A Great American Chef, in His Own Words
[After a long hiatus, Toqueland begins posting again today. There are several new interviews queued up, but unfortunate circumstances demand that we resume by paying respect to a fallen chef, taken much too soon. – AF]
As most of you surely know, Chef Gerry Hayden passed away last week after a long, dignified fight with ALS. Gerry began his professional life in New York City restaurants as a core member of Charlie Palmer’s legendary River Café crew. Highlights of his career included serving as sous chef (and long-forgotten pastry chef duties) at Aureole, where he later returned as executive chef, and Tribeca Grill, as well as his own restaurant, Amuse, in partnership with Steve Tzolis, in Chelsea. Following Amuse, Gerry left the city to launch, with wife and pastry goddess Claudia Fleming, and partners Mary and Michael Mraz, North Fork Table & Inn, which opened in Southold, New York, in 2006.
I had met Gerry a few times over the years, but never for more than a handshake. Last summer, a mutual friend asked if I’d interviewed him for a project I’d been working on. When I answered that I knew he’d been sick and wanted to give him peace and privacy, my concern was discouraged. “He’d enjoy it,” was the promise.
And so, I emailed Gerry and after a fun exchange, found myself cruising out to Long Island on a lazy summer weekday, and pulling up to the house where he and Claudia lived. She was off at the restaurant, and Gerry was in the living room. For all his gathering frailties, and the slight barrier of a breathing apparatus, Gerry was unbowed and unselfconscious, this despite his confinement to an electric wheelchair.
I sat on the edge of a nearby sofa, leaned in close, and we began a long dialogue. (The recording of our conversation runs a hair under two hours; we spoke much longer than that.) He was disarmingly open, reflective, and funny, and when it was all over, I walked to my car in an unexpected fog of uplift.
As tribute to this wonderful man, I wanted to share some excerpts from our interview, which covered the early years of Gerry’s life and career. That focus is why you’ll note scant reference to his illness or the North Fork Table & Inn, and just one mention of his beloved Claudia. But I think it captures a portion of his life that was clearly formative, both personally and professionally, and who among us wouldn’t like to be remembered as we were in our twenties and thirties?
My great thanks to Mary Mraz of the North Fork Table & Inn for her help securing photos and photo approvals during this sad time.
And with that, I give you the late, great Gerry Hayden, in conversation, from July 10, 2014:
Tell me about your childhood.
I grew up right here on Long Island in a town called Setauket. I was the youngest of seven children and I was sparked by food at an early age watching my mother cook for all of us.
She had a job, then she would take care of all of us. She would cook dinner, actually she would finish the dinner she started the night before, we would clean up, and then she would go back to cooking again so she would have dinner ready the next day. I was enamored by that as a small child.
Being a big family, she had many sisters and we would have big holidays. She would get her whole plan for how Thanksgiving meal was going to go. And I would help her roll out the pie dough at a very early age. She would give me a piece of dough. She didn’t think I was going to do much with it; it was more of a distraction for me so I wouldn’t bother her so much. But to her surprise, when she turned around, I had rolled out three pie crusts, crimped edges and all, by watching her. And that’s really where I got my love for food.
My dad was a fireman in New York. He worked on the fire boats down by the World Trade Center before the Trade Center was open. When I first was growing up, looking for a job, he drove me around to a couple local restaurants. He said, “Why don’t you go in there and get a job washing dishes?”
My first job was in a local restaurant. I got to really love that environment just being in the kitchen. I didn’t love school very much. I didn’t feel like I was a kid that was going to go to college or Harvard. That was not how I was brought up. We didn’t talk about my education. We talked about going to school, getting good grades, don’t get into trouble, and life will work itself out.
Life was difficult growing up with seven children. My parents worked very hard. Where was the money going to come from? That all crept into my ear not because they wanted it to, I was just very aware of my surroundings. So I thought, “Well, I don’t want to be a burden, so I’m going to do something different. And when I got in the kitchen, that something different was right there.”
I went to prep cook making salads, making dressings. Then, for some reason, I really liked to bake and so I was starting to do desserts for them.
You were born in ’64, so this was late ’70s?
This was probably ’77, ’78, ’79.
So you’re 14, 15?
What was the lure for you of professional cooking? What made you start to think this is what you wanted to do?
