Q&A with Hotel Indy’s Executive Chef Patrick Russ

Chef Russ in his chef's coat against The Hulman bar
Hotel Indy executive chef Patrick Russ.

WHEN HE LANDED his first restaurant job at the Penn Station next to Broad Ripple High School in the early 2000s, Patrick Russ had no idea he would eventually work in the kitchens of one the world’s most acclaimed chefs. After deciding that an art history degree at Indiana State wasn’t exactly his thing, Russ went back into the kitchen, eventually earning a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu in Miami. He went on to work in Seattle and later Chicago, where a two-day stage at his hero Grant Achatz’s storied Alinea restaurant led to a two-year job at the acclaimed chef’s ticketed, evolving-concept restaurant, Next. After moving home to Indy for more space to raise a daughter, Russ now heads up the kitchen at Hotel Indy’s The Hulman, as well its rooftop bar, The Cannon Ball Lounge. Before the lights went on, he talked to us about his circuitous route back to Indy, as well as his love of all things local and independent.

While a number of top-tier restaurants have opened in hotels in the last decade, hotel food still has a reputation of being safe and unoriginal. What was different about Hotel Indy?

One of the things that really drew me to Hotel Indy, and to The Hulman, was its size. Here, I don’t get pigeonholed as a hotel chef. The restaurant stands alone and just happens to be in a hotel. In chain hotels, you often have to cook to the hotel brand. I wouldn’t have taken the job if that were the case.

What were some of your first jobs in restaurants? 

One of the first places where I actually got to cook was at the Italian restaurant Enrico’s, near 62nd Street. It’s where my friends were working, and I just wanted a job. But it was such a colorful place to work, and I got to make the salads and the tiramisu. When art history didn’t pan out for me in college, I enrolled in Ivy Tech’s culinary program, and I started to see that cooking could be a career. But I was just eager to get out and see the world, and that’s how I got to Le Cordon Bleu in Miami. That’s also where I found the Alinea cookbook and started following the Michelin-starred chef Grant Achatz, whom I eventually worked for. In Florida, I was making eggs at a Marriott, so I wanted more of a challenge. I drove my mother’s van to Vancouver, and when I ran out of money, I settled in Seattle and got some restaurant jobs there. But the scene there was very casual, and I knew I wanted more refinement, which I found in Chicago.

What was it like working for Grant Achatz? 

I had a two-day stage at Alinea, and then I got asked to work the front of the house at Next, which he was just opening. Thankfully, by the time I decided to take the job, they had another opening in the kitchen. Working for him was intense. He almost didn’t make a noise when he walked, and there was a military-like efficiency about the kitchen. He drove you to be timely and to take pride in everything. I remember one time when he grabbed me and told me I moved like a turtle and that I should get down to the basement to clean. Another time he told us to write down everything we had done that day. One of my fellow chefs said he had sharpened his knives. Achatz said, “Really, that’s what you’ve done? Sharpen your knives at home.”

What were some of the most important lessons you learned from Achatz?

He taught me to be versatile and to be able to explore different cuisines, which we were changing all the time. Completely turning the restaurant over all of the time at Next gave me the confidence that I could branch out and do almost anything I wanted.

How did you make it back to Indy?

I worked for two years at Next, and I felt that the job had run its course. I had some great opportunities with other openings, such as The Dawson and 7 Lions, and up until the pandemic, I was working at Onward in Rogers Park. But that closed just as I was trying to buy a bigger place, and I realized that if I came back to Indy, I could get the space to raise my daughter much more easily. I’ve been back a little over a year, and I’m excited to be here and see where things are going.

What do you think has changed in Indy since you were cooking here?

It definitely seems like more of a city now. I don’t know if Indy has changed or I’ve changed, but I’m excited about how much more international influence there is on the food in Indy now. And I’m so excited that there are great chef-driven restaurants like Bluebeard that are great for Indiana culture. It definitely makes my job easier. People have grown much more accustomed to truly great food, and I’m excited to be a part of the scene.

Like most chefs, you are passionate about sourcing locally. How is your approach different?

I try to challenge myself to think how we can showcase local vendors in a way that isn’t so obvious. I try to work with newer or smaller producers that aren’t already in every restaurant. Or I try to find products that aren’t the most typical choices. I’m also trying to commission producers to provide products we will feature. It makes me feel as if I’m giving back to the community as well, or at least that I’m helping some producers grow.

The Hulman is named in honor of Tony Hulman, Jr., the legendary Terre Haute entrepreneur who owned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for several decades. Will you be doing any dishes to honor him?

The family told me that when Hulman was a kid, his mother would always send him out with a “pocket roll,” some breakfast pastry he would put in his pocket on the way to school. So we’ll have our own pocket rolls in the mornings at the hotel. He also loved chocolate malted sodas and Swedish pancakes, so we’ll try to feature those in some way. And he was an avid duck hunter, so there will definitely be duck on the menu.