Abbi Merriss: The Course Instructor

Abbi Merriss

In early August, diners at Bluebeard had a chance to try the restaurant’s take on Puerto Rican red beans and rice. Their version included chicken quarters that had been marinated in a pique sauce of red Thai chiles and heavy pours of white vinegar and sugar. To serve, chefs added tomato concassé—blanched, skinned, seeded, finely chopped tomatoes—and finished the dish with more pique. If you had a chance to dab a fork into this complex sauce, you would have tasted mangoes, peaches, pineapple, and a fermented chili mash. As you admired the beautiful plating, you might have assumed that Bluebeard’s celebrated chef Abbi Merriss was responsible for the dish. But you would have been wrong.

“I’m just a line cook,” says Marcus Benassi, the 26-year-old novice who came up with the recipe. He first saw a bottle of pique sauce in a San Francisco restaurant. Back home in Indiana, he wanted to re-create it, so Merriss helped the recent Bluebeard hire get it right. She taught him how to conceptualize the end product before the process began, how to bring together salt, acid, and fat in perfect balance.

Today at Bluebeard, Abbi Merriss mentors the next generation of star chefs.

Benassi knows how lucky he is to be working under Merriss. A perennial James Beard Award semifinalist, she’s one of the city’s top chefs. Merriss has earned mentions in The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, Food & Wine, Playboy, and USA Today. Perhaps more than anyone other than Milktooth and Beholder chef Jonathan Brooks, she’s responsible for Indy’s heightened profile among foodies in recent years. But the part-owner of Holy Rosary’s most beloved restaurant isn’t interested in putting this town on the map as the Home Of Abbi Merriss. She wants to mentor young chefs, who in turn may create a critical mass of talent to make Indianapolis a true food city.

Early next year, Merriss will take the next step toward that goal. Along with the prolific Battista family (development partners and property owners of Bluebeard, Amelia’s, Milktooth, and King Dough), she plans to open Kan-Kan Cinema and Brasserie, an arthouse movie theater and restaurant in Windsor Park. Although the menu is still being developed, it’s fair to assume it will offer the kind of adventurous cuisine for which Merriss has become famous. Another safe assumption: Plenty of the dishes won’t be by Merriss at all. They’ll be the product of her young acolytes, drawn to her as much for her unassuming style as her talent.

“I know too many close friends who are very egotistical, and the way I hear chefs talk sometimes is really embarrassing,” Merriss says. “We have to breed a nurturing atmosphere—at Bluebeard and beyond. I like to bring people into my home and give them an opportunity to thrive.”

For a career working in the chaotic world of professional kitchens, Merriss’s childhood was good preparation. Born in Evansville, she moved to Louisville at age 2. That was the year her parents, Ramona Hamilton and Rick Merriss, separated. She lived in Quincy, Illinois, and Daytona, Florida, before she, her mother, brother, and two sisters resettled in Evansville when she was in third grade. Throughout those years, her mom was in multiple relationships. Hamilton and her daughters spent some time in a women’s shelter to make sure the family stayed safe from a man.

Chef Abbi Merriss sits in the dining room of the restaurant, Bluebeard, she helped turn into a dining destination.

Despite the things that she couldn’t count on, Merriss says she always knew her mother would have linen napkins and nice place settings on the table. There would always be applesauce and cottage cheese. Hamilton would make fried chicken, meatloaf, or tuna casserole, and they would sit down as a family for meals.

As a kid, Merriss made fried bologna or grilled cheese sandwiches for her mom and siblings. When she was about 12, she filmed a video titled “Cooking With Abbi.” Wearing a blue jean skirt and black-and-white striped top, Merriss walked through every detail of baking a cake from a box mix, including how to crack the eggs to ensure there were no shells in the bowl, perhaps an early sign of her passion for teaching others to cook.

Trying to nail down her path in life as a teenager, Merriss was apparently guided by a string of movies. When she was 13, she saw Apollo 13 and wanted to be an astronaut. In high school, she enrolled in CAD classes after seeing Housesitter starring Steve Martin as an architect. On Sundays, the local newspaper published a “Dream Home.” Merriss would pull out some graph paper and draft her own spectacular residences. She gave up on that ambition after her stepfather threw away all of her precisely rolled-up plans. At 15 or 16, after seeing Rocky, she joined a boxing gym. Her coach saw potential. She did a couple exhibition bouts, but after getting knocked out by a friend, she gave that up, too.

It wasn’t until she got a job as a nanny that she first began to think about cooking as a career. The mother of the family, who was Italian-American, made a baked-spaghetti recipe that is still one of Merriss’s favorites. The family brought her along to watch their kids on trips to downtown Chicago, Arizona, and Montana. “She was my mentor when I was a teenager,” Merriss says. “I didn’t realize at the time what that was, but it was nice to have these wonderful people who brought me into their lives like that.”

