Jason Hedin has traveled the world and cooked with celebrity chefs like Laurent Gras at Chicago’s L20 and in Australia with Dan Hunter. Now, as the pandemic forced him from his kitchen at River North’s Joy District, Hedin readies to embark on an unusual new undertaking. He’s the opening chef at Council Oak Steaks and Seafood, the 100-seat restaurant that opens on Thursday, May 14 with the rest of Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana in Gary.
A casino doesn’t exactly follow the description painted by health experts of a pandemic-friendly environment where outdoor dining and social distancing have been stressed. But Hedin says he’s comfortable with the casino’s HEPA filters and a state-of-the art filtration system. Gary’s pandemic capacity rules mirror Chicago’s at a 50 percent limit per room.
Hedin says his casino looks different compared to smoky and dingy rooms the general public may expect. They’ve got windows at the restaurant and the coffee shop also will have outdoor seating. Hedin, perhaps drinking the company Kool-Aid, says Hard Rock wants to shatter expectations.
“I can turn around in my open kitchen and look outside,” Hedin says.
Council Oaks is one of five restaurants inside the $300 million casino. Beyond the steakhouse, Hedin is also in charge of Plum Lounge, an invite-only club for high rollers. There’s also YOUYU Noodle Bar serving Asian street food; Fresh Harvest, a Jack-of-all trades serving soups, pizza, rotisseries meats, and dim sum; and then there’s the standard Hard Rock Cafe. The overall operation includes eight kitchens, and 140 chefs, sous chefs, cooks, and stewards.
One of Council Oak’s gimmicks will be allowing customers to peer through a window to ogle a refrigerated room of meat so they could pick which chop they want prepared. Indiana is home to 13 casinos with a handful in Gary, Indiana, a half an hour southeast of Chicago by car. Casino diners are different compared to the customers Hedin is used to in Chicago. The chef jokes that he’ll have to send out a few more well-done steaks than usual. While Hard Rock has some items that are mandatory, Hedin says he has control of about half the menu.
Hedin is serious about the meat, which is sourced from Purely Meat Co., the same vendor that supplies steaks to prized-steakhouse Gibsons. They’ll dry age the meat at the restaurant. The deployment of Himalayan salt is similar to how the now-shuttered David Burke’s Primehouse aged its steaks in River North. They’ll eventually add imported beef from Japan, Hedin says, adding that he wants to use his fine dining prowess.
“Chicago is the land of steakhouses and all the steakhouses sort of get muddied,” Hedin says. “We’re really trying for our steakhouse to stand apart.”
The company reached out to Hedin last year while he was on furlough from 8Hospitality, the company behind Joy District and Hubbard Inn in River North. Initially, Hedin says he enjoyed this time away from restaurants but as the pandemic dragged on: “That got old pretty fast.”
The restaurant industry continues to face a labor dilemma with management struggling to lure workers who have concerns about low wages, a lack of healthcare benefits, and toxic environments. Hard Rock’s corporate structure has provided a shelter for Hedin. They can better afford to pay for healthcare insurance compared to many independent restaurants. Hard Rock convinced Hedin that the company was “on an uphill trajectory compared to the rest of the industry.” They showed him a willingness to invest billions in the company over the new decade, Hedin says. There’s also internal opportunities to travel and work with counter parts outside of the Midwest. For example, Hard Rock is planning a casino in downstate Rockford.
How the Gary casino fares is worth watching from in Chicago as Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the city continues the path toward opening their own casino. The job market is competitive in Chicago with workers demanding more from employers including for more details including a set job description and responsibilities. Many also request salary information, something that Hard Rock hasn’t disclosed on its job ads as the casino continues its search for key personnel days before the opening.
Hard Rock is a name familiar to Chicagoans. The chain’s restaurant opened in 1986 in River North and the city had also had a branded hotel that’s since been renamed. The company has seen consumer demand even during the pandemic, Hedin says. A colleague working at Hard Rock’s Atlantic City, New Jersey venue says their restaurants can see 600 to 700 covers daily. Though high-volume spaces can scare many in the age of COVID-19, they provide Hedin with optimism.
“Covers on Friday are higher than ever,” Hedin says of Atlantic City. “People are ready to go out, ready to eat out again.”
Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana, 5400 W. 29th Avenue, Gary, Indiana; planned for a Thursday opening.