“How awesome is Greg Hardesty?”
Mike Welch, a longtime friend of the decorated chef who passed away after a year-long battle with cancer late last month, posed that question to around five hundred people at the Mavris Event Center in downtown Indianapolis last Sunday. Over the next several hours of Greg Hardesty’s celebration of life, it was answered over and over again.
Although he was a multiple-time James Beard Award nominee and the unofficial godfather of Indianapolis’ now-vibrant culinary scene, very few of the memories shared had anything to do with food. Friends brought up his affinity for metal – Metallica and Tool, especially – and oversized flannels with baggy cargo pants. They talked about how his immense talent would’ve warranted his acting like an equally immense, pretentious prick… except for the fact he absolutely loathed pretentious pricks. His eldest daughter, Juliet, reminisced about them ditching an IU football game during her sorority’s “Dad’s weekend” to grab pedicures. In a Facebook post, another friend remembered Greg lugging a crave case of White Castle sliders around a Colts tailgate. (Okay, I guess that one is technically about food.)
There were so many stories about how much he loved his wife, Susan, as well as his daughters, and how deeply he cared about the staff at his restaurants. Those were the memories that people chose to share not because his food wasn’t just as special and memorable – it was absolutely unforgettable – but because Greg Hardesty the world-class chef paled in comparison to Greg Hardesty the world-class person.
“I have never known anyone, regardless the profession, whose reputation was as golden, bulletproof, and airtight as his,” said Nic Kobrehel, who worked as Greg’s right-hand man for the last two years of his life at Studio C, his last project before passing. “Everyone loved him, whether you helped him plate that one time 10 years ago, or you were a dishwasher that sweated in the trenches with him through the good and bad, he truly was beloved, respected, and admired.”
As a chef, Greg could’ve earned that respect and admiration anywhere in the country. He could’ve stayed in California, a spot he adored, where he probably would’ve won the James Beard Award he so obviously deserved amid the inevitable sneers at “Indianoplace.” After honing his craft on the West Coast he could’ve taken the concepts he used to form the acclaimed H2O Sushi, Elements, or Recess to a more established culinary scene than what was then Indianapolis’, at the time still mostly a mecca of Red Lobsters and Texas Roadhouses. But the Fort Wayne native chose to stay true to his Hoosier roots, shattering previous conceptions about food in this city through his talent and tutelage that transformed Indy’s food culture into a legitimate destination.
I’ve written about what Richard Lugar and Bill Hudnut did for Indianapolis sports. Greg Hardesty was every bit their equal in the world of restaurants. Look around our city: his fingerprints are everywhere. Abbi Merriss, a five-time James Beard nominee and head chef of the lauded Bluebeard, came up under his wing, as did Milktooth and Beholder’s Jonathan Brooks, perhaps the only chef to appear in this magazine as many times as Greg. Neal Brown, who has run acclaimed spots like L’Explorateur, Ukiyo, The Libertene, and One Trick Pony, was one of Greg’s earliest mentees and friends. If this was football and we were discussing coaching trees, Greg would be Bill Walsh.
To recount the on-paper, LinkedIn version of Greg’s resume doesn’t really do his legacy justice. He gave his life to his family, friends, and restaurants. Whatever was left over, he gave to those in need. From the annual Taste of the NFL to a slew of low-key church fundraisers, he was constantly giving his time, effort, and talents to charitable causes in Indianapolis and beyond.
Brown was with him for many of those events. “We wouldn’t turn down any causes. We’d cook for free, donate food, you know, work ten-hour days. That’s a serious commitment of time and resources, but Greg would never say no.”
“I don’t know how anyone could possibly have the bandwidth that Greg had for caring for other people,” Brown continued. “His ability to extend love and grace he did and he still had enough left in the tank when he got home to nurture his family. It was a deep well.”
As an extension of his love and grace, what Greg gave to people through his food is part of his immense and deeply personal legacy.
Attendees at his life celebration were asked to write down a favorite Greg food item, among other memories, on brightly colored post-it pads. For my wife Ashley and I, the answer was easy: his Room Four burger, featuring a Fischer Farms patty, a pillowy soft Amelia’s bun, cheese, shredded lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion, and mayo (I usually don’t like mayo, but wouldn’t dream of messing up this perfect formula). He’d serve it with salted steak fries and ketchup. I know what you’re thinking – “A burger? Really? Steak fries?” It sounds boring. But while it may have been more Tim Duncan than Kobe Bryant, it was extraordinary. That was Greg. He didn’t need flash, pizazz, awards, or praise. Whether a $15 burger or $150 plate, he just wanted to give people happiness, and for decades that’s exactly what he did.
Greg made those burgers for us and several of our closest friends for Ashley’s birthday dinner, at his final food project Studio C. It was December of 2019, and he had recently found sobriety and Pilates. The combination breathed new life into him physically, spiritually, and professionally. Greg was so focused on bringing others joy that it came to the detriment of his own self-care, but he seemed to have really struck a balance during that time. It felt like things were falling into place.
He was truly in his element that night slangin’ burgers and Mexican beers, smiling over a packed grill while folks ate, drank, and laughed at his table. It was one of my favorite nights. Greg had a knack for creating those. I wish I would’ve known it was the last one I’d have.
Greg’s legacy will live on through his amazing wife Susan, whose grace and tremendous courage were an inspiration throughout her husband’s difficult fight. It lives on in his ambitious daughters Juliet and Gloria, who are mirror images of their parents in their intelligence, compassion, and beauty. This city’s best chefs carry it, too, in the humility of Abbi Merriss, the nobility of Neal Brown, and the authenticity of Jonathan Brooks. Whether they’re aware of it or not every Indianapolis resident gained something from Greg’s time in our city; he gave every single ounce of himself to us.
52 years on this earth is far too few. Death is cruel, and the gigantic void this loss creates can’t possibly be filled. But we are ridiculously fortunate to have had those years with Greg. He passed while surrounded by the tremendous love he created, and though cancer may have conquered his body in the darkness, it is powerless against the intensity of Greg’s light. Greg Hardesty the renowned and award-winning chef is worth remembering. As a husband, father, son, friend, and man, however, he easily eclipsed anything he put on a plate, and that is what we will celebrate forever.
There will be others in this city who make stunning, delicious, and memorable food, but never another person who gave as much and loved as much as Greg did.
To answer Mike Welch’s question, I can’t put into words how awesome Greg Hardesty is.
But I can tell you he was awesomely loved, awesomely selfless, awesomely gifted, and awesomely flawed. And, damn, he will be so awesomely missed.