Gerry Hayden, lauded chef who battled ALS, dies at 50


Gerry Hayden, the three-time James Beard Award nominee and head chef of the award-winning North Fork Table & Inn who helped pioneer the “farm-to-table” movement and raised awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis through his years-long battle with the disease, died Wednesday.

He was 50.

“This disease, as terrible as it was, really thrust him into the community,” said Holly Browder of Browder’s Birds in Mattituck. “It’s incredible how much strength he had. He loved to go and talk with people, as difficult as it was. He was still out there; he wasn’t giving up.”

Mr. Hayden was born and raised in western Suffolk County but rose to prominence in the prestigious New York City culinary scene, having earned a reputation as an elite chef at restaurants like Aureole and Amuse.

He and his wife, acclaimed pastry chef Claudia Fleming, came to the North Fork in 2005, gutting a French restaurant and bed and breakfast on Main Road in Southold and rebuilding it as North Fork Table & Inn. After recruiting another couple from Manhattan — hospitality experts Mike and Mary Mraz — the four friends bought the park-like property and building at 57225 Main Road in December of that year.

Mr. Hayden was at the forefront of the “farm-to-table” movement and was dedicated to working with local farmers to incorporate fresh ingredients in his dishes.

“He changed the way people eat,” Ms. Browder said. “He started it with the farm-to-table and all the farmers followed.”

Ms. Browder became friends with Mr. Hayden after North Fork Table & Inn became the first restaurant to buy her eggs in 2009.

“He really put us first,” she said. “He was really so enthusiastic about small producers and helping people get started.”

Mr. Hayden was also the first chef to serve biodynamic produce from “The Farm” in Southold.

Farmers Ira Haspel and his now-deceased wife, KK, already believed their produce to be the best around. But the talented minds and hands of Mr. Hayden and Ms. Fleming took those flavors to another level.

“We kind of validated each other’s ideas and goals,” Mr. Haspel said. “He did special magic in the kitchen.”

The Haspels helped physically design and build North Fork Table and Inn. Ms. Haspel was a builder before she became a farmer and Mr. Haspel was an architect.

“Gerry would often ask KK to grow something and she would,” Mr. Haspel said. “Gerry and KK had a great collaboration in the kitchen.”

Mr. Hayden was a frequent sight at local farmers markets, like the one hosted by North Fork Table & Inn on Friday mornings.

“He was just at the market on Friday,” Ms. Browder said, choking back emotion. “He loved that market.”

He was also a mentor to other young chefs in the region.

Jenilee Morris, co-owner of North Fork Roasting Co. in Southold and catering company Grace & Grit, said Mr. Hayden guided her through her career and offered counsel when it was sought. She said he had finally visited her recently opened coffee shop for the first time this week.

“He’s influenced so many people in so many ways, I don’t think the community will ever forget him,” Ms. Morris said. “He’s changed a lot of careers, including mine.”

Ms. Morris said friends and loved ones had began to gather on Wednesday to celebrate Mr. Hayden and his legacy.

“I never met anybody who dealt with [illness] like him,” she said adding that despite his long illness, she was still unprepared for the news. “I thought he had another birthday in him, another fundraiser.”

Mr. Hayden and Ms. Fleming found success with North Fork Table & Inn, winning rave reviews as one of the East End’s top restaurants. Mr. Hayden had been nominated for the prestigious James Beard Award three times; on Monday, Zagat declared the restaurant as having the Best Food and the Best Service. Mr. Hayden excitedly tweeted the announcement that day.

Their success allowed the couple expanded the eatery in 2010.

Then, in January 2011, Mr. Hayden was diagnosed was ALS, a debilitating neurological condition also known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” The illness has no known cure.

In the four years since the diagnosis, the disease had robbed him of the use of his hands. Physically, he couldn’t cook anymore.

Yet that didn’t stop Mr. Hayden from continuing to run his restaurant. He managed the kitchen from his electric wheelchair, despite the fact that his speech was slowed by breathing tubes. Still, the couple was forced to list the restaurant for sale last year.

Mr. Hayden also used his condition to raise awareness for ALS, sponsoring fundraisers and hosting events. Friends raised more than $100,000 through a fundraising group called Hayden’s Heroes.

In an October 2014 interview, Mr. Hayden declared the restaurant a “complete success,” just as his ALS progressed to the point where he could no longer cook.

“It never felt like it to me because I was always trying to find money,” he said. “When we finally sorted everything out and built this room, I just happened to get sick. So, the fact that now we’re here and the restaurant is still up and running and people are writing about it, and want to write stories about the history of it, and the investors will get all their money back, I’d say we went on a pretty successful run.”

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