Yeah. Boom, done. Didn’t think too long, prepared the meal, someone loved it, and that was that. Done day. Good day. You could start your day and finish your day on either a high note or a bad note. Most of the time it was high notes. I never was a high school athlete. I was on teams but I wasn’t very good. But I always had that team mentality where we could get it done. If we worked together, we could get everything that was in front of us done. So I liked the approach to cooking because there was a lot of prep, then it was show time, and then listening to words come out of [my chef’s] mouth. “By God, you guys are killing it. They’re loving it out there.” He would come in, praise us…
At this time, cooking wasn’t necessarily thought of as a career path in this country.
I knew there was a future in what I was doing. I had no idea how to get from A to B, but I realized that there were also schools that would teach a cook to cook, because there’s only so much you can do without an education. Why were things not coming out the way I wanted them to? I didn’t have the answer, so I needed to find out where to get the answers.
I went to the Culinary Institute of America … I was blown away when I got there because of what they put me through to get in. When I got there, I was with people who had not spent more than two or three months in a kitchen. I had spent three years of my life before that washing dishes, prepping food. I knew where certain cuts of veal were. I was way ahead of these students.
When you got to the CIA, if you can remember back to this time, what was the end game for you?
My end game was to own a country house.
Even back then? Where did that notion come from back then?
My mom. I always wanted to have a restaurant to memorialize my mother. And that changed but that was my driving force because I feel I got my talent, my taste, my love of food from her in a way that was so American. Because she was not a grandma from Europe. We were just kids growing up on Long Island
You told me there was a story about you telling your dad you wanted to become a cook.
[One] summer I sat my parents down. I said, “After talking to [my brother] Chris, I really think there’s a career in cooking and I really want to learn why I’m coming across so many stumbling blocks. I really would like to go to cooking school.” My father said, “Well, there’s no future in that.” My mother was very open to it. My father didn’t flip out but he kept pressing the issue. “You’ve got to get a steady job. You have to have a pension. You have to have this, you have to have that. That’s not going to happen in a restaurant.”
I said, “Yeah, but I don’t like doing anything else.” And so I said to him on top of it, “I’ll work the next two years and I’ll put away my own money to go to school.” My mother looked at my father and she said, “That’s the best offer we ever got, so take it.” And then she passed away a couple months later.
And so I hung around, went to school, put my money away. I was also going out every night drinking and partying with the boys. So my father said, “You’re going to have to start paying rent if you think you’re going to live your life the way you’re going to live your life.” So I started paying rent.
When I finally went to school, I learned that he had socked away all my money and it was all for school. I thought he was keeping it for himself but he wasn’t. He was just making sure I had another stockpile of cash.
So the rent you had paid he was squirelling away on your behalf?
That makes me want to cry, Gerry. That’s an amazing father story.
He worked in New York. When it came time to do my externship, he was friendly with a guy, Joe, who produced Playbills for Broadway shows. My mom and dad would go visit him. And they would go to the Sign of the Dove. That was Joe’s favorite restaurant. So my dad said, “Why don’t you go to the Sign of the Dove?”
So I went there, I interviewed, asked for a position in the kitchen. Never heard anything back. Then my father said, “There’s another restaurant you should try. Try The River Café. It’s under the Brooklyn Bridge.”
I got my resume to Charlie [Palmer]. And I think I hounded Charlie for three months straight. Calling. “Did you get this? Can I come down?” He finally got me down for an interview and I finally got the [externship]. That’s how I landed at The River Cafe, all due to my father who was the one against me cooking.
What year did you get to River Cafe?
I did my externship in ’85, then I continued school and came down every single weekend after that and lived on Charlie Palmer’s couch, David Burke’s couch. And upon graduation, April of ’86, I started full‑time there…. the day I started my externship was the day David Burke started as sous chef. And that’s how David and I became fast friends.
What were these guys like at that time?
To me Charlie was the epitome of a big chef. Big. Linebacker size. Never saw Charlie in anything but his whites. He came to work in his whites. And he left in his whites.
Do you have any idea why?
Yes. Because he loved the fact that women loved to see men in a chef’s jacket.
He told you that?
[laughs] That’s on the record.
More so what it was about was he was all business. It was, “You did this, this is your profession, you do it well.” And that’s what my dad said: “If you’re going to cook, you’d better be the best.” You knew he was the guy. You never saw him disheveled. His jackets were always pristinely pressed… And I swear, all we did is get up in the morning, get coffee, go to work, leave that night, go to bed, get up.
David was the guy that took me from my externship, put me on the line a first Saturday for brunch because somebody called in sick, and he worked with me side by side. And I’ll never forget it. And that day he said I did fairly well because I had quite a bit of cooking experience. He said, “I would like to bring you to nighttime.” I was like, “I don’t know what that means, but sure, yeah.” Because I had no idea how this whole thing worked.
