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….