It was considered a gamble when chefs Gerry Hayden and his wife, Claudia Fleming, left successful careers in the New York City dining scene to open a high-end farm-to-table restaurant in Southold.
Would Long Island’s tourist-driven and seasonal top fork be able to support the vision they had for the North Fork Table & Inn, a white tablecloth eatery with a focus on top-notch ingredients and a mission of supporting local producers?
But 10 years later, Hayden has been nominated for a prestigious James Beard Award three times, the restaurant is still perennially ranked No. 1 on Long Island by Zagat and it still offers a seasonal and locally sourced menu with items like crudo of Atlantic black sea bass with sweet potato, cilantro, Fresno peppers, mizuna and citrus vinaigrette.
And though Hayden died this August of complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, at the age of 50, his legacy lives on through the chefs who have benefited from his tutelage and the way the farm-to-table movement has been supercharged on the North Fork.
For his undeniable contribution to the North Fork’s food and wine culture, for being a champion of local farmers and for mentoring the region’s next generation of chefs, we posthumously name Gerry Hayden our 2015 Northforker Person of the Year.
So how did Hayden and Fleming, herself a James Beard Award-winner, know that the rural North Fork would be receptive to their city-bred brand of upscale dining?
For Hayden, a Long Island native who grew up in Setauket, it was the ingredients available at the local grocery store.
“I went into the IGA and I thought, ‘Wow, they have so many different things,’ ” Hayden told us in a 2014 interview, ticking off items like smoked duck, buckwheat flour and coarsely ground grits. “All these things I can never find in the supermarket, I found out here. So I knew people could cook; they were cooking. And I thought to myself, ‘Maybe they need a break. They probably want to go out every once in a while.’ ”
After recruiting another couple from Manhattan — hospitality experts Mike and Mary Mraz — the four friends bought the parklike property and building at 57225 Main Road in December 2005. It opened in May 2006.
The restaurant soon became a showcase for local producers, sometimes featuring farms by name on the menu, including Holly and Chris Browder’s organic poultry farm Browder’s Birds and KK’s The Farm in Southold, owned by Ira and the late KK Haspel.
“He changed the way people eat,” Browder told us shortly after Hayden’s death. “He started it with the farm-to-table and all the farmers followed.”
Browder became friends with Hayden after North Fork Table & Inn became the first restaurant to buy her eggs in 2009.
“He really put us first,” she said. “He was really so enthusiastic about small producers and helping people get started.”
Beginning in 2014, the restaurant also hosted a weekly summer farmers market, where diners could purchase the same high-quality ingredients — like shiitake mushrooms grown by East End Mushroom Co. in Cutchogue and shellfish harvested in Peconic Bay by Race Rock Oysters — the chefs used in their kitchen.
Though the partners put the building and surrounding property on the market in 2014, the restaurant is still operating and Cutchogue native Stephan Bogardus, a protege of Hayden’s, has been named its chef de cuisine.
Bogardus is just one of the many local chefs who has learned from and been inspired by Hayden over the years.
Jennilee 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 finally visited her recently opened coffee shop for the first time just days before his death.
“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.”
Hayden — who had worked for chefs who have built food empires, including Tom Colicchio, Charlie Palmer and Danny Meyer — never lost his passion for the kitchen. Those who worked with him say he even demanded tastes of the menu until the disease robbed him of the ability to swallow.
He also raised money and awareness for ALS through the charity A Love Shared.
“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.”
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