17th in a Series
Story by Elizabeth Granger
‘Real food from real people,’ says the chef – who just happens to be a Tom Hanks look-alike. Watch for that smile.
Ian Harrison insists he always wanted to be a chef. Always.
Even though, as a kid, he wasn’t all that keen about eating.
But this finicky eater loved looking at cookbooks. “My mother had all these Time-Life cookbooks that took you all over the world,” he says. “As a kid I would leaf through those; it’s like traveling in your mind. Food is a great conduit for history and for culture. It’s much more than food; it brings people together.”
And there was that wok, “a great old iron wok,” which really caught his attention. “I think that’s how she got me to eat vegetables,” he says. Soon he was cooking with that wok. When he was a senior in high school, he went to work as a stage at Fletcher’s American Grille & Café in Indianapolis. For free, “to learn about the business to see if I liked it or not.” It was a practice more common in Europe than in the United States.
Schooling at IUPUI followed, in restaurant and hospitality management. He knew by then that he definitely wanted to be in the restaurant business. That took him to Benvenuti in Indianapolis where, “after much badgering, they hired me.” In all, he was there about 10 years.
While there, Harrison took a sabbatical and went to Florence, Italy, where he worked in what he called one of the best restaurants in the country. He studied under two French pastry chefs; his primary job was to create closers, those small pastries that diners would get at the end of the meal. “I’d make hundreds and hundreds of these,” he says. But he also rotated through all the stations to learn the entire business, and he traveled where he “tried to eat a lot of Italian specialties.”
He returned to Benvenuti, ultimately working as its executive chef.
But, he says, almost every chef’s dream is to have their own restaurant. In January 1999 he opened Carnegie’s in Greenfield.
His girlfriend had seen a little handwritten sign on a building in downtown Greenfield. She said it would be the perfect place for him.
“I wanted something historic and something grand,” Harrison says. “You don’t get the opportunity to buy a Carnegie library very often.”
And at the Carnegie, diners find “real food from real people.”
Vegetables and herbs from Harrison’s gardens, eggs from his chickens. “We were farm to table before people even said ‘farm to table,’” says Jody Thomson, that girlfriend who spied that “for sale” sign. “He’s an agrarian at heart.”
There’s an outdoor brick oven, where the restaurant’s breads are baked every day. Brigette Jones with Hancock County Tourism says, “He tortures me with the delicious smells that waft across the street.”
The dining room is downstairs; there’s a banquet facility upstairs in what was the main library area. There’s also outdoor dining in both front and back.
People come for Harrison’s cream of roasted red bell peppers soup, beef tenderloin medallions, and crème brulee.
“Crème brulee is a pretty common dessert,” Harrison says, “but we’ve had people come from all over the world and say that it’s the best ever. We’ve had people cry when we’ve run out. Literally cry.”
It’s still being served, even after a waitress’s hair caught fire one night. “I paid for a new haircut,” Harrison admits.
But truth be told, there may be more than just a few who return to see the chef, who’s a Tom Hanks look-alike. Watch for the smile.