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Culinary world mourns the loss of esteemed Homegrown Chef Gerry Hayden

Chefs Claudia Fleming & Gerry Hayden profile image from The Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook, photo courtesy of  Kathryn Schroeder

Chef Gerry Hayden was taken from the culinary world far too soon. The three-time JBF Awards nominee  died Wednesday from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ALS disease. He was first diagnosed with ALS in 2010.

Mr. Hayden was a pioneer in the “farm-to-table” chapter of food history.  
He and his James Beard award-winning wife, Claudia Fleming, opened their acclaimed North Fork Table & Inn in 2005 following an acclaimed run at the vanguard of some of  New York City’s top-tier restaurants, including The River Cafe, Union Square Cafe, Amuse, and Aureole New York, and Tribeca Grill – where he and Claudia met.

I was extremely honored the husband and wife team agreed to be featured in my love letter to Long Island’s food culture: The Hamptons and Long Island Homegrown Cookbook … As I’ve written in some interviews, the book is a “rare collection of loving profiles that capture the authentic and delicious homegrown ingredients produced by the culinary artists, artisanal food makers, and growers from the majestic land and seascapes that are the romantic hallmarks of Long Island.”

Here is the original, long form profile of Chef Gerry Hayden before it was edited down to accommodate the book’s size/space parameters. It is an homage to this very special culinary talent.

Chef Gerry Hayden Homegrown excerpt — This is a love letter:
His parents came from the same ethnic Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge.  His mother learned to cook from her Italian neighbors; Good Housekeeping magazines, tearing out recipes; and old cookbooks. Chef Gerry is an impatient chef.  He wants the best of everything. He’s uncompromising.  It can’t come together soon enough. Not for the community of farmers or vinters. Not when he is seeking to establish an artisanal hog grower nearby.
Nevertheless, the hands on the clock hold on to each other, poised, as he determinedly cooks and coaxes the food he adores onto the plate.  When Chef Gerry is creating his culinary masterpieces, there is nothing else.
For a chef this focused, is there any doubt that he always knew he wanted to be a chef?
In fact there was never anything else.
He is the youngest of seven children in a family of much older siblings.  His mother always worked – at the telephone company, in department stores.  Plus the family had a vegetable garden she tended.
Gerry said he’d give her a hand in the garden where they grew zucchini, tomatoes, herbs and eggplants. He also helped her with the cooking, especially on the holidays.

