The following is our “Ask Me Anything” interview with Greg Hardesty, from the December issue.
This was already a challenging year for chefs because of COVID, and then you got your cancer diagnosis. What has it been like to juggle both?
It has been weird, that’s for sure. Even before I was diagnosed, I was sick for three solid months.
What were your symptoms? Fatigue?
Yes, I would get up in the morning to shower and go downstairs to the basement, where I kept all of my clothes. Sometimes, I would just get my underwear on and have to lie down on the futon and take a 15-minute nap. Then I would drive to Studio C and sit in my truck for 10 minutes to rest before I could go inside. And I did that intermittently all day.
Were you concerned that it was something serious?
Not really, because we thought we had an answer for every symptom I had. I struggle with depression, and my depression manifests itself as a thought that I just can’t complete. Putting on my shoes feels like the biggest task and I just don’t know how I’m going to get it done. The idea of cooking a four-course meal overwhelms me to the point that I’m frozen. But when you look at the list of symptoms of leukemia, it’s a carbon copy of what I was dealing with. So hindsight is 20/20.
Are you feeling better now that you’ve started treatment?
Yes, my energy is up. That depression and lack of motivation is melting away. This is a curable disease, and I look at that as a positive. It’s not some lifelong ailment that I have to deal with for another 35 years, feeling like shit all the time without an answer to why. At least I have an answer. There’s light.
And in the midst of this, you had a business—Studio C—to keep afloat. What changes did you make because of COVID?
We changed our business model. Since we weren’t doing dinners, we switched to a grocery store with meats and carry-out. Then we really expanded the wine shop, which drives about 90 percent of our revenue now. It’s been difficult with this diagnosis, but we’re surviving. It’s hanging by a thread, but it’s still hanging on, and I’ll take that any time.
To support you and Studio C, Mollie Eley at Smoking Goose organized an auction of private dining events and other things donated by former employees of yours and local businesses. What has it been like to be on the receiving end of such a community-wide effort?
It’s been humbling. It’s embarrassing on some level, because it takes a lot of time and effort and money to get that to me.
You shared your diagnosis publicly. Did you consider keeping it private?
Initially, I didn’t want the whole world to know. We created a private Facebook group to keep friends and family updated on the treatment. Then, lo and behold, there were almost 700 people in it. So it became public knowledge via the private group. People talk. In retrospect, I know there was no way to keep it private because I’m in the public eye. Why isn’t he at Studio C anymore? Why has he lost all that weight? Why is he bald? I struggle with social media and have never offered anything other than food-oriented stuff, so for me to be out there this way has been awkward. But the outpouring of support has been a huge lift.
Some of Indy’s best-known chefs—Abbi Merriss (Bluebeard), Neal Brown (Ukiyo), Jonathan Brooks (Milktooth)—worked for you early in their careers. What’s it like to watch them leave your kitchen and go out on their own?
This isn’t going to sound sincere, but I’m more proud of that than any personal successes I’ve had, because hopefully that’s a legacy that will last forever. People ask me if it pisses me off when these chefs leave and open their own places. I say no, because it means for two or three years, I had a really good sous chef or cook. I can write the greatest menu ever, but I can’t prepare it all by myself. If they’re not doing their jobs, it’s not going to work. Their successes are a huge source of pride for me.
Are there common themes you see in young cooks that indicate the potential for success later?
Yes, definitely. Cleanliness, the way they hold a knife, the way they organize their day. That’s what separates the good chefs from the great ones—the great ones get the little things right. I can usually tell within two or three days if somebody’s going to work out.
There has been a lot of talk in the last few years about kitchen culture, and how hostile it can be. Do you think the industry is changing?
I do. I came up in a very aggressive model. The first two chefs I worked for were extremely brutal, and one even got physical with me. That just wouldn’t fly anymore. The verbal abuse was constant, and I think that’s changing now. For one, this generation just doesn’t tolerate it. I came from an athletic background and thought, This is just the new coach yelling at me to perform better. It felt normal being yelled at because I figured at least they were paying attention to me.
What’s your ideal cooking scenario? What are you making, and who is eating it?
I like cooking for other chefs because I know they’re going to get it. I can do some things that are out of the box that the general public might not want to eat, with goofier, more obscure ingredients. I think a five-course meal is just about perfect. Anything more gets overwhelming. Anything less means I can’t make use of all the ideas swimming in my head.
What’s your favorite ingredient?
Tomatoes, hands down.
They’re so versatile. You can eat them raw, roast them, turn them into a sauce. There are so many versions that you could do three of them in a row and wouldn’t think, I just ate tomatoes three times.
What’s your favorite way to eat them?
Peeled, with Lawry’s Seasoned Salt and pepper.
What three things should every home cook should have in the kitchen?
A really good sauté pan, sharp knife, and large cutting board. It drives me crazy to see people trying to prep on tiny cutting boards with stuff everywhere. I love a wooden cutting board. There’s something about a knife bouncing off of a wood board that feels different than plastic. It’s this sexy, hollow feeling you get in your hands. It’s like hitting a baseball perfectly on the sweet spot of the bat—it reverberates up your arm.
What’s next for you and Studio C?
I get chemo once a month, and my last treatment is in February. I try to go in to work a couple of hours every day to support Nic Kobrehel [Studio C’s general manager]. I’m going to start doing more of that if I can. I want to maintain the wine store, and when I’m ready, add two or three meals a week. I don’t think there’s a lack of demand. With COVID, we’re probably set up better than anybody in the industry, just because we’re a private dining room. That’s my plan right now. I’m pretty excited.