Even toward the end, after amyotrophic lateral sclerosis confined chef Gerry Hayden to a motorized wheelchair and robbed him of his ability to eat independently, his dedication in the kitchen never wavered.
Celebrity chef and part-time Mattituck resident Tom Colicchio recalled how he recently watched his friend taste something cooked by one of the chefs at Hayden’s restaurant, North Fork Table & Inn, despite the choking risk it posed to someone in the late stages of the disease.
“In the beginning of the summer, I was at the [restaurant’s] farmers market, Gerry was there, and one of the cooks came out of the kitchen with something he prepared,” Colicchio said. “Even in the advanced state of ALS, he was still working as a chef. I just thought that was amazing.”
Hayden, a three-time James Beard Award nominee and head chef of the award-winning Southold restaurant, helped pioneer the local farm-to-table movement and raised awareness for ALS through his years-long battle with the disease. He died last Wednesday at the age of 50.
The youngest of seven children, Hayden was raised in Setauket and rose to prominence in the prestigious New York City culinary scene, earning a reputation as an elite chef at restaurants like Aureole and Amuse.
His wife, James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Claudia Fleming, remembers meeting him in 1990, when the 25-year-old was sous chef and pastry chef at Tribeca Grill in Manhattan. And while she respected his abilities, she initially wasn’t interested in Hayden romantically, dismissing him as a “young, cocky, talented” guy.
But the pair reconnected nearly a decade later at a reception for the annual James Beard Awards, commonly referred to as the Oscars of the food world. Fleming had been nominated as Pastry Chef of the Year, but it was not the year she would take home the award.
“I remember him saying vividly that [I was] wronged,” Fleming said in an interview at the Southold home the couple shared.
After that evening, the two made plans to meet up, but it wasn’t until another year had passed that they actually did.
“He was dripping with sweat. He was so nervous,” Fleming recalled, adding that she didn’t initially realize he was interested in her. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is a date.’ ”
They quickly became a couple.
Although the lives of two chefs are surely punctuated by plenty of expertly prepared meals, Fleming said some of her favorite evenings included fresh oysters, high-quality cheese and charcuterie enjoyed after Hayden’s late-night shifts.
“We would stay up until 3 a.m., just eating and talking,” she said.
Hayden and Fleming came to the North Fork in 2005, gutting a one-time French restaurant and bed-and-breakfast and rebuilding it as North Fork Table & Inn.
“We both felt like we didn’t want to work for anyone else,” Fleming said. “After working for Tom [Colicchio] and Danny [Meyer], there seemed nowhere else to go. “
After recruiting another Manhattan couple — hospitality experts Mike and Mary Mraz — the four friends bought the park-like property and building at 57225 Main Road in December of that year.
Mraz said it didn’t take too much wooing to get her and her husband involved in the business venture.
“When the food is good, it just makes the front-of-the-house staff’s job that much easier,” she said. “And the food never got sent back to the kitchen.”
The two couples found success with North Fork Table & Inn, winning rave reviews as one of the East End’s top restaurants. Hayden was nominated for the James Beard Award three times and, last Monday, Zagat once again declared the restaurant as having the best food and service on Long Island.
Their success allowed the couples to expand the eatery in 2010. Then, in January 2011, Hayden was diagnosed with ALS, a debilitating neurological condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The illness has no known cure.
In 2014, the couple put North Fork Table & Inn on the market, though the restaurant has remained open and Hayden stayed on as head of the kitchen as long as possible. In the years following his diagnosis, Hayden helped raise several hundred thousand dollars for ALS-related charities through the nonprofit A Love Shared.
“For me, he is the perfect example of someone who knew his life’s purpose,” said Paula DiDonato, who owns The Giving Room juice bar and yoga studio in Southold and is a friend of Hayden and Fleming. “He is an example of finding what matters and giving it your all.”
Holly Browder of Browder’s Birds in Mattituck became friends with Hayden in 2009 after North Fork Table & Inn became the first restaurant to buy her chicken eggs.
“He really put us first,” she said. “He was really so enthusiastic about small producers and helping people get started.”
One specific highlight Fleming can recall in their years together is driving around Southold and first seeing a sign for biodynamic tomatoes. It was the beginning of what would be a successful collaboration between Hayden and Southold farmers Ira Haspel and his wife, KK, who died in 2014.
At that time, the Haspels already believed their produce was the best around. But the talented minds and hands of Hayden and Fleming took those flavors to another level.
“We kind of validated each other’s ideas and goals,” Haspel said. “He did special magic in the kitchen.”
The Haspels helped to physically design and build North Fork Table and Inn. Haspel had been a builder before she became a farmer and Haspel was an architect.
Hayden was also a mentor to other young chefs in the region.
Jenilee Morris, co-owner of North Fork Roasting Co. in Southold and catering company Grace & Grit, said Hayden guided her through her career and offered counsel when it was sought. She said he visited her recently opened coffee shop for the first time the week before he died.
“He’s influenced so many people in so many ways, I don’t think the community will ever forget him,” Morris said. “He’s changed a lot of careers, including mine.”
Morris gathered with friends and loved ones the day of Hayden’s death to celebrate his legacy.
“I never met anybody who dealt with [illness] like him,” she said, adding that despite his long battle, she was still unprepared for the news. “I thought he had another birthday in him, another fundraiser.”
A private funeral is planned and a public memorial service will be held later this month. Those who wish to honor Hayden’s memory can do so by making a donation to the A Love Shared (ALoveShared.com)
“He was insanely talented, compassionate, funny as anything. He was just a life force and so vital until the last minute,” Fleming said. “He was my hero.”
With Paul Squire