She was always preparing something, he remembered.  She even prepared food for the next day.  After dinner.
Don’t get him started about people saying they don’t have time to cook at home!
His family moved to what was then “the better life” in the suburbs of Long Island the year before Gerry was born, moving to Stony Brook where he was raised. One of his favorite memories of the open farm area then was that his family frequented the local farm stands in Rocky Point and Wading River, known for their strawberries, peaches, corn, apples, pears and melons.  Later he and his friends worked at the farm, harvesting.
His first restaurant job was in junior high school as a dishwasher. That’s all it took.  Young Gerry wholeheartedly loved the kitchen environment and by the age of 15 he was already cooking.
His first real restaurant job on the line at the family-owned Country House in Stony Brook left a lifelong impression.
He remembers the father had been the maitre’d at the legendary Stork Club in Manhattan.  All his sons had been cooks there, too.
Eventually, the father moved the entire family to Long Island to work in their new family-owned restaurant.
Gerry remembers they had great cars and always had a lot of money in their pockets.
The restaurant in the 70’s and early 80’s was a fun place to be. He says he was fascinated; always learning.  Specifically, he was taught how to pound out a leg of veal, make Veal Oscar with béarnaise sauce, and how to make hollandaise sauce.
He also remembers working hard. Very hard.
Mainly his memories of The Country House was that it was a sophisticated restaurant with a New York City polish.
He laughed when he realized that’s kind of what he’s doing now.
“I worked in New York City for 25 years and now I’m in Southold bringing a bit of that sophisticated New York dining experience to the North Fork….”
Gerry graduated from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York, successfully completing the school’s 21-month program.
Significantly, there were two people there who played defining roles in his developing career.
Chef Leon Dennon, a Belgian instructor, was responsible for helping Gerry to secure his career-making externship with Chef Charlie Palmer at the famous River Café in Brooklyn.
Ultimately, it was Gerry’s father, a New York City fireman in marine company #1 who, as part of his unit patrolled the riverways of the city from the World Trade Center on the Hudson, up past the tennis bracelet of bridges that span the East River.  His father is the one who suggested Gerry investigate two restaurant prospects to consider for his externship: The swanky Sign of the Dove, but especially the River Café.
Gerry recalled how the restaurant impressed his father and fellow firefighters as they passed the gleaming restaurant located under the Brooklyn Bridge; perfectly positioned to take advantage of the unstaged sorcery and romantic backdrop of the world’s most glittering skyline just across the river.
In turn, Gerry told Chef Leon about his wish to work at The River Cafe. As it turned out, Chef Leon had been a benefactor to Chef Charlie and so he was happy to make the call on Gerry’s behalf.
According to Chef Gerry, the other positive role model happened as a result of a lucky coincidence that landed French Chef Roland Henin as instructor when the regular CIA teacher was taken ill.
For seven days Chef Roland taught an intensive class on how to make consomme, terrine,  and sauces. Gerry recalls Chef Roland was at turns brilliant, strict, great.  He says, “It was a mind-blowing experience.”  There was something about Chef Roland’s comportment and depth of knowledge that other chefs didn’t have.  Chef Gerry says there are some things you can’t really appreciate until afterwards, after your own experiences.
He imbued Gerry with the pride of the culinary profession that has stayed with him all through his career.
Only years after graduation did Gerry discover that Chef Roland was very instrumental in teaching Chef Thomas Keller; and Keller acknowledges so in his first cookbook.
After graduation Gerry was asked by executive chef Charlie Palmer to return to work full time at The River Café.
Working for Chef Charlie Palmer, it seemed Gerry’s eyes were seeing food for the first time.  There were miniature vegetables, fresh morels from the Pacific Northwest, ramps, fiddlehead ferns.
The fact that Chef Charlie had grown up on a farm fueled his adherence to a seasonally-based menu.
In a restaurant at that time, it was all pretty new, says Gerry.  Likewise the darling of purveyors, D’Artagnan, was new then too.  The company was new in the United States, but in fact stemmed from a well respected heritage of French food purveying,  provided the chefs with freshly-killed game birds and organic foie gras.  Up until then, most things that passed as food had been pre-packaged, Gerry notes.   “So this was big news.”

