The North Fork lost a shining star in its constellation today when acclaimed and beloved chef Gerry Hayden, founder of the North Fork Table & Inn, died at the age of 50.
Staff at the eatery confirmed this afternoon that Hayden passed this morning, after battling ALS since 2010. He and his wife, Claudia Fleming, have long been culinary luminaries on the North Fork, helping to shape its future as a destination for fine dining and locally sourced fare.
“He was a wonderful chef and man,” said one staffer. “And now he’s watching over us, and the restaurant, always.”
Chef Keith Luce, who helmed a number of North Fork eateries, reflected on the loss. “My heart goes out to Claudia, first and foremost. My well wishes are with the entire North Fork Table & Inn team. Gerry was a great person and a person I cared for deeply. The work he has done during his entire career speaks for itself. The pioneering efforts that Gerry, Claudia along with Mike and Mary changed the dining landscape of the North Fork for the better — forever. I’m so deeply sorry. The world has lost a special person.”
Hayden, diagnosed with ALS in 2010, created A Love Shared, a not-for-profit organization aimed at raising awareness and funds for research.
Last year, on the North Fork, everyone from Noah’s chef Noah Schwartz in Greenport to staffers at Love Lane Kitchen, and an enthusiastic sea of friends, colleagues and supporters, took the Ice Bucket Challenge for Hayden.
Nicole Webb, general manger of Love Lane Kitchen, said today that Hayden’s passing is a “huge loss to the entire restaurant community, to the whole North Fork. He was just amazing. He’d come to every event he could. He worked in his kitchen until he just couldn’t anymore. The North Fork Table is really his legacy.”
ALS, she said, is an “awful disease.”
The award-winning chef was faced with a heart-rending reality when he lost the use of his hands and was no longer able to work in the kitchen; he was also confined to a wheelchair and used a machine to breathe.
Hayden, however, refused to give in to despair. In fact, Hayden challenged his wife, as well as celebrities Pearl Jam, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, to take the challenge — and took the Ice Bucket Challenge himself.
“The Ice Bucket Challenges have been the best thing to happen to ALS awareness since Lou Gehrig’s speech,” he told SoutholdLOCAL last year.
But behind the social media whirlwind of people from all walks of life laughing as they braved the ice-soaked challenge, the reality of living with ALS was heartbreaking, Hayden said in an interview last year.
“Day to day life is very difficult,” Hayden said. “Things I can no longer do by myself include brushing my teeth, taking a shower, going to the bathroom, dressing, eating, drinking, walking or breathing.”
Asked in 2014 how he felt about a disease that had stolen so much, Hayden was candid. “Frustrated. Sad. Angry. Helpless,” he said. “But I don’t like feeling sorry for myself.”
And, with Lou Gehrig not even a household name today, the Ice Bucket Challenge shone a much needed spotlight on a disease he described as “cruel”.
Currently, the ALS stated in a release, there is only one drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat ALS, and it only extends survival by two to three months. ALS is 100 percent fatal. In addition to losing control of voluntary muscle movement, people with the disease progressively lose their ability to eat, speak, walk, and, eventually, breathe.
Meanwhile, despite the ravages of ALS, Hayden remained, until his last days, a beacon of hope, infused with the indomitable spirit that made him a hero among the scores who’ve worked to raise awareness in his name.
Even during his last days, Hayden kept in touch with friends and colleagues on this Facebook page, posting photos of his beloved pup and sharing humor, stories, and memories.
In his last interview with SoutholdLOCAL, Hayden described a dream that he believed was a precursor to the amazing outpouring of support for ALS he witnessed.
“I had a dream last night about a friend,” he wrote on Facebook. “I was walking through a grand park; all the streets were luminous. As I came into the most beautiful part of the park the lights started to dim, with every step I took the beauty was taken away from me as the lights went lower and the park became black. In a flash before my eyes a wire had broken away from a light and started spitting sparks and flashes of light. I was still stopped by the darkness that surrounded me, helpless but struggling to get close to this light to help me find my way. The wild wire is a metaphor. It represents the life that is still within me and the life that I so enjoy with this world.”