There is something to be said about the extra-powerful emotions brought on by the unexpected tears of a grown man. In this case, the tears were courtesy of Recess/Room Four head chef Greg Hardesty. And this was after being declared the winner of the restaurant battle.
If you've missed coverage, Indianapolis On Deck has put on two competition-style events where mystery ingredients are presented to competitors, who have an hour to prepare a dish for a panel of three judges, and a winner is chosen. Buying a ticket to one of these things means you're not going to eat the food cooked for the competition by the judges. You're going, essentially, to watch other people cook and eat (though drinks and tacos were served to the attendees). Both events have sold out. Watch Heather Brodgen's video of the first event to get an idea of the vibe:
This concept mystifies my 60+ year old parents. ("So you just go and stand around and drink in the kitchen and watch the chefs cook for...not you? Why?") Because it's great fun to watch chefs put on a cooking show. That, and there's beer and tacos.
Indianapolis On Deck put on another battle on Sunday, this one pared down to two restaurants battling head to head. The event quickly sold out, and the dining room of Milktooth was packed three or four deep from the counter. At the end of the day, judges Paul George, Neil Charles and (our own) Jolene Ketzenberger had picked Hardesty as the winner over Joseph Decuis' Aaron Butts (the secret was Hardesty's removal of the quail bones before cooking). Don't be too sad for Butts though. He's about to head to the Beard House for his second dinner. He's doing just fine.
The most fun part about Indy On Deck events is you get to be surrounded by people who would gladly do nothing but talk about, make, or eat food all the days of their lives. It didn't seem extraordinary at all, for a ticketed food event pitting two culinary powerhouses against each other, to act as a moth's flame for the semi-psychotically food obsessed, including myself. We dug into the best tacos I've ever had, cooked by Jon Brooks, Carlos Salazar and Alan Sternberg—the last On Deck event's competitors and three of the best head chefs in town. We drank really, really good tequila. We heckled the chefs like we wouldn't have, any other day, lined up in our best outfits for a seat at any one of their restaurants and demurely said, "Thank you, Chef" as plates were placed in the table.
There was a sense of accomplishment in the crowd size, and it represented to all the people who had gathered just to watch two great chefs do their thing, the progression of our local dining culture.
"To have this [sold-out chef competition event," Hardesty said addressing the audience after his win, "is really fuckin' special."
Hardesty's tearful speech (watch the whole thing above as captured by Eric Rogers) in which he talked about a thriving food scene as a 15-year-old dream of his, was a sobering reminder that for each person that goes out and supports a talented local kitchen, the scene as a whole is elevated. Hardesty recognized not only the power of the dollar, but that is a greater, larger love of local food that continues to power this engine. And that power goes beyond allowing chefs to pay their bills, to creating a healthy scene that is attractive to new outside talent.
Hardesty summed up his thoughts with a sentiment familiar to people who live and die by their creative craft: "You don't get into this to make money," he said, his voice cracking,"We didn't have this 15 years ago, and you guys are doing it, and it's fucking awesome."
And here we are, with a new restaurant seeming to open once or twice per season. Dining rooms are full, morning noon and night, wherever there is great local food being served. Farmers' markets are healthy and booming on the weekends. There's edible innovation, entrepreneurship and a viability to a food-centric life no matter where you get in and work your ass off (although, the viability is directly related to your capacity for working your ass off). The meritocracy is ranked based on time spent doing the damn thing until you've got those ten thousand hours of expertise.
It reminds me of one of my favorite email chains that my mom sent me (as moms often do), where a pottery teacher graded half the class on the volume of pots they made and the other half on the quality of one pot. By the end of the semester, the single-pot students were blown completely out of the water by the technical perfection of their volume-production peers. Do something long enough with incremental improvement in mind and eventually you'll be the best at it.
Long before any of us were paying attention (or, in my case, while I was finishing college) our community of chefs was already at work building what we now know as Indy food. Our surprise at the quality of our own scene is due to our lack of diligence in the pre-social media world. Don't call it a comeback: they've been here for years. Indy's chef community has just been waiting for us to find our way back to the kitchen like a nosy diner investigating the source of an intoxicating smell. Great food has lived here for a long time, in small pockets, but it's suddenly fashionable to be a "foodie" — a hipster movement that has a hugely measurable impact on food industry workers' bottom line and quality of life. One blogger's fodder is a chef's family's next meal, next job, next paycheck.
Which isn't to say that everyone is going to be successful. What matters is that everyone now has a much greater chance at success, with this new level of excitement and exposure on the food scene. There are after-hours events where the patrons just get to watch what the chefs are cooking, just for the fun of watching talented chefs at work. It's progressed beyond excitement about dining and grown into a shared love of just food.
So for the next year, after getting my feet under me as NUVO's food editor since last July, I can promise to make good on Greg Hardesty's tears and honor his gratitude to the people supporting the fledgling scene. I'm going to keep my eye on the things that are exciting and risky, that folks are pouring their hearts into. I'll bring you people who are devoted to their craft, even if it's not what they're known for.
I am privileged to have the position I do in this community, and it's not lost on me for a second. In 2015, I promise to be part of its new Renaissance, to continue elevating as guys like Hardesty have been for years, and to continue the movement that moved him to tears.
If you're putting out great food and no one has come to eat it, I'll be there. If you've got a gem in your neighborhood that people should know about, I'll be there with a camera and bells on. If you're making something with care and love that deserves a second look, I've got my eyes peeled for you. Here's how you can get ahold of me: email@example.com, @likesquirrel317, or 254-2400 ext. 5220. I look forward to hearing from you in 2015. Let's keep making grown chefs cry.