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City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
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City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
City & State or ZIP

Ryan Hidinger passes

Jennifer and Ryan Hidinger, photographed in August. Bob Andres, AJC Staff

Jennifer and Ryan Hidinger, photographed in August. Bob Andres, AJC Staff

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

When Hidinger was diagnosed with Stage 4 gall bladder cancer just before Christmas in 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 total lack of funds — helped found a philanthropic foundation, The Giving Kitchen Initiative, to provide financial assistance to ailing restaurant workers.

As his health failed, Ryan, who was featured in AJC 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, Indiana, 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. Ryan 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.

In a letter to his staff shortly before Hidinger’s death, Turner praised him and his leadership for helping the restaurant to thrive during the recession. Hidinger “kept his head down, cooked great food, led by example, never complained, whined, moaned or any of the stuff many of us get caught in when times are busy or tough,” Turner wrote.

After working 60 hours plus 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 non-profit entity, which would then offer assistance to restaurant and hospitality workers facing catastrophic illness. Traditionally, restaurant workers are among the most underinsured employees in the country and the most likely to suffer from lost wages.

Thanks to help from the non-profit 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 regular emails kept a growing circle of friends and fans in the loop as Ryan 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.

– by John Kessler for the Food & More blog

49 comments Add your comment

Ned Ludd

January 9th, 2014
1:17 pm

Thanks John—Heaven is a better place now. Thoughts and prayers to his family.

Ellen Peacock

January 9th, 2014
1:32 pm

such a heartbreaking, yet inspiring story about love and the power of community. RIP Ryan

betterplace

January 9th, 2014
1:42 pm

I hope this city continues to embrace Staplehouse and the Giving Kitchen.

Rest in Peace, Ryan – you’ve made this world a better place

Bulldawg95

January 9th, 2014
1:48 pm

R.I.P. Ryan.

Sari Hood

January 9th, 2014
1:58 pm

I read the earlier story on the beginings of Staplehouse and these terrific folks…….I’m so sorry for the loss of this lovely person. Much too young…….

Addy

January 9th, 2014
2:03 pm

RIP Ryan. What a wonderful person and story to learn of.

Mike Stock

January 9th, 2014
2:15 pm

thanks John, a good report to a sad ending. R.I.P. Ryan..

dawg53

January 9th, 2014
2:15 pm

RIP Ryan. “only the goo die young”……and he WAS a “good young one”

what a gift

January 9th, 2014
2:27 pm

John, this tribute to Ryan was so beautifully written….thank you for sharing his story with us. Prayers for his young wife who shared his zest for life and helping others.

christos

January 9th, 2014
2:30 pm

bravo for a fight fought well…we will miss your valor, courage and heart…jennifer, the baton has been passed to you…finish the race…no pressure…

Kelli

January 9th, 2014
2:36 pm

I am sorry for this young man’s untimely death. He sure did a lot in a short period of time. I wish his wife and her sister the best with the new restaurant and I will try it out in the spring. I only wish I had been able to attend the supper club he and his wife created.

FoodPlease

January 9th, 2014
2:50 pm

Heartbroken to hear of his passing. May his legacy through Staplehouse and The Giving Kitchen Initiative soar forward as his spirit has. Love and light to Jennifer and their family and friends.

Joe's Right

January 9th, 2014
2:55 pm

No no no no. Extremely sad over this. Dammnit, first Ria now Ryan. Much love to Jennifer and I can’t wait to be at Staplehouse on opening nght.

kelly

January 9th, 2014
2:59 pm

sending prayers and strength to his friends and family. Ryan showed Atlanta strength and determination when faced with a horrible diagnosis. Jennifer your Grant Park neighbors send our love

Randy D. Adler

January 9th, 2014
3:02 pm

How to lead by example…I am inspired and at the same time saddened. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends. What a fantastic legacy he has left the city of Atlanta.

OTP with ITP Appetite

January 9th, 2014
3:13 pm

So sad. I am truly filled with sorrow at his passing. His story and what he brought to Atlanta will live on.

Parker's Pickles

January 9th, 2014
3:29 pm

My prayers are with Jennifer and the entire Hidinger family. I had the pleasure of being around Ryan and Jen at several fundraising events for TGK/Team Hidi in the last year. The Team Hidi event staged last year by Chris Hall, Ryan Turner and others was the single most moving fundraiser I’ve ever attended. Rest in peace Ryan. You will always be remembered.

Catherine

January 9th, 2014
3:31 pm

So incredibly sad to hear of Ryan’s passing. Thoughts and prayers to all of his friends and family.

ziza

January 9th, 2014
3:32 pm

thank you for such a lovely reporting John. I will be at Staplehouse. prayers and condolence’s to this brave and wonderful man’s family and friends. kudos to those who stepped in to help and support.

Linda

January 9th, 2014
3:34 pm

I have been a fan of that young couple since I first read of his cancer diagnosis. They were so open and courageous. God bless them both.

Brace4impactz

January 9th, 2014
3:44 pm

This is the first time I’ve ever heard of Ryan. Thank you for sharing his (and Jennifer’s) story. May he rest in peace, may Jennifer find comfort in the prayers and love offered by friends and strangers.

Hayley

January 9th, 2014
4:02 pm

I am sadened to hear this news. When I initially heard of the project I knew that I wanted to support this amazing couple. Thank you for leading by example. Sending love and light your way…

Dick Denny

January 9th, 2014
4:57 pm

Thanks, John, for a beautiful tribute. We’ll have one as well in the High Museum Atlanta Wine Auction catalog. Ryan was in inspiration to everyone who knew him, even before he became ill and even more so after. Rest in peace big fellow, and I’ll remember to cook the shrimp with the heads on. Cheers.

