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Savoring the now

Friends and colleagues help Ryan and Jen Hidinger realize their dream of opening a philanthropic restaurant. John Kessler tells their story.

By John Kessler - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution



On a warm afternoon in late September, Ryan and Jen Hidinger show visitors around a red brick two-story building on Edgewood Avenue in Old Fourth Ward. This handsome structure dates to 1906, and it will be everything to them.

The Hidingers speak in the imaginary future-inflected present — a verb tense known only to people with fantastic architectural plans.

“So these are steps,” Jen says, pointing to a perfectly flat expanse of floor. “After guests walk down, they meet the hostess,” she continues with hands outstretched, outlining a standing desk or perhaps a very short hostess.

Ryan takes over. “Here’s the kitchen pass,” he says of thin air, the spot where cooks give finished plates to hovering waiters. “Guests are sitting here,” where he runs his hands over the smooth surface of a phantom counter facing the kitchen.

Ryan and Jen, who’ve been married for nearly eight years, pass the conversation ball back and forth with ease; you barely see the hand-off, hear the pause, as one takes a breath and the other continues the tour. They walk their visitors through the middle of an imagined dinner service at their busy not-yet restaurant called Staplehouse. In the back courtyard, invisible guests sip drinks under the shelter of a weeping white oak, its fall leaves rustling on brick pavers underfoot. Meats roast in the open fire pit along the back wall.

At the front of the building upstairs lies the nexus of the whole operation — an office for the Giving Kitchen, the nonprofit philanthropic foundation that helps restaurant workers who can’t afford medical treatment when faced with an illness or catastrophic accident.

The Giving Kitchen is Ryan and Jen’s life’s work, their gift back, their payment forward. Private donations and money collected from fundraising events — not to mention every penny of Staplehouse’s profit — will flow into it. Because of what they’ve been through in the past nine months, the Hidingers find themselves able to dream up such an audacious enterprise and convince everyone it will work.

Had the Atlanta restaurant community not rallied to raise funds when Ryan got the worst possible news, they wouldn’t be here. Rather than merely accepting the support, they kept the discourse going. They thought bigger.

The Hidingers lead their visitors back to a patio, Ryan’s favorite spot, by the concrete wall spiderwebbed with a dark filigree stain left by the ghost of a creeping vine. A guest asks to take their picture.

“Like this?” asks Jen, striking a Betty Boop pose, a k a  the proto-twerk.

“How about full nudity?” Ryan asks, hand on the brim of his ball cap, ready to expose his chemo-whitened crown of hair.

"You go right ahead,” she laughs. “I’m keeping my clothes on.”


2
Love and food
Ryan Hidinger (pronounced “HIGH-dinger”) first noticed Jen Wells in the Indianapolis market where she was bagging groceries in 2000. She looked a bit like Penélope Cruz — huge brown eyes, high cheekbones and long chestnut hair so dark it verged on black. He bought a pack of gum in her checkout line and asked her out. She looked this tall, earnest, 22-year-old catering cook up and down and said no. The next week he tried again. She thought for a second, pressed the button on her cash register until it spat out a length of receipt paper and wrote her store beeper number down. “Call me here,” she said, thinking it seemed cool to have a beeper.

She didn’t reveal she was only 17 and a high school senior.

When Jen told her tradition-minded Spanish mother she had a “formal date” with a culinary college graduate, Mary Carmen Wells shrieked loudly and insisted that he come over so the family could meet him.

“Ryan showed up that night, and we went to the family room and sat him on the couch and started questioning his intentions,” Wells said. “Ryan called it the Spanish Inquisition.”

He charmed the family that night and got the blessing to date Jen as long as he didn’t interfere with her college education. While she took classes at Indiana University 50 miles away in Bloomington, he traded out his catering gig for a job at a restaurant called H20 Sushi.

Greg Hardesty, who supervised Ryan in the kitchen there, saw an instinctive quality in Hidinger that escapes so many young hotshot chefs. “He puts the dish ahead of himself. He’s not the star, it’s the food that’s the star, and his job is to coax it.”