So I made a rapport immediately with David. He was gruff. We goofed on each other about New Jersey and Long Island, but at the end of the day he was my boss so I did whatever he wanted me to do.
This was a mostly American kitchen. That was a relatively new thing. Was it powerful for you?
You’ve described that kitchen as competitive.
There were times where we would race each other from the minute we got in the door to see who could be set up with their station, all their mise en place, everything they needed to do for that day. Because I worked a fish station and the fish station at the The River Café was two people–a saute guy and a grill guy. And so me and my friend Neil Murphy, we would bet that we could set up faster and better and be outside a half hour before service started. We were inundated with prep. It was unbelievable the amount of work we had to do to get ready for service every single day.
We were better at River Cafe because when I heard about all the people that would do the vegetable blanching [at other restaurants], that was all our responsibility. There was no guy that blanched the vegetables. Every cook was responsible for getting his veg, sauce and proteins together. That’s why I had a big head.
But anyway, long story short. We bet for who could be done first. And sure enough, Murphy and I, two Irish boys from Long Island, we would work our asses off. Sometimes we got beat but rarely. Rarely. And we’d go out back and we’d have a half hour. We would go out there and we’d punch each other and get everything ‑‑
What do you mean?
Punch each other, pin each other, get psyched up.
Before service? Can you describe this in a little more detail? I’ve never heard of anything like this. So you’d go out where? The parking lot?
No. There was a cashier, and behind the cashier there was a door and we were on this little concrete slab out back [by the barge]. And we used to say, “Smoke ’em if you got ’em.” And everybody would go out and smoke cigarettes. So I would go out there, throw back two, three, double espressos and be ready to go. And Murphy would be like, “Are you ready?” I’d say, “Yeah, I’m ready.” And he would make me scream it. I think the rest of the folks thought we were crazy. But that was us. We were a team. We wanted to be in the window with all our shit and it had to be perfect. And the competition that we put on one another was actually because you never wanted to let your partner down. It was all that camaraderie. Sometimes it got heated. Sometimes you weren’t in the mood for it, but we were young. I left the Cafe at 24.
How did you get to meet your peers around this time?
We all found out about one another at local bars in New York over lots of beers. We cooks, we hovered and we found out where other cooks were hanging out and we went there. It was almost like, we weren’t gangs, but we were like, “Oh, that’s them from Gotham Bar and Grill.”
You’d see other crews?
Yeah… we would get tired of our own surroundings. In Brooklyn we would go to the Montague Street Saloon. That’s where we went almost every night. But a lot of nights we would get tired of doing that and we’d get over [the bridge] and we’d go to see bands. So we would go to Bleecker and we’d go see ‑‑ oh, I can’t even remember the names of the bars now.
There was Mondo Perso and The Red Lion.
Yeah. Then there was a great beer place over there.
The Peculiar Pub.
Yeah.We would go over to the Peculiar, the Red Lion. We would listen to the bands there. Basically in that area. And we would bump into people. Like, Gotham wasn’t far from there on 12th Street, so that’s how we bumped into Gotham people.
And you all would talk? You’d all kind of check each other from a distance? What was it like?
One person would know one person from over there so they’d go over to talk to her, then they’d come over. It was slow getting to know everybody but we all knew who we were because we were the ones coming in at 12:30, 1:00 at night.
When everyone else was leaving.
So everybody would know what we were doing there.
Can you give me a sense in whatever way you’re comfortable talking about it, just the amount of alcohol consumed by this community?
Oh my God! The way I look at it is we got off of work at 1. I mean, we were done, dressed, on our way to New York or to the bar. Sometimes 12:30, sometimes midnight. If it was a weeknight it was early. And we would drink every single ounce of liquor we could until 4. So if we were hot and thirsty in the summertime, that would mean 12, 15 pints of beer, easily.
It’s amazing, isn’t it? When you think back on it?
It’s incredible the amount of booze that went through my body.
But then you’d get up and go work your ass off the next day.
Yeah, but then it got harder and harder. Thank God. [laughs]
But this was more or less everybody, no? I mean, yes, some people were married with kids already.
Yeah. These were people like myself who lived for only one thing: Recognition in what they did. Nothing else mattered to them. So we didn’t care if we had family to go to the next day. We didn’t care if there were weddings we had to go to. It was about we worked hard, we’re conquering the food problems of the world in that bar. We would come up with the next great dish, maybe written on a cocktail napkin… it was so much fun. I’ve never had that much fun in my entire life.
You mean the whole package?
