Hebb was asked to give a TedMed talk, and he realized this was a conversation many more people wanted to have. Among his more powerful experiences are dinners with the late Gore Vidal, and with the Clinton Global Initiative around genocide with former president of Ireland Mary Robinson and Rwandan president Paul Kagame.
“It’s more of a matter of reclaiming [death] than it is some new innovative moment,” he says. “It’s just like what we did with birth, when we medicalized it and took birth away from women and turned it into a patriarchal, medicalized, sterilized, non-spirit modality.” The resurgence of midwives and doulas indicates the reclamation of the birth process. “The new good death is just the old good death. People want death, and they want meaning around these things.”
When I reached Hebb, he had spent the morning talking to funders and planning a retreat in Georgia around taboo topics. On his calendar he had a conversation scheduled with Rabbi Sharon Braus of L.A.-based IKAR to finalize the Jewish version of Death Over Dinner. “People ask me all the time about dying as a Jew,” Hebb says. “We’re not having these conversations about afterlife, about grief, about terminal illness from a Jewish perspective.”
Hebb’s Jewish activity extends beyond death. Last year, he created Seder 2015, a site to encourage engagement with Passover. He likens the seder to the symposium. “It has the ability for people to think about how they want to come together,” he says. He’ll be updating the site for Seder 2016, but Seder 2017 “will feel less like an investigation and more like a fully formed concept.” And there’s always the next big thing. “Maybe I’ll write a death haggadah,” he says. “In my spare time.”