Happy Trails, Chef Hardesty

Celebrated chef and restaurateur to close Recess and retire from cooking after 25 years, while Pizzology and Libertine Liquor Bar owner Neal Brown to relocate his soon-to-open Japanese farmhouse bistro Ukiyo to vaunted College Avenue space.
After a 25-year career in which he helped introduce local diners to fresh Asian-fusion fare and exacting seasonal cuisine, pioneering Indianapolis chef and restaurateur Greg Hardesty is closing his critically acclaimed Recess in Meridian-Kessler on Saturday, February 18. The closing of Recess is part of a deal that will allow chef and restaurateur Neal Brown, owner of two Pizzology locations and The Libertine Liquor Bar on Massachusetts Avenue, to move his latest, yet-to-open concept Ukiyo from its intended spot in Fountain Square to the space on College Avenue that has housed Recess, and for a short time its smaller sibling Room 4, since early 2010. Citing decades of 15-hour days and the constant rigors of keeping a restaurant afloat, the multiple James Beard Award semifinalist says that he had hoped to be able to sell the space to another restaurateur when the opportunity with Brown came about. “My older daughter went off to college this year, and my younger daughter is a sophomore in high school,” says Hardesty, 48. “I realized that I was missing out on too many of life’s great moments.”
Cooking and owning a restaurant were never in the plan for the young Hardesty, who graduated from Indiana University in 1991, where he studied in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs. “I started cooking simple things, like chili for my roommates,” Hardesty says, waxing nostalgic about the beginnings of his love for food. “I realized that it felt great to feed people. I knew it was something I wanted to do.” In early 1992, Hardesty took a job at the legendary Glass Chimney in Carmel, which needed extra help for the upcoming Valentine’s Day crowds. A five-year stint in California in the late 1990s, where he worked as sous chef at San Francisco’s Rubicon, helped Hardesty grow to much more than merely a chef who could feed people—he became a culinary professional passionate about quality ingredients, classic techniques, and visually stunning plating.
Hardesty opened H2O Sushi in 2000, bringing playful and creative sushi and pan-Asian dishes to loyal customers in Broad Ripple. He followed that up with the ahead-of-its-time Mass Ave farm-to-fork bistro Elements in 2003, when the now-bustling restaurant district had only a few quality kitchens. With its “let us do the deciding” tasting menus that changed daily and its expertly chosen wine pairings, Recess was the true realization of Hardesty’s talent and style. Pristine soups, hearty salads, interesting cuts of locally sourced meats, and some of the best seafood dishes in the city were hallmarks of his menus, which drew both dedicated regulars and national acclaim. The casual restaurant-within-a-restaurant Room 4, which followed the next year, created a sensation with Hardesty’s dressed-down but no less flavorful burgers, tacos, and chockablock candy cookies. Hardesty hopes to make his popular burgers at least a couple of more times before he passes on the keys to Brown in just under three weeks.
Countless restaurant professionals both in Indiana and out of state, including Brown himself, count Hardesty among the mentors who helped propel their careers and make Indianapolis a true culinary destination. “That’s really what I’m most proud of,” Hardesty says, “and I hope that one day they’ll be mentors of the next generation of culinary stars as well.” While reservations may be hard to come by until the closing, those holding gift cards for the restaurant can rest assured that Hardesty will do his best to honor them before he plates his final dish. What’s next for Hardesty? “I don’t have a clue,” he says with a chuckle. “But I want to do fun stuff, new stuff, energetic stuff.” He says he won’t rule out the occasional pop-up dinner or guest kitchen appearance, but he’s excited to hang up his apron for another opportunity. Knowing Hardesty, he will likely make his mark in whatever new avenue he chooses. “And I still love cooking at home,” Hardesty says. His love of feeding people will always be with him, and local diners can be thankful for the quarter-of-a-century in which he kept us decidedly well-fed.