Pete

January 9th, 2014
4:59 pm

He was an inspiration to so many people!

Sue

January 9th, 2014
5:25 pm

Ate at M & T the other night for daughter’s birthday. Became part of Team Hidi in the beginning and supported them as much as possible. Prayers for Jennifer and his family.

podge

January 9th, 2014
5:40 pm

loved working with you and admire your passion for food,

Chef Nicolas Bour

January 9th, 2014
5:49 pm

An inspiration to all of us. RIP Ryan, your spirit will live on in those you inspired with your tenacity. :(

Tim Velleca

January 9th, 2014
5:53 pm

Restaurants are 100% about people. It is the hardest challenge of the business. Some of us are service oriented and some are not. I didn’t know Ryan but he sounds like an inspiration for all of us who enjoy making people happy. So sorry to hear we lost him. That is a difficult loss and I am terribly sorry!

Karie Brown

January 9th, 2014
6:12 pm

What a wonderfully written article about such a dedicated member of our culinary community. Thanks for writing such a thoughful article. My heart pours out to his wife, family, and friends. Rest in peace Chef.

PJ

January 9th, 2014
6:31 pm

Ryan was a great guy that I had the pleasure of working with at a couple of wonderful restaurants in Indianapolis. I’m so sorry for his wonderful wife and family. RIP buddy.

southern hope

January 9th, 2014
6:44 pm

Wow, that is incredibly sad….what a wonderful person he was…to have such an impact.

Melinda

January 9th, 2014
7:33 pm

Holding all his loving family in my thoughts.

SteveC

January 9th, 2014
7:44 pm

thank you, John, for this story. Holding Ryan’s memory and Jennifer, family and friends in the Light.

nobody

January 9th, 2014
7:47 pm

I met Ryan and Jen during the Prelude to Staplehouse days, and was devastated to hear of Ryan’s illness last year. I always hoped for the best even though I knew the odds weren’t on his side. Jen’s blog post from a few days ago broke the news to Team Hidi that the end of the battle was near. He was a great guy, and I wish I could have written this more eloquently to better honor his memory. I’ll miss you, Chef.

Charlotte

January 9th, 2014
7:49 pm

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Charlotte

January 9th, 2014
7:51 pm

Thank you for a beautiful article about an inspiring couple and all those who have contributed to the restaurant and hospitality community.

Allison

January 9th, 2014
8:30 pm

I was saddened to hear of Ryans passing, my thoughts are with his family.

Kacie

January 9th, 2014
9:30 pm

RIP Ryan this world is a better place because of you. Jen, you have been and will continue to be in my thoughts.

Megan Gladden

January 9th, 2014
9:49 pm

We are saddened to hear this Jen. What a lovely tribute to Ryan. Our family has been and will continue to have you in our thoughts and prayers. Tom, Megan, Maddie & boys

Lauren

January 10th, 2014
8:19 am

Wonderfully and thoughtfully written. I was fortunate enough to have eaten at Prelude to Staplehouse 3 times. There were 6 seats at a table and 4 seats at the breakfast bar. Some may have felt the bar seats weren’t preferred, but they were the best seats in the house because you could enjoy watching Ryan cook just as described by R.Turner in this article. Ryan welcomed questions and chit chat, and he would engage with you in all of your curiosities even while intensely focused on preparing an amazing meal. He’s left a meaningful dent in my life. xo’s for Jen. Two beautiful people.

Elaine

January 10th, 2014
9:26 am

Ryan and Jen were the picture of love. They blossomed that love to family, friends, community and inspired by their devotion for others rallied and met a really important need for the the culinary community. It is with admiration for the Hidinger’s that I think about their lives well lived together. They have touched all of us and the sadness in our hearts is profound. To Jen , we give love and support and know that she will be a torch for their dreams. From the team, our best always.

Kristin Norris

January 10th, 2014
10:27 am

Thank you for such a wonderful article. My heart is saddened by this news. Thoughts go out to my dear friend Kara and the rest of the Hidinger family.

Patrick Reid

January 10th, 2014
10:46 am

Didn’t know the man but sounded like a great person and inspiration. Thoughts and prayers go out to his wife and family.RIP.

Nancy

January 10th, 2014
11:42 am

More evidence that only the good die young…so inspirational, so sad, May happy memories sustain the family.

athena

January 10th, 2014
5:28 pm

What a beautiful Person ! Thank YO U Ryan for sharing Your love for Life and giving. May the LOVE and beauty you shared … Hold us ALL to a more loving and HIGHER standard . Thank You <3 Till we meet again..

marsha

January 10th, 2014
8:07 pm

Any sudden loss is heartbreaking. Cancer is an unforgiving affliction. With all the wrongs in the world today, it is uplifting that good is recognized. Enjoi’ the journey beyond this earth, free of pain Ryan, to your reward. Condolences to the family.

Betsy

January 11th, 2014
10:57 pm

Another Angel is watching over those who feed others when they can’t feed themselves.Blessings to you Jennifer-I am so sorry for your loss!

Donna

January 14th, 2014
6:23 pm

I enjoyed reading the beautiful and moving article about Ryan. As a native Atlantan, I am so grateful that Ryan and Jen came back and built such a lasting and powerful legacy for the city. In the end, what matters more than community and good people coming together? As the nation finally tries to tackle issues of income inequality, the uninsured, etc., Staplehouse and The Giving Kitchen can serve as a model. I am thankful.

[...] In loving memory of Ryan Hidinger August 14 1977 – January 9 2014 [...]