At 15, Merriss launched her culinary career with a gig busing tables at the Gerst Haus restaurant, where she tasted her first raw oysters. For three summers during high school, she also worked at the local pool. The summer before she graduated, she fell in love with a coworker there. He had plans to move to Portsmouth, Virginia, so as soon as Merriss finished her senior year in 2001, she packed up her Geo Metro and moved there to join him.

While many parents would cringe at the thought of their 18-year-old daughter taking such a risk, it turned out to be a point of pride for Ramona Hamilton. “Abbi wasn’t scared, ever,” she says. “She was making her life out there and doing a good job at it.”

In nearby Norfolk, Merriss and her boyfriend would often gravitate to the artsy neighborhood of Ghent, making it a date night with a visit to a laundromat, arcade, and one-screen movie theater. Also in Ghent was a cafe called The Ten Top. Merriss applied for a job there as a counter girl. When she wasn’t punching orders into the register, she was expected to prep food. Mixing up chicken salad turned into making soups from scratch and managing the restaurant. Merriss realized she really liked the work, and she moved on to be a line cook at nearby Cora, which advertised “uptown Southern chow.” Her boss there was a headstrong woman named Nancy Cobb, who once threw a pickle at Merriss and often responded to stressful situations by jumping up and down. “That’s when I started developing my mentality in the kitchen,” Merriss says. “Having tantrums is not a way to fix a problem. You fix a problem by communicating quickly and politely. You can have a tantrum later.”

After four years in Virginia, Merriss had broken up with the boyfriend and decided to move to Indianapolis to be closer to her family. She had no prospects and only a vague notion of what she wanted to do professionally: work in restaurants. As luck would have it, she was about to get a job that would change her life.

Driving around downtown Indy looking for a job in 2005, Merriss and her mother stopped at a restaurant just off Mass Ave to check out a menu posted in a window. “Neither of us could understand anything that was on it,” Hamilton says. “I said, ‘Abbi, you need to start by applying here. Start here and work your way down.’” They were at the doorstep of Elements, chef Greg Hardesty’s fine-dining place that had opened two years earlier.

Merriss inquired about a server position. “I didn’t want to cook anymore because I felt like it wasn’t a pretty job,” she says. Merriss was 22 and single. She wanted good hair and nice fingernails. The problem—or blessing—was that Elements didn’t need anyone in the front of the house. But Merriss felt like she belonged there, so she kept calling. Finally, Hardesty agreed to an interview.

Merriss inside Bluebeard’s kitchen, 2018

“We hit it off really fast,” says Hardesty, who offered to create a position for Merriss in the kitchen. Lacking any other offers, she took the job. She describes working at Elements as “love at first sight.” Not only was she cooking in a finely tuned professional kitchen for one of the top chefs in Indianapolis, but Hardesty was interested in sharing what he knew with Merriss, to make her better. He had a lot to share. Now a five-time James Beard nominee, Hardesty had already opened and sold H20 Sushi, where notable local chefs such as Neal Brown had worked under him.

“Greg was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had,” Merriss says. “He took somebody in that didn’t really know shit, but he saw something in me.”

Hardesty remembers the first thing Merriss made for him: a turkey sandwich with chèvre or Boursin cheese. From this simple recipe, he could see that she was getting it. But not every dish was a win. She bragged to him about a corn chowder she had developed. When Hardesty finally gave her a chance to cook it for him, he says she used every pot in the kitchen three times, overworking the soup. The phrase “chowdering a dish” was coined.

Merriss’s life during this period wasn’t all work. One night in 2007, she got into a friendly argument at the Lockerbie Pub with a young chef named John Adams about cooking. That conversation, and the guy, stuck with her. Later that year, she saw Adams again, sitting on the stage at Coaches, where he was emceeing Tuesday hip-hop night. They fell hard for each other. They were together a lot after that, dancing, hanging out, being in love.

While she was still working the line and doing pastries at Elements, Hardesty recommended Merriss for a scholarship to attend the now-closed Chef’s Academy, the culinary school associated with Harrison College. As part of her education in pastry arts, she did internships in New York City. By the time she came back to Indianapolis, Hardesty had moved on from Elements. Merriss waited to see what his next move would be, and bided her time working under Regina Mehallick at R Bistro and instructing in a 101 class at the Chef’s Academy.