Once Jen graduated, they got engaged and took off in his Volkswagen Golf for a whirlwind cross-country trip. They drove west across the Rockies, down the coast, through the Southwest arriving at Ryan’s brother’s house in Atlanta with no money and an empty gas tank. Atlanta. It was as good a place as any to pitch a tent.

Ryan soon landed a job as a line cook at Bacchanalia, Atlanta’s top-rated restaurant. It wasn’t easy. Hierarchy, intense pressure: that’s the way high-level kitchens operate. When asked about the job, Hidinger says, “I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything in the world. It gave me everything I needed.”

Ryan persevered, got promoted and soon moved to a management position at sister restaurant Floataway Cafe. But he wanted that feeling of family back, and so he and Jen began talking about opening their own restaurant. Nothing fancy, just a sandwich shop. But a really good one, with quality ingredients.

Ryan even had a name — Staplehouse, a portmanteau he made up and then turned over often in his mind to admire its facets of meaning.

Ryan looked around Atlanta for the best example of the concept he had in mind, which led him to Muss & Turner’s in Smyrna. The popular gourmet deli was starting to improve its wine and beer lists and morph into a dinner destination. It felt perfect — the place where Ryan might find his Atlanta family.


3
A dream takes form
Ryan Turner remembers how unlike other chefs Ryan Hidinger seemed when he applied at Muss & Turner’s that day in 2006. “He was very humble, very quiet, just a Midwest good guy who played basketball and ate chicken wings,” recalls Turner. “He was not the punk rock kind of chef.”

Ryan had neither tattoo nor piercing on his 6’4” frame, showed meticulous knife skills, paid attention to seasonal produce and could take or leave pork belly.

Turner hired him right away. The management-level position paid a typically low foodservice salary but would entitle Ryan to benefits on the restaurant’s group health plan.

Within six months, he was running the kitchen. He oversaw the menu’s shift to the new open-ended format that was changing American dining — more small plates and shareable appetizers, a peaceful coexistence of sandwiches and knife-and-fork entrees, a suggestion that cutting-edge cooking could happen in low-key, comfy places that encouraged guests to relax.

In the kitchen he encouraged calm voices, teamwork and opposing opinions from his staff.

The experience made Ryan rethink Staplehouse; maybe it should be more than a sandwich shop. One day at work he pulled Turner aside to share his idea.

“I want it to be a restaurant but not a big one. Fifty seats, that’s all — a neighborhood place,” he said. “Larger restaurants get so contrived. With a smaller place you can make more personal connections, attract the right kind of people.”

Turner wasn’t buying it. “You’re not going to make any money with a 50-seat restaurant,” he said flatly.

“If I wanted to make money,” Ryan sighed, “I wouldn’t be in the restaurant business.”

In 2009, Ryan and Jen started a supper club called Prelude to Staplehouse. “We knew we wouldn’t be able to open a restaurant that had legs without doing it,” said Jen, who sensed their brand must be built on a foundation, and their literal foundation was their Grant Park bungalow. “It was the only way to gain respect and value” for Ryan as a signature chef.

They figured they could fit 10 people max — four at the kitchen counter, six around the white Ikea dining room table. They offered tickets on a blog and sold four the first week. The diners filed in on Sunday, Ryan’s night off.

As word spread, they began selling out — often within minutes of putting the tickets online. Guests arrived slightly freaked by the transitional neighborhood a few blocks west of Zoo Atlanta. They walked into a tiny living room to the strains of the Pixies from an iPod speaker and a waiting glass of wine. Soon they were sitting down to five-course dinners with dishes such as homemade duck sausage with cornbread and local greens. By the time they left, the guests had moved from polite conversation to an exchange of bear hugs and phone numbers, their bellies full of the Hidinger brand of hospitality. Jen’s gregarious quick wit and eye for setting the stage proved as much of a draw as the food. Reporters and bloggers helped spread the news about not only the supper club, but also the would-be restaurant, Staplehouse.

Did they have a location yet? An opening date? Not yet, the Hidingers said, we’re still working at it.

While Ryan and Jen had no problem raising the capital of community goodwill, banks and investors refused to bite. The rejections came — ceaseless, almost comical, eventually depressing. All they wanted to do was open a little restaurant, and it was proving impossible.

