It turns out Greg Hardesty wasn’t finished with the restaurant business after all. On February 19, two years after the five-time James Beard nominee and beloved local chef closed his “culinary playground,” Recess, he’s opening the doors to Studio C, a culinary experiment of a different kind. Obscure hints dropped via Instagram the last few months led to lots of theories. A picture of Hardesty with rows of coffee mugs prompted speculation about a coffee shop. (Close, but not exactly.) A beautifully plated dish of oysters with caviar fueled rumors of a fine dining spot. (Getting closer, but still not there.) And a lack of any clear description or street address prompted guesses of pop-up dinners with strangers done in Hardesty’s own home. (When pigs fly.)
So the word is finally out. Studio C pops this week near 54th and the Monon Trail, in the company of culinary heavyweights like Gallery Pastry Shop, Nicole-Taylor’s Pasta, and Locally Grown Gardens. It’s a mixed-use space where Hardesty is the chef, coffee maker, culinary instructor, and go-to source for foodies for all their favorite, hard-to-find ingredients. In the mornings, it will be a grab-and-go coffee space, with Hardesty applying his culinary wizardry to the best drip coffee he can deliver, dialing in the right grind, conditioning the water, and using fresh beans from local roasters. Don’t get your hopes up for a fancy latte, though, and leave your laptop in the car. “We’re going to deliver something very expedient,” he promises. “Get in, get out. No place to sit and chat. It’ll be good for the curmudgeonly old guys that just want to get a damn coffee and leave,” he says, laughing the laugh that speaks directly to folks who are Over. It. Hardesty also plans to add soups and other grab-and-go items that people can buy in the morning and have for lunch or dinner later.
“Because that’s all I’ve ever really cared about. It’s never been about money or fame, just how good I can get at this craft of cooking.”
In the evenings, it will operate as a modern-day dinner club. Customers will make a reservation online like any other restaurant, the only difference is that there’s only one reservation available to the public per night. Customers can either trust Hardesty to come up with a menu on his own, or collaborate with him on specific requests. The only rule is that the party needs to be large enough to make use of the space, and profitable for Hardesty. That means a sweet spot of ten to twelve people, with room for up to twenty-four. The price will vary depending on what the customer wants, and will be determined in advance. “It’s stripping away all the noise and extra stuff and just seeing what kind of cook I am,” says Hardesty. “Because that’s all I’ve ever really cared about. It’s never been about money or fame, just how good I can get at this craft of cooking.” Hardesty doesn’t want to fill the space every night, and plans to to limit reservations to three or four per week.
Customers can also book the space for cooking classes, but even those will be non-traditional. Hardesty will tailor each request individually, and design an interactive experience that’s less lecture, more fun. “I’m not going to just post classes and stand in front of people and cook. That can get pretty boring for everyone quickly.”
When he’s not cooking meals or teaching classes, Hardesty will be sourcing ingredients for home cooks who have a hard time finding what they need in regular grocery stores. “I want to have a pick-up location for retail meat and seafood, really leaning in on the seafood part. I can order what people want, trim it, and have it packed and ready for them when they get here.”
He calls his space a restaurant with no walls, and that’s exactly what it feels like. It’s a wide-open, 1600 square feet white room with tall ceilings, anchored in the center by a cluster of brand new stainless steel commercial kitchen equipment. There’s a large chef’s table sourced from Midland Arts & Antiques Market, and two seven and a half foot custom-built wooden tables that can be pushed together for large parties. Hardesty also plans to add a few four-top tables for situations that require a more traditional restaurant set-up.
Even the bathroom is a conversation starter. The wallpaper is made from hand-written recipes that Hardesty has collected or used over the years at his restaurants, and old favorites donated by friends and family. “To me, it symbolizes history,” he says. “Food is memory making and interesting. It’s hard to get out of there once you start reading them.”
Hardesty only has only one employee, Francisca (Frankie) Figueroa, who is the general manager, server, and social media director. She’s already made an impact on how he does business. The notoriously humble chef has never been comfortable tooting his own horn, and seems constitutionally incapable of promoting himself in even the most basic, expected ways. This can turn into a real-world business problem when foodies often make dinner plans after checking Instagram. So Figueroa has taken that over, and Hardesty lets her do her thing, even if it makes him uncomfortable. “I cringe sometimes, but I know it’s part of the business these days.”
Hardesty got the idea for Studio C after years of following the career of comedian Bill Burr, famous for using his comedic talents in a variety of formats; stand-up, cartoons, acting, and podcasts. “He’s being funny in all these areas, but there are different ways to be funny, and he’s making a living doing it all,” he says. “His whole business is a bunch of little businesses. And I wondered ‘how can I do that, but with culinary?’ I can cook, but I can do things to make money other than just opening a restaurant and hoping people come at 5 o’clock every day.”
He considered opening the new business within six months of closing Recess, but he and his family were still healing from the wounds that come from a lifetime in the hospitality business; slim margins, late nights, and the excesses that often accompany it. Everybody needed some time to rest. “I’ve had some huge life changes since I sold Recess. I wasn’t really appreciating what I had at the time, but now I do and I want to do it with gratitude. I want to experience joy and happiness when I do it,” he says. “I really thought I was done when I walked away, but it was a bigger part of me than I knew. I needed to create something.” Studio C, 1051 E. 54th St., Suite C.