Meanwhile, Hardesty was planning his next restaurant, a high-concept place called Recess in SoBro. Gabe Jordan, a former wine steward at Goose the Market, was going to be his partner. Hardesty always planned to hire Merriss at Recess, but when Jordan was shot during a robbery in November 2009, several months before Recess opened, her role at the new restaurant grew substantially. “Like Abbi always does, she took it and ran with it,” Hardesty says. “It was a strange opening, something new to Indianapolis. The first few nights were rough. That whole situation made her grow up a little quicker.”

With a prix fixe menu of four dishes that changed nightly, the cuisine at Recess was even more adventurous than it had been at Elements, and thus required a lot more creativity from Merriss. As sous chef, she was forced to learn new techniques and new ingredients all the time. When Hardesty wasn’t managing the line, Merriss took over. He recalls her being very good, but occasionally flustered in the beginning. “As she got more confident, though, the whole game slowed down for her,” he says. “She started managing the kitchen instead of it managing her.”

When Adams proposed to Merriss in November 2011, she accepted. Hardesty got mad, telling Merriss how marriage changes things, how two chefs living under the same roof would be able to see each other only if they worked in the same kitchen. Merriss was unapologetic. Two months later, she went to Hardesty’s house with more bad news: She would be leaving Recess to open a place called Bluebeard with Adams.

Bluebeard wasn’t always part of the vision for the old warehouse Tom, Sherry, and their son Ed Battista purchased in 2011. They planned to open a bakery. It was a serendipitous liquor license that brought a full-fledged restaurant to the drawing board.

Right before the 2012 Super Bowl, population data from the census indicated that Indianapolis residents needed more places to get booze. As a result, the Indiana Alcohol & Tobacco Commission made 94 new liquor licenses available with what promised to be a steal of a deal. Ed Battista was cramming for—or avoiding—law school final exams when the news dropped, so he registered for the auction. For a license that can cost upward of $50,000, Battista and 93 others snagged one for $1,000 apiece. The family needed something to do with it, and fast. The license stipulated that you had to put it to use within 12 months.

Battista’s best friend since childhood was the person he considered to be the best chef in the city. By this time, John Adams had opened Ruth’s Keystone Café, and cooked at L’Explorateur and H20 Sushi. The Battistas asked Adams to man the kitchen at their new restaurant on Virginia Avenue. Adams agreed, with one caveat.

“He was convinced he couldn’t do it without Abbi,” Ed Battista recalls. Adams had to persuade Tom, Sherry, and Ed that he and his wife were a package deal, and he did. Holy Rosary is a historic Italian neighborhood, but it had lost much of its authenticity. The Battistas’ restaurant would honor that history with a Mediterranean Italian menu, but that’s where their influence on the food stopped. “We had two ridiculously talented chefs, so it was pretty much anything they say goes,” Battista says.

In June 2012, bricks were still scattered in front of 653 Virginia Avenue where the Indianapolis Cultural Trail was under construction. Nonetheless, the hype around the promised hot spot led people in heels and polished loafers to climb over piles of gravel to claim one of Bluebeard’s first open tables, and they kept coming. Merriss and Adams were the toast of the town. People dipped into beef Bolognese, sweated over dragon shrimp, and ordered round after round of Sanctuary cocktails. But even as they excelled in the kitchen, Merriss and Adams’s marriage was falling apart. On November 12, 2013, the news broke that the chefs were divorcing. Adams was out at Bluebeard, and Merriss would be sole executive chef.

“I don’t think anyone expected us to be as busy as we were right out of the gate,” Adams says. “We were too busy to do anything but put our heads down and work. We worked well together in a lot of ways. We complemented each other, but we both have strong personalities. We were in our late 20s. We drank too much. We had a lot on our plate.”

Merriss says she still reminisces about what she and Adams had as a couple, and she likes those memories. They made friends together and had a great wedding. She misses his family. As for their 17 months as co-executive chefs, though, her perspective is far different.

“He has a completely different style of chefing than I have,” she says. “I feel like you have to be nurturing and positive. You have to have a little bit of discipline, but I believe in that whole saying of ‘choose your own battles,’ at work especially. It’s not the end of the world. No one is going to die doing this, you know?”

When they split, she was a 30-year-old woman who had been hired because her ex-husband had insisted on it, and now he was gone. The chances that she would be kept on at Bluebeard might have seemed slim, but the Battistas believed in Merriss. She was determined to build on what they had already done.

Merriss made a name for herself at Bluebeard during those next few years by reinventing approachable dishes. “She can take iconic comfort food and make it the best version of anything you’ve ever tasted,” says Bluebeard sous chef Bryan Kanne. One such dish, the spaghetti crème fraîche, has been on the menu for six years. To make it, timing is critical. The spaghetti, the Battistas’ Bettini Pasta, is cooked to softness, not chewy or falling apart, the perfect bite. Then it’s stirred quickly with crème fraîche and gremolata (parsley, garlic, lemon zest, season to taste). Mix in a little salted pasta water as needed and serve immediately.