Between the job and the supper club, Ryan worked without taking a break. Colleagues began to notice he seemed stressed out and sullen. Sometimes he went in the back office to sit at the desk with his head down on his arms.

Jen thought he needed a jolt, something that would bring the hopeful Ryan back. On their seventh wedding anniversary in December, she gave him a plane ticket to New York. She couldn’t afford a ticket for herself or the cost of a hotel room, but she could give her husband one whirlwind day in New York stuffing his face. He had never been. Ryan Smith, the chef at Empire State South who was dating Ryan’s sister, Kara Hidinger, decided to join him for some quality bro time.

The day was a gustatory orgy of Moroccan lamb sausages at one stop and spicy rice cakes at the next. They slurped dozens of oysters with absinthe cocktails, feasted on octopus slicked with pork fat, drank shots of Blue Bottle espresso and ordered more rounds of beer than they could count. They only felt queasy in the cabs that shuttled them from restaurant to restaurant, but otherwise they rode through the city on a cloud of limitless appetite.


4
A new purpose
Ryan, who never got sick, stayed home from work the day after the trip. And the next day, too. It seemed like the flu. He went back to work but felt like hell. At night his stomach cramped. Sharp pains. He couldn’t sleep.

The following week he visited his doctor, who recommended an ultrasound. It showed “liver abnormalities.” The doctor scheduled an MRI, magnetic resonance imaging, for a more accurate picture. After the MRI, Hidinger headed back to work, feeling guilty for taking so much time off. But a member of the radiology team intercepted him by phone and asked him to return as soon as possible to a different address on the Emory campus to go over the scan.

Hidinger plugged the address into his iPhone and was stopped cold. The word that lit up on his phone stabbed him like a knife. He called Jen. He could barely talk. “The Winship Cancer Institute,” he cried. “That’s where they want us to go.”

The doctor was blunt, pointing to scattershot white spots and masses. He needed a biopsy to make the official call but felt 99 percent certain they were looking at images of late-stage gall bladder cancer. Metastasis to the liver. A spot on the lung. “This is a bad diagnosis,” the oncologist said. Ryan and Jen wept and held each other.

“Usually patients with this cancer have six, maybe up to 12 months,” the doctor said.

The news made Jen’s head spin and she grasped at thoughts, any thoughts, to anchor herself. A weird one came to her overactive mind: That day’s date was Dec. 21, 2012 — Mayan End Days. She was 30, the good man next to her was 35, and it felt like their end days.

Gall bladder cancer is exceptionally rare, less than 1 percent of all cancers. It typically shows up in Asia, where parasites are believed to trigger it. Environmental issues might also play a role.

Ryan could count on his group health policy at work to pay for treatment, but the co-pays alone might cost more than he and Jen could manage.

That is when the extended Atlanta restaurant community, in breathtaking fashion, swept into play.

The day after New Year’s, dozens of the biggest names in the Atlanta dining community showed up to plan Team Hidi, a fundraiser for the Hidingers. “It was an amazing collaboration,” says Turner. “All these so-called competitors came together to help one of their own.” Among them, chef Anne Quatrano led a small army from Bacchanalia and Floataway Cafe.

Three weeks later nearly 800 people filed into the King Plow Arts Center to eat, drink and offer support. The event raised more than $275,000. The turnout overwhelmed Ryan. “It’s not like I save lives or anything,” he said. “All I do is cook.”

The Hidingers decided to seek treatment at Cancer Treatment Centers of America, a new facility in Newnan. According to CTCA oncologist Brion Randolph, the center focuses on “the genome or the genes of the cancer itself, and figure out what kinds of mutations this person’s tumor might have.”

Ryan slept a lot those first weeks and stayed home as the chemo stripped weight from his body and verve from his soul. More than anything he felt sad, just bone-weary with the ache of it.

He was lying in bed when the sun shone in one day, and with it came a prickly January breeze. Jen had left the back  door open for their dogs, Vida and Camper. It was, he says, a “distinct moment.” The breeze touched his face, and the sadness was gone.