“No one was going to farms then,” Chef Gerry is quick to add. “There was always the broker between the grower and the restaurant.”
Yes, there were some New York state farms starting to ship greens.
There were tadpole-sized, fill-in trips to the fish market on Fulton Street.  And some also infrequent visits to what was then a real meat packing district over on the west side of Manhattan that is now home to designers and boutiques: both fashion and hotel.
Overwhelmingly, though, the only way business was conducted was over the telephone.  The one with bologni-curl umbilical cord tethered to the desk or mounted on the wall.
There was no relationship with the growers, no contact with the fisherman or dairyman or herders or any of the artisans who the chefs would soon help to develop.
Today, he says he feel compromised if he uses the telephone to order the food for his restaurant.  He is compelled to find the best, local ingredients.  And nurture them or make them if they don’t exist, as he did recently when he worked to establish Iberico Pigs in Mattituck, Long Island.  That food journey took Chef Gerry from Spain and Hungary to a slaughtering and butchering class with an Austrian Mangalitsa wooly pig master butcher in New Jersey and back to Long Island.
In 1988, when Chef Charlie opened Aureole, there was really no doubt Gerry would accompany him to his new restaurant. Gerry says he had been developing and collaborating menus with Chef Charlie when he asked him to take on the full responsibility as the opening pastry chef for Aureole.
That position impacted his career tremendously, he states.
Ever the innovator, Chef Gerry created a new wave of desserts.
What was revolutionary was he worked on plating desserts.
It seems impossible to fathom but before this, desserts and pastries were, by and large, cut from a bigger cake or pie or mouse or ice cream mold.  Think of those dome-shrouded desserts at the diners. Just better.
“There were a lot of tortes, cut in the 80s” he said.
Radically, Chef Gerry took a cook’s approach to pastry.
He established a pastry station.
He formulated a hot dessert category that would extend the sole entry on any restaurant’s menu of the wonderful, but traditional souffle.
Basically Chef Gerry created a cook’s station for Pastry.
The desserts became an individual item to order.
“A cobbler in a dish that we individually baked to order had essentially never been done before,” he explains.
From his vaulted vantage point now, Chef Gerry says he didn’t start getting into the farm movement until he moved to San Francisco to help open Aqua restaurant in 1990.
“There were more small farms and farmers market at that time out there that were light years ahead of New York,” he says.
Somewhat ruefully he acknowledges that if in 1989  Union Square Greenmarket in NYC was there, and open, he wasn’t aware of it and wasn’t going to it!
Oftentimes, when you move out of your element, you see things in a new way he observes.
After several years, he moved back to New York.  He worked in the Hamptons for five years after TriBeCa Grill, where he and Claudia met. This was in between Aureole and  before Park Avenue Café. When he worked at the East Hampton Point- a 400-seat restaurant for Jerry DellaFemina and Drew Nieporent, Gerry says he liked being near the water, loved being in his home of Long Island, but something was missing.
The couple wanted to buy a home on Long Island but didn’t know exactly where.  They took their time exploring the magic of Long Island’s landscape:  it’s waterways that jab or poke the land here and there, the wide open farmland, the colonial shingled houses and quaint towns, the movie-set mansions from every century since it was settled in the 1600s.
He and Claudia visited on a number of day trips to the area, taking the Andrew Wyeth-inducing ferries across the South Fork to Shelter Island and on to the North Fork.   It was soon clear.  Here in the North Fork, they could have it all: enjoy the water and more agriculture and the vineyards and the community’s active commitment to preserve it.
“My godmother had a place in Jamesport and we had bungalows on Nassau Point. So I always liked the area of the North Fork.  We had a boat house and enjoyed the beach-combing in Stony Point too.”
The good news was Gerry and Claudia found a house.  The “bad news” was they recognized they couldn’t afford the city and the country house.
Together, they still had Amuse restaurant in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City.  But now they had to ask, “What will we do?”
He was ready to make the change.  Claudia said she was ready to get out of the city.
Was it Destiny? Vision?
“We knew it was destiny,” said Chef Gerry.
The couple catered their own wedding at the Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Bridgehampton.  “Everyone loved it.”  
It was late June 2001. They served very simple striped bass, farm fresh salad, peas, and fava beans. Not unlike what they do for their clientele today they developed the menu based on the time of year. “We cooked with the farms,” he says.
Not surprisingly, all the guests agreed the wedding dinner created a feeling of casual elegance inspired by the season.
Claudia and Gerry formulated their restaurant style based on that unsolicited, genuine, positive feedback.
Casual elegance, seasonally inspired it would be.
And don’t forget Love.
Chefs Gerry and Claudia — and their hospitality expert partners, Mike and Mary Mraz — opened the North Fork table & Inn’s 110-seat restaurant in 2005 to rave reviews. It’s been wowing customers and fans ever since.
In fact, the North Fork Table & Inn has become a food-lover’s destination.
Not unlike the area Chef Gerry is compelled to develop.
Today, Gerry is dedicated to fulfilling the North Fork’s potential as a food lover’s paradise.  They opened the restaurant here because he believes it offers the best of the culinary world’s future.  And lest we forget, this culinary couple hasn’t missed a beat in the evolving world of good, fresh, delicious, homegrown food.

Please enjoy Chef Gerry Hayden’s recipes he contributed to the cookbook: Assortment of Roasted Beets, Catapano Goat Cheese, and Roasted Pistachios and Roasted Curried Butternut Squash and Crispin Apple Soup.

Thank you, Chef.  Rest in peace.    


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