Chef’s Kiss: Chowing Down with Tony and Rosa Hanslits

Photograph by Tony Valainis

 

Perhaps no name has been as synonymous with Indy’s food scene for the last three decades as Tony Hanslits. From his early days at the groundbreaking Peter’s in Fountain Square to jobs at some of the city’s most innovative and polished supper spots (including Something Different, Snax, Malibu on Maryland, and 14 West) to heading up his own Italian-inflected eateries and markets, Hanslits quietly had his hand on nearly every culinary trend that passed through town and trained some of our most talented chefs and restaurateurs. In the midst of all that was a decade-long stint as the director of culinary education at the now-closed Chef’s Academy, where he taught dozens of culinary professionals who went on to push Indy’s dining scene in new directions. Along with his wife, Rosa, whom he started dating while working at South Bend’s Carriage House in the 1980s, he operated the innovative Italian trattoria Tavola di Tosa and Tosa Euro Cafe in the early 2000s, and for more than a decade, the pair has held court at Nicole-Taylor’s Pasta + Market + Back Room Eatery, known for its hard-to-source gourmet products, as well as a private dinner series that always sells out of a year’s worth of reservations in hours. Now, with grandchildren in North Carolina and retirement on the horizon, the Hanslits are taking some time for themselves and training their staff to do the heavy lifting. While Tony and Rosa aren’t hanging up their aprons just yet, they won’t be getting them quite as dirty. Recently, the pioneering husband-and-wife team sat down with us to look back on the rewards of a life lived so deliciously.

You’ve both been in Indianapolis since 1985. What was the food scene like way back then?

Tony Hanslits: In 1984, I came here to interview for a job at the Canterbury Hotel, which was essentially just working a full day’s shift to show them what I can do. Afterward, we went out for drinks near what’s now Gainbridge Fieldhouse, and we came out and saw the rock-and-roll legend Prince dressed all in red with a full entourage of bodyguards. I knew I wasn’t in South Bend anymore. But on Sunday when we looked around for a place to have brunch, we practically saw tumble-weeds rolling through the streets of downtown. Sadly, with an offer of $6.40 an hour, I just couldn’t justify relocating the family to Indy. It wasn’t until Peter [George, longtime Indianapolis restaurateur] brought me on at the original Peter’s in Fountain Square that I thought I could really make the move.

Hanslits wowing fans at 14 West in 2005 and during an up-close chef’s table dinner at Nicole-Taylor’s.

What were the challenges of cooking in Indianapolis at the time?

Tony: It was pretty much a blank slate in Indianapolis, and it was difficult getting diners to try a lot of things they weren’t used to. We wanted to serve veal sweetbreads, which were a classic French delicacy, but they wouldn’t have it. We had to grind them up into a forcemeat for other dishes and get them to try it that way. For a few years, Peter wanted us to go all Midwestern, which was the trend at a lot of Chicago restaurants. So that meant only lake fish and produce from the five states around us. That made things nearly impossible at times, but we were pushing the envelope and trying things that no one had seen in this city. It was such an education for my other restaurant jobs at Something Different, Snax, Malibu on Maryland, and 14 West.

When did you know that the time was right to go it alone?

Tony: Honestly, I was happy working for others, and I wasn’t dying to have my own place. I didn’t want to handle the payroll, the finances, and all the orders. But we got the opportunity from some investors who approached us, and we really couldn’t pass it up. So that led us to Tavola di Tosa in the early 2000s, which was a true education in the restaurant business. We put out some great food, but, in many ways, there were a lot of things we weren’t prepared for. We essentially had two restaurants at one location. Although I could look out the pass-through and see the cafe [Tosa Euro Cafe], that was too far for me. It really divided my attention. I’ve never been like a lot of chefs who want to franchise out into a bunch of locations. I wanted to keep my eye on doing the best I could at one spot. Having to hire and manage the lives and careers of nearly 50 people was something I hadn’t dealt with before.

Nicole-Taylor’s first tiny pasta maker, left, still sits on display, a reminder of how far the restaurant has come.

Was Italian food always in the plan?

Rosa Hanslits: I knew that I wanted to do a market where you could get the kind of Italian and Mediterranean products I could find back in South Bend. There, you could go to Italian butcher shops and bakeries. Here, you couldn’t get real quality Italian olive oils or cheeses, so I had this idea to provide a source for those ingredients I loved. We planned Tavola di Tosa around that.