He knew then he needed a purpose.

The night after the Team Hidi event, Turner couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t sleep the next night, either. He got up at 5 a.m. and poured his heart into an email addressed to Ryan. “I can’t stand the thought of you sitting at home with chemo running through your veins,” he wrote.

He spelled out a plea:

“‘All I do is cook’ is what you keep saying and you are right and you need to keep ‘cooking.’ Replace the word cooking, with ‘creating.’ That is what you do Ryan. You take ideas and inspiration and with food you create dishes that bring people joy and deep admiration. You don’t need food to create, BUT you need to keep creating and contributing. STAPLEHOUSE is your ultimate creation that embodies everything important to you and Jen. It is time to start ‘cooking again.’”

In the words that followed, Turner laid out the structure for Staplehouse and the Giving Kitchen — a restaurant where Ryan could release his long-bottled creative spirit. All of its profit would feed into a foundation to help restaurant workers in need. He promised to get his partners behind the financing and management. And at 8:39 a.m., an hour past sunrise, he hit “send.”

February and March were months of forward motion for the Hidingers as they turned Turner’s letter into their Magna Carta. Jen quit her job at a children’s clothing store and assembled a group of friends and colleagues for the board of the Giving Kitchen Initiative. Coxe Curry & Associates, the Atlanta-based consulting firm, helped them fast track 501c3 nonprofit status. The board began granting funds from the Team Hidi event, which raised more than Ryan needed, to various restaurant workers throughout Atlanta.

More than 13 million people, about a tenth of the U.S. labor force, work in restaurants, yet few receive health benefits. A study conducted by the nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Center shows that 88 percent of food service employees polled try to work through injury and illness because they can’t afford the time off.

Ryan Smith and Kara Hidinger, brought closer by these events, decided to marry, and Smith quit his high-profile job cooking at Empire State South to join Hidinger as co-chef at Staplehouse.

Jen and Ryan started a crowd-sourced online donation campaign on Indiegogo to solicit funding for Staplehouse — the for-profit restaurant that would donate all proceeds to the Giving Kitchen. In a month, they collected more than $100,000.

Ryan’s stomach pains subsided and his tumor markers decreased. The treatment appeared to be working. He felt stronger.

Jen kept their lives busy, filled with crowd-sourced love. She gathered 75 friends and relatives for a surprise 36th birthday for Ryan, a bus ride to Buford Highway for banh mi sandwiches eaten in a parking lot under the stars.

The Staplehouse team cooked a feast at the acclaimed Nashville restaurant, City House, raising funds for the Giving Kitchen Initiative. Ryan had never felt such happiness.


5
Looking for answers
In July, Ryan and Jen went to CTCA for a PET Scan. It’s an advanced imaging procedure that uses radioactive isotopes of sugar injected into the bloodstream to create an accurate accounting of the size and density of cancerous tumors.

Ryan’s first PET Scan 12 weeks earlier showed numerous liver tumors, and the Hidingers and their oncology team drew up battle plans to focus treatment on the organ. The second scan six weeks later showed a 90 percent decrease in tumor size — a result so hopeful that the staff snapped a picture of the medical team with the Hidingers lined up in the garden, their fists pumping in victory.

This next PET scan would be pivotal. If the tumors continued to shrink, then Ryan would be able to discontinue Erbitux, a bi-weekly chemo infusion that leaves him sick and listless for two days after treatment.

The center sits just off the highway and looks like a palatial version of a traveler’s hotel — like a Courtyard by Marriott re-imagined as the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Visitors walk past a pond with a gazebo and arrive to a smiling concierge behind a marble counter in the grand foyer. A broad carpeted corridor leads to a fancy gift shop, a cafeteria and doctor’s offices.

In the very back of the corridor lies the large waiting area for imaging. There are sofas, work carrels, a wide choice of coffee pods. Families camp out here.

“You go off to ‘Star Trek.’” says Jen, giving Ryan a peck and settling into an overstuffed armchair with a clamshell of salad from the cafeteria. She cracks open her ever-present binder and her laptop to schedule a meeting about light fixtures for Staplehouse. She nervously rubs her wrist right by her tattoo, the state of Indiana with a tiny heart marking home in Indianapolis. Jen has never gone back to the PET Scan area and doesn’t want to see it.

