Chef Ryan Hidinger loses battle with cancer

Ryan Hidinger, the young chef whose battle with metastatic cancer inspired the Atlanta hospitality industry to provide better care for its own, has died after a year-long fight with the disease. The cause was liver failure. He was 36.

When Hidinger was diagnosed with stage 4 gallbladder cancer just before Christmas 2012, he was working as the chef at Muss & Turner’s in Smyrna, running a weekend supper club with his wife Jennifer from their home and trying to raise financing to open a restaurant. He was told by oncologists he would only have six months to live. Rather than give in to the disease, the Hidingers sought the most aggressive treatment available, forged ahead with their plans to open their restaurant, Staplehouse, and — despite their lack of funds — helped found a philanthropic foundation, The Giving Kitchen Initiative, to provide financial assistance to ailing restaurant workers.

As his health failed, Hidinger, who was featured in Personal Journeys in October, continued to cook, lecture and headline at fundraising events. At his last public appearance in November, he took center court at Philips Arena during a Hawks game to accept a “Be Greater” award, recognizing his contributions to the Atlanta community. After the award, he ate his favorite chicken wings and drank a beer in a skybox with family members and colleagues from Muss & Turner’s, who had become his family in Atlanta.

The Zionsville, Ind., native first came to Atlanta to attend culinary school at the Art Institute of Atlanta. After graduating in 1999 he decided to return to the Midwest, feeling that it was too hard to break into the dining scene here unless he went to work for a big restaurant company. “I felt kind of defeated by the city,” he said in July. “I remember seeing the skyline in my rearview mirror as I drove up I-75/85 on way home and thinking, ‘I’ll get you.’”

After Ryan and Jennifer married in 2004, they drove across the country and back, and found themselves in Atlanta with no gas or money, but a place to stay. Hidinger landed a job as a line cook at Bacchanalia, the city’s most prestigious restaurant, and excelled at it. But he later found more of a family at Muss & Turner’s, as well as an understanding boss in Ryan Turner, who let him use the restaurant’s commercial kitchen to prepare food for his supper club.

When Hidinger started working at Muss & Turner’s, it was a well regarded deli that was starting to flirt with full-service dining. Under Hidinger’s leadership, it became a destination for creative comfort food prepared with fine-dining precision. Turner praised Hidinger, citing his leadership for helping the restaurant thrive during the recession.

After working 60 hours or more each week, Hidinger joined Jennifer to entertain 10 paying guests in their home every Sunday at the supper club they called Prelude to Staplehouse. Tickets to these prix fixe dinners sold out within minutes — sometimes seconds — online. Despite the warm embrace of the dining public, lenders were not forthcoming when the Hidingers tried to the turn the supper club into a bricks-and-mortar restaurant.

After the cancer diagnosis, Turner helped the Hidingers brainstorm a plan to turn the dream of Staplehouse into a reality. It would serve as the calling card for the Giving Kitchen Initiative. All of the restaurant’s profits would flow into the nonprofit entity, which would then provide assistance to restaurant and hospitality workers facing catastrophic illness. Traditionally, restaurant workers are among the most under-insured employees in the country and the most likely to suffer from lost wages.

Thanks to help from the nonprofit consultancy Coxe Curry and the restaurant architecture and design firm Square Feet Studio, among other benefactors, The Giving Kitchen Initiative and Staplehouse have come further, faster than anyone could have predicted. There is now a building in the Old Fourth Ward and a star chef in Ryan Smith, who is engaged to Hidinger’s sister, Kara. Several cancer and accident victims have already received support from the organization. Staplehouse is on track for a spring opening.

The Hidingers spent the year sharing their exhilarations and heartbreaks with as much openness as they shared their home. Jennifer’s email updates kept a growing circle of friends and fans in the loop as Hidinger attempted different regimens of chemotherapy, traveled to visit family, celebrated birthdays in high style and then accepted the end game with grace.

In the end, Hidinger did get Atlanta. Funding for Staplehouse was provided largely by a consortium of the biggest restaurant groups in the city. They came to see what Hidinger did, that good restaurants are all about good people.

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