Following a terminal cancer diagnosis, beloved Atlanta-based chef Ryan Hidinger and his wife, Jen, had a vision to help food service workers in need. A decade later, Ryan’s legacy lives on through Giving Kitchen, a food service community where crisis is met with compassion and care.
Tragedy changes a person in unimaginable ways. So swiftly one must make a choice: accept support or try to go it alone. Jen Hidinger-Kendrick knows first-hand the challenge of accepting help, even in the face of the unthinkable. In December 2012, her late husband, Ryan Hidinger, a well-known chef and rising restaurateur in Atlanta, received a cancer prognosis that turned their world upside down.
“Ryan and I were absolutely in the arsenal of people who thought we didn’t need help,” says Jen. “And this is talking about somebody who was just told by an oncologist that he had six months to live. We said ‘we’ll figure it out.’ But the fact is, people need people. The world is filled with billions of people for a reason. We’re here to help one another.”
In the years prior to Ryan’s diagnosis, the Hidingers had been working tirelessly to open their dream restaurant. After hearing the devastating news, the Atlanta restaurant community rallied around the Hidingers, a groundswell of love and support that carried the young couple through the hardest of times. Ryan had the foresight to clearly communicate exactly how he wanted to return the love and compassion that Jen believes added months to his life.
What they did next has become Ryan’s legacy and Jen’s life’s work. In 2013, the Hidingers and a group of those close to them co-founded Giving Kitchen. They formed a board that included nonprofit consultants, business people from the Atlanta area and local restaurant owners, all of whom shared the vision of supporting food service workers.
“Ryan knew back then that at the core of how we celebrate or how we mourn or how we enjoy life every single day is through food and beverage. And so in order to really fulfill the mission of Giving Kitchen, we have to take care of those who serve us,” says Jen, noting that the needs of food service workers across the country are on the rise.
Paying it Forward
Today, Giving Kitchen is a nonprofit organization that provides emergency assistance to food service workers through financial support and a network of community resources. Their goal is to create a food service community in which crises are met with compassion and care. To date, more than 11,000 food service workers have benefited from Giving Kitchen’s Financial Assistance and Stability Network programs during times of unanticipated crisis. Giving Kitchen also serves food service workers through annual initiatives like Mind Matters, which focuses on mental health and emotional well-being.
Jen, who serves as co-founder and senior director of community engagement for Giving Kitchen, says those who work in the food service industry are some of the most generous people she’s met. “They don’t always have a lot to give themselves but they support their own. Giving Kitchen embraces that sentiment on a much broader scale. We want to do right by our community. We are talking about an industry that is leading in suicide ideation and substance misuse. Half of us have probably worked in this industry in one form or another in our lifetime, and we know that 1-2% of food service workers are in crisis at any given time. Statistics tell us food service workers are one crisis away from facing eviction or inability to pay their bills. This leads us to do the work we’re doing every single day.”
During the pandemic, Giving Kitchen got crystal clear about their mission and the parameters around what qualifies food service workers for assistance programs. For those in need of assistance outside of Giving Kitchen’s parameters, the organization connects them to community resources and social services.
Those who need support are not turned away, nor is language a barrier. Giving Kitchen’s website is available in English and Spanish to ensure Spanish-speaking food service workers can easily navigate resources. They also have a call center interpretation service for 180 different languages.
After a year-long battle with late-stage gallbladder cancer, Ryan Hidinger, affectionately known as “Hidi” to those who knew and loved him, passed away on January 9, 2014. He was 36.
“I’m often reminded of some of the statements Ryan made when he was still alive. I think back to 2013 when we were sitting around my living room with several of our founding board members and the one directive I remember hearing from Ryan that day was that he wanted Giving Kitchen to be for everyone, far beyond the people that looked like him or the type of fine dining chef that he was. Giving Kitchen needed to be for the majority of American food service workers – from full-service restaurants, quick-service to catering, concessions, food trucks, bars and taproom workers.”
During his career, Ryan built a strong reputation in the Atlanta restaurant community for his work at Star Provisions’ Bacchanalia and Floataway Cafe, and Muss & Turner’s. In the final months of his life, Ryan continued to cook, host lectures and show up in a big way for the community that showed up for him. Jen, who has since remarried and become a mom to a precious little boy, says her late husband would be blown away by the many lives Giving Kitchen has positively impacted in the decade since its inception.
Giving Kitchen is on the path to becoming a national nonprofit – and they’re headed in the right direction. Today, Giving Kitchen can help any food service worker in the country who qualifies for assistance, and has teams on the ground in the Southeast, including Atlanta, Charlotte and Nashville. Not only has the organization seen tremendous growth under Executive Director Bryan Schroeder, Giving Kitchen has also received several notable awards and recognitions, including the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year Award (2019) and Fast Company’s Brands that Matter 2022. Giving Kitchen announced in November that Jen is the recipient of the 2022 Claes Nobel World Betterment Award, established in honor of the great nephew of Alfred Nobel to recognize those making exceptional contributions to global unity and cultural understanding in their own area of influence.
Today, Jen’s life and Ryan’s legacy are profound reminders of the importance of gratitude, compassion, community and living a life in service of others.
“Stories I hear from those who are both giving to and benefiting from Giving Kitchen’s mission continue to inspire me every day,” she says. “As Ryan and I learned – and as I want everyone to know – it’s okay to not be okay. I want us to destigmatize and eliminate the fear of asking for help. I want people to know that Giving Kitchen is a voice of compassion and acceptance.”
Please visit Giving Kitchen to learn more about Ryan’s legacy and ways you can give to food service workers in need by supporting this mission.
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