Over the last four years, dishes like that have earned Merriss an annual nomination for the coveted James Beard Award. Perhaps more important to her, she has created an environment in which everyone in the kitchen is learning, trying new things, and has opportunities to get their dishes on the menu. Justin Eiteljorge returned home to Indiana in 2013 after finishing school at the Culinary Institute of America. Merriss offered him a job on the spot. As garde manger, he prepped cold dishes and pickled everything—squash, mushrooms, cherries—but he also had his own dishes in mind.

“She was always incredibly supportive,” Eiteljorge says. “Any idea I had, Abbi tried to make it happen. She knows how to get the best out of people.”

One such dish was a roasted squab, aged to accentuate its gaminess. Merriss sourced 24 Scottish woodcocks. They stored them in the chilly basement for about 14 days. Served with anchovy-roasted carrots and a bagna càuda sauce of anchovies, olive oil, parsley, lemon, and a little butter, the entrée was a hit.

Guided by Merriss, Bluebeard sous chef Noah Miles also has become a regular contributor to the menu. In high school, Miles got his feet wet in restaurant jobs at Palomino and Dunaway’s. After culinary school, he cooked in a hospital dining hall, but wanted to tackle more challenging dishes. Before his first Chef’s Night Off event—a regular gathering of Indy’s best toques for dinner—he was nervous about preparing food for such a discerning bunch. Merriss coached him through the preparation of a poke dish of salmon, smoked pearl onions with soy, pickled jalapeños, candied ginger, and a bundle of rice with a wonton chip. Among the culinary big shots at the table, the dish soared.

“She’s a great teacher,” Miles says. “She wants you to come in and learn the way we do things at Bluebeard. Once you have that base, she wants you to play.” Chefs like Benassi, Eiteljorge, and Miles are the future of Indy’s culinary scene. Merriss’s ability to create an environment where they develop may not add to her fame, but it could add to the city’s. This fall, some of them will have an opportunity to make their mark across town at Kan-Kan.

Since late last year, Merriss has been busy conceptualizing the Battistas’ new venture in Windsor Park. At Kan-Kan, Merriss plans on a brasserie-style menu. Think whole roasted fish, steak frites, tartines, and scallops in white-wine sauce. At press time, a lot was still in the brainstorming stage, as masons laid the facade amid steel framing and concrete blocks. The restaurant will seat 145 people and include picture windows, a patio, and tables on the second floor overlooking the lower-level dining room.

Sharing a space with a nonprofit called the Indianapolis Film Project, the 14,500-square-foot building will have four theaters of varying sizes to seat a total of 300 people. The organization’s mission is to enrich Indianapolis through independent film exhibition, film education, and community engagement. The working-class neighborhood of Windsor Park was chosen specifically to make the greatest impact possible.

Bluebeard has become an institution in Holy Rosary, and Merriss hopes Kan-Kan will be the same in its area. Still, she feels some trepidation about splitting her time between them. “Bluebeard was my first restaurant,” she says. “That’s why I can never fully leave it. I’m excited about the new place, but I’m also apprehensive. I don’t want to leave what I know.”

Luckily, a lot of the work will be shouldered by others. The staff will be a mix of people from Bluebeard and newbies who will shadow the Bluebeard vets. “Basically, they’ll be able to run the place,” Merriss says. “It will teach them how to manage staff and ordering procedures. There’s a lot of opportunity to learn.”

Merriss calls her own ambitions after Bluebeard and Kan-Kan “romantic.” She wants to travel, maybe consult. “I would like to be able to step away eventually and open up something a little smaller, where it’s just myself and a couple other people,” she says. “When I was younger, in Norfolk, there was this Cajun guy who ran a hole in the wall with like six tables. He sat on a stool and cooked everything, just swiveling on his stool.” Eventually, she wants something simple like that, a lifestyle that doesn’t call for 60-hour workweeks. “I could retire in Montana, ride a horse to a diner, and make pies all day,” she says.

Merriss isn’t ready to ride off into the sunset just yet, though. She still has years of new dishes—and chefs—to prepare. “I train them as much as possible,” she says. “Then I let them bring in ideas, and I show them how their idea does or does not work.” When an apprentice gets a dish on the menu, she expects the young toque to explain the nuances of the dish to the servers and to talk to curious customers about it.

The responsibility makes a lot of young chefs nervous. Benassi, for one, didn’t want to let anyone down with his red beans and rice. But Merriss prepares them daily to step into more vulnerable, creative roles. Someday soon, her sous chefs and line cooks will be the ones earning award nominations and restaurants of their own. That, not the celebrated Bluebeard menu, will be her legacy.