What advice would you give anyone starting a restaurant?

Tony: Never get things that you don’t need, and never sign on the line unless you’re sure you can pay for it. With the buildout and the expenses at Tavola di Tosa, we were still paying that off for several years after we closed the restaurant. And we didn’t really overextend ourselves or buy lots of new things. Here at Nicole-Taylor’s, we’ve really learned to wait until we can afford something. I had a range hood for our main stove in storage for almost a year before we had the money in hand to pay someone to install it. But doing that meant that I didn’t have to borrow for it. When we went from owning a restaurant to making pasta for local farmers markets, we had this old vintage pasta maker that could only do about 7 pounds of pasta in an hour. You could go out to dinner and come back between batches. But we made it work for the time being because we had it. We have that on display in the back just to show where we’ve come from.

[pullquote align=”left” caption=”Tony Hanslits”]“ I’ve never been like a lot of chefs who want to franchise out into a bunch of locations. I wanted to keep my eye on doing the best I could at one spot.”[/pullquote]

When you had the opportunity to pivot to culinary education in the mid-2000s, what things changed for you?

Tony: Giving back my knowledge and seeing my students grow was rewarding. But it was eye-opening. I saw that in the rest of the world, people went home at 5 p.m. and got time off and paid sick days. It was so interesting to see how things worked outside of restaurants, and it was an education knowing that the students had lives outside of the kitchen and classes. These days, when we are trying to hire new employees, they almost always want weekends and some nights to be with their families. That’s great, but it’s not how I started out.

Rosa: Suddenly, Tony was coming home in the evenings, and it sort of upended my usual routine. I’ve talked to a lot of wives of chefs who say the same thing. Of course, it was great to have Tony home, and even to have him cook at home, but it was an adjustment. It had been a big challenge to raise kids with Tony working such long hours. But Tony’s hard on himself, and he sometimes says that he wasn’t there enough for our girls. But he was a great dad. Our girls went to Bishop Chatard High School and were really into volleyball. He hardly ever missed their games. Sometimes, he would come to see them play between reservations, then go right back to work.

What does it mean to finally step back from some of the day-to-day duties at Nicole-Taylor’s?

Rosa: Our grandkids are still toddlers, and we don’t want to miss out on seeing them grow up. And the job doesn’t get any less tiring as the years go by. We love the dinners, but sometimes after a dinner and cleaning up, we get home and take a breath, then we look around and say, “We have to do this all again tomorrow.” That never gets easier, so being able to let someone else pick up some of the slack will be a relief.

Tony: Being able to scale back to teaching and small dinners, rather than doing hundreds of covers a night, has really saved my life. Especially with what I’ve been through healthwise and my kidney transplant [the Hanslits are both cancer survivors], not having the rigor and hours of a full-scale restaurant has really made it possible for me to have a career that has spanned four decades. But there’s a point when you just have to say that you’ve done so much, and there’s a point when you take time for yourself. But I’ll still be cooking and planning. I just finished my next seasonal menu for Back Room Eatery this morning.


Tony Awards

Here’s the shortlist of Indy culinary heavy hitters trained by Hanslits in the kitchens of Tavola di Tosi, the classrooms of the Chef’s Academy, or at Nicole-Taylor’s. 

Neal Brown

Legendary chef/owner of L’Explorateur, Pizzology, The Libertine, Stella, and One Trick Pony.

Micah Frank

Former chef of R Bistro, Black Market, Duos, and The Inferno Room.

Ben Hardy

Longtime pastry instructor and founding co-owner of Gallery Pastry Shop.

Joe Kalil

Former chef of Woodland Country Club and Rick’s Cafe Boatyard, as well as the current chef de cuisine at Nicole-Taylor’s.

Alison Keefer

Former enrollment specialist and nutrition instructor at The Chef’s Academy who is currently owner of Gallery Pastry Shop.

Erin Kem

Former sous and executive chef of R Bistro, Cannon Ball Brewing Company, Scarlet Lane Brewing Company, and now Small Victories Hospitality.

Erin Gillum Oechsle

Former executive chef of Spoke & Steele who is now a culinary instructor at Area 31 Career Center.

Carlos Salazar

Former sous chef at Oakleys Bistro and Pizzology, chef and co-owner of Rook, executive chef at West Fork Whiskey, and chef/owner of Lil Dumplings Noodle Bar.