The 2014 Sundance Film Festival, which ended Sunday, may have been Justin Allen Kinnaird’s biggest personal success.
Through his pop-up restaurant and entertainment business — By Invitation Only SLC — he hosted several dinner parties attended by documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy and newswoman Katie Couric. He even hosted a birthday party for actress Geena Davis.
Then on Monday, his family learned that the 37-year-old Kinnaird had died unexpectedly.
"We don’t have any answers," his sister Jennifer Kinnaird Townsend said Tuesday, adding that an autopsy is pending.
Kinnaird, a Colorado native, moved to Utah to attend the University of Utah, where he earned a degree in communications. Through the years he worked various jobs in the restaurant industry, but gained a loyal following during his seven years as general manager at Cucina Toscana.
In 2010, he left the downtown restaurant and found his niche with By Invitation Only. He hosted monthly dinners in unique settings, from million-dollar homes to the stage of the Capitol Theatre. Each time, he hired a guest chef to prepare the food and brought in a local artist to display work and musicians to perform.
Rather than just dinner, Kinnaird created a production.
"That was his gift. For him, a party for 150 people was easy," Townsend said. "He loved finding the best food and the best artists and the best entertainment and was able to bring those together to create something magical."
Besides his sister and her husband, Kinnaird is survived by his mother and father of Colorado Springs, two brothers, their spouses and several nieces and nephews. Funeral services for Kinnaird will be in Bountiful on Saturday, Feb. 1 at 11 a.m. at the LDS Church, 4275 S. Bountiful Blvd. Viewings will be Friday, Jan. 31, from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Lindquist Bountiful Mortuary, 727 N. 400 East; and Saturday at the church, one hour prior to the funeral.
The family has set up a charitable site — with the title "in honor of the most amazing host" — at youcaring.com. Donations will help pay funeral expenses and will be donated to Kinnaird’s favorite charities.
Valter Nassi, owner of Valter’s Osteria in Salt Lake City, became Kinnaird’s mentor during their time at Cucina Toscana.
"He taught me many things, too," Nassi said. "It was two-ways."
Kinnaird was a natural host, said Nassi. "In order to be a good restaurateur, you must love people. And he had this attribute."
Not long ago, Nassi was the guest chef at one of Kinnaird’s By Invitation Only events. "I told him I was so proud, you really deserve to be called restaurateur."
As the news of Kinnaird’s death spread through the food, art and music industry — in Utah and beyond — friends and customers left heartfelt messages on his Facebook page.
"Justin was a pioneer for Salt Lake City. He lived life and made all of ours better and more fun," wrote Angela Martindale, owner of Meals that Transform.
Added Utah photographer David Newkirk: "Justin was such a sweet man. His mind never stopped. … He was always trying to connect people and ideas … always a cheerleader for anyone he believed in … including me. I’m very thankful to have called him a friend."
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