Oh, everything. It was ‑‑ they are rock stars today and I felt like I was a rock star back then. Because people knew who I was and I was never in the paper. People knew my name.
You mean other cooks?
Yeah. They knew that I was the guy that Charlie and David went to. I was the guy at Tribeca Grill when it opened. That I was the sous chef and the pastry chef. I was the guy, you know? It was like, you got a reputation of being the guy. I could do everything after a while. I could do pastry. I could do the line. A lot of the cooks never got into pastry. I got into pastry so I’d know everything…
There was a certain type of celebrity that you carried around with you, and yet you were no one. You weren’t written about in the papers every day. But there was something about the time ‑‑ at that time being a cook, I just felt like every time I turned around somebody was asking me what I did, where I worked. And they had a connection to it because of their boss or whatever.
But living in New York at the time I did something not a lot of people do. I left Long Island, the comfort of my home, I went out to live my dream and move to New York because I knew that’s where I was going to get all my training.
I live out here alone. Because I bought a restaurant here. I can’t find anyone that wants to go into New York and spend the money on an apartment, to learn how to cook anymore. Everybody just wants to come out of school, get a good job, get a great paying job. They don’t know what we sacrificed. I sacrificed fifteen years of my life getting paid dirt to get all the training I got. I don’t see that in our industry anymore… I feel like every cook nowadays wants everything given to them. There’s no desire to learn on your own. And that’s sad to me. Because in New York, no matter how broke I was, I woke up every morning knowing I’m in the right spot. I’m in New York City. I would go home and tell my high school friends, “I live in fucking New York City.” That’s all I needed to say. And that made me feel good about myself. That was me saying, “You know what? You’re not the smartest guy in the world. You didn’t go to college like everybody else, but look who you’ve become.”
At times I took that too far. I think there’s so many other chefs I probably should have worked with. For some reason I got too comfortable. Now I’m ravenous for education.
[Ed. Note: Gerry spent some time cooking in California during his career, but space prevents going into that here.]
Let’s talk about Aureole.
Oh, Aureole. What an amazing place. Everybody was in the dining room. Everybody wanted to see what Charlie Palmer was going to do.
All people in the restaurant business. That’s who I cared about. I didn’t care about celebrities. Sirio was a celebrity [to me]. Barry Wine, Michael McCarty, Jonathan Waxman, Melvyn Master, Drew [Nieporent].
Did you consider it a supportive community at that time? People were looking for you to succeed? You felt that? They were sincerely happy about it?
I think so. I mean, it seemed that way … by the way, I was living on 6th Avenue [downtown] right there and Mario’s at Po at the time so I’d see quite a bit of him. He was so supportive of me. He kept telling me to open up something down in the neighborhood by him. I should have listened to him. I dug him. I was fascinated by what he was doing. I’d stop in and check in on him every once in a while. He’d be sleeping on the banquette in between services at Po. It was a good time.
When you think back, does that seem like a different universe to you now?
Yes. They’re all the same people but they’ve gotten further and further away. Not from me, necessarily. I tell someone that I can call Daniel and get a reservation, and they look at me like I’ve got three heads. And they’re like, “When did you get to be friends with him?” I say, “I’ve been in this business thirty-five frigging years.” I mean, Daniel was the one, he got me the reservation at Gerard Boyer when I went to ask Claudia to marry me.
Now Daniel is this big enormous beast. Mario’s like a world away from people, and yet he’s not. Just the other day I Tweeted something and he started following me, sent me a message. I can talk to all these guys because we were the guys cooking. The same thing with Colicchio. Tom’s a great guy. They’re all very genuine. We all admire one another. They all became these big conglomerates because I think they loved that lifestyle. I didn’t love that lifestyle so much because I didn’t know what I was chasing, the big dream, the big “New York,” the big everything. I don’t think I was equipped to handle it. I’m more hands-on. I can’t let anybody else do anything, and so I was never going to be the guy that had five or six restaurants.
Everything I did back then, I would do again in a heartbeat, because I am who I am because of those people. I love my business. I love the people that are in it. And I’m proud to say that the people I was friends with then I’m still friends with today.
I’m constantly amazed at how in touch everybody who was around back then is, even if it’s not on a regular basis.
The restaurant industry is one of the most giving industries there is. We really do take care of our own, and I’m proof of it. They’ve come out in droves for me…
I think probably what you’ll learn from this interview is I’m fairly grandiose. And that’s okay. Because I grew up at that time. I grew up in grandiose [times]. I grew up in my twenties in New York City. And that’s who I am. I really am the quintessential kid that came from Long Island and bloomed into what we call an American cook.