The imaging tech leads Ryan through a vault-thick door to a reclining chair in one of the five windowless pretreatment rooms.

“I sort of meditate,” says Ryan of the hour he must sit motionless in the dark as the radiation seeps like vapor into his organs to paint its shadowy picture. “That’s part of my mental attack on cancer. I focus on visualization that it’s not in my body anymore.”

Ryan can wear his street clothes but he must hold his arms uncomfortably over his head during the PET scan, as the detector ring passes around his torso, trailing green laser beams. The tech plugs an iPod into a portable device and presses PLAY. “Is this good?” she asks as Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” fills the aural space. “Sure,” says Ryan.

Forty-five minutes later, he is back in the bright waiting area. “Are you radioactive?” Jen asks, slamming shut her laptop. “Can’t hang out with any kids today,” he retorts.

The next day Ryan and Jen return to hear the results. They will either head home to celebrate or stay for a late round of Erbitux.

They stand in the hallway outside Dr. Randolph’s office and make small talk. Jen attempts one of her quick, brilliant smiles but it melts off her face as her eyes widen and well up. She holds her binder in one hand and rubs her forehead with the other. Rubs and rubs it like a spot on a rug. Ryan sneaks an arm around her back, kisses the top of her head. The urge to cry subsides. Thank you, she conveys tacitly, nuzzling her head briefly against her tall husband’s shoulder. The corners of her mouth turn up.

They are escorted to Dr. Randolph’s empty office to wait for a few minutes. Jen, jumpy, gets up to take care of some quick Staplehouse business. Ryan appears calm. Is he?

“I mean, we’ll manage this or we won’t. Something’s going to happen. But I’m not worried about me. It’s her. Your friends and family.”

Jen returns and Dr. Randolph pounds into the room — a life force, loud, cheerful, full of hugs.

“You’re smiling, cut to the chase,” says Ryan. “Is it good news?”

Randolph pauses an instant. “It’s good news still, but not as good as I want it.”

The PET scan suggested that Ryan’s therapy may have plateaued — the chemo has lost its efficacy. Randolph floats the idea of a radiation treatment. Jen listens with a dim, unwavering smile plastered on her face.

“Is this a good thing?” Ryan asks.

“It’s a neutral thing,” answers the oncologist. “Do you have any questions.”

“Do you have a new liver?” Ryan asks.

“I’ll take it between two buns,” Jen jokes.

That night Ryan goes upstairs to the chemo infusion center to receive the Erbitux. He sits in the waiting room to check in and tries to take the news in whatever passes for stride.

He looks up at the wall-mounted TV, broadcasting the Maury Povich show. A woman in a too-tight dress and too-high heels totters to the stage, and Povich incites the crowd.

Catcalls and wolf whistles ensue.

Ryan is quietly crying, his eyes transfixed by the screen, deep with sadness. “I think about how much I and everybody else takes life for granted. This,” he says, staring at the poor woman making a spectacle of herself, “is weird. It’s an alternate reality.” He talks evenly in a shallow voice, not sobbing, yet the tears keep falling, separate from his voice. He is sad for all of us.

“I’m completely comfortable with the whole soul and religion part of it,” he continues. “It’s just that this is such a cool experience. I don’t want to leave it. I’m so lucky and privileged to have the life I’ve had up to this point. We’re lucky to be Americans, to have all this.” The Midwest good guy.


6
Healing power of food
A plateau flattens out, not as far as the eye can see but for a moment of uncertain calm before the elevation changes.

For Ryan, the slope has not been going in the desired direction since that July PET scan. His tumor markers have been rising, a little at first, then faster. The cancer, as Jen writes in one of the letters she routinely sends out to family and friends “is doing what it’s supposed to do — it’s growing.”

Ryan has since discontinued Erbitux in favor of a cocktail of five new chemo drugs. “It is a plan,” he says flatly. “That’s what we need.”

As health permits, there are outings — to a Kentucky bourbon distillery, to North Georgia to run around Burt’s Pumpkin Farm with Ryan’s dad. In her weekly letter, Jen called the farm “Ryan’s favorite place on earth.”

On Sundays, he and Smith like to shop the Grant Park farmers market and then go home to make lunch. The chemo has dulled Ryan’s taste buds; he needs more acid and salt to make food taste right. Since his diagnosis, he has been following a paleo diet and has been scrupulous about eating organic and local produce.

“Food is your first medicine,” he realizes now. “What you eat has everything to do with your personal health.”

Smith — famous for his house-cured meats and sausages at Empire State South — has changed his diet, too, and has shed considerable weight. As Jen says, he’s “juicing like a [expletive].”

The two Ryans spread their shopping haul across the kitchen counter. Smith cuts eggplants next to a jar of pickled ring bologna — an Indiana specialty that Ryan wants to reproduce at Staplehouse. Next to that are Resveratrol tablets, an antioxidant found in grape skins, and Afinitor, an FDA-approved drug for advanced cancers.

Ryan cuts an onion the way chefs cut onions, down and sideways and across, the dice so fine as to be translucent, like onion snow. He sizzles these bits in a heavy pan and adds a drop or two of honey that slicks the bottom with erupting bubbles. A dash of apple cider vinegar hisses and deglazes the pan.

Another chef might draw attention to the French name — gastrique — for this sauce foundation. For Ryan it is a beginning, an invisible step that diners won’t be able to put their fingers on but will make them wonder why his food has so much flavor. He adds slivered rainbow peppers from a local farm and a drop of sweet grape barbecue sauce from a canning jar he put up last year.

Ryan knows that some people — particularly ones who lurk at the bottom of comment sections of online forums — have voiced suspicions about the whole Staplehouse/Giving Kitchen model. Does “nonprofit” mean they’ll be drawing outsized salaries from the funds raised during their Indiegogo campaign?

“I hope people can understand there is no motive here,” Ryan says. “The situation sucked so bad, we wanted it to be something good. This is not my retirement job. This is about being sure people are taken care of.”

ooo

In the garden behind Staplehouse a creeping fig climbs a pitted concrete wall, its vine laden with bell-shaped green fruit.

“You can’t eat these,” says Ryan, breaking one open to reveal spongy, juiceless flesh. “But it’s got this great tropical smell — lychee, coconutty. I’m thinking it would make a great infusion for a cocktail.” He wants to preserve this essence, have it ready for the restaurant’s anticipated February opening.

For Ryan, cooking locally means that he finds potential everywhere, growing all around him.

And cooking seasonally? It means thinking ahead. Ryan knows the seasons will pass, one after the next. As a chef he captures the flavor — the joy — of now.


HOW WE GOT THE STORY
News of Ryan Hidinger’s cancer diagnosis spread quickly through the Atlanta dining pipeline last December. When I heard about the Team Hidi fundraiser in January, I thought a column might help move some tickets and requested an interview. I got a very nice letter back from his wife, Jen, saying they needed time to process everything, but that I should keep trying. I did and we eventually met. Ryan and Jen are among the most guileless people I’ve ever met. Not only did they agree to give me access to their home, feelings, friends and family, they invited me to witness a medical procedure that proved to be both the emotional and narrative crux of the story. At that point I realized I had much more than a column to write. I had the honor of telling their story.

John Kessler
Food writer
Personaljourneys@ajc.com


About the reporter

John Kessler joined the AJC in 1997 as the chief dining critic. A former chef, he now oversees the paper’s dining coverage in print and online. He has earned a James Beard Award and has been included nine times in the “Best Food Writing” anthology, most recently for his previous Personal Journey on cattleman Will Harris.


About the photographers

Bob Andres joined the AJC in 1998. Born in San Francisco, he has held photography and photo editing positions in California, Florida and Georgia. A journalism graduate of San Francisco State University, Andres has also worked as the AJC’s metro photo editor, Sports photo editor and has taught photojournalism at UGA and Cal State Hayward.


Next week: The Pied Piper of the Atlanta Beltline shapes the culture of Atlanta one parade at a time.


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