Dieter Puska has spent all of his 65 years around food. As a boy growing up in Austria, he worked in his parents' grocery store, and he came into his own as a chef while working at several European restaurants.
Lured to America in 1967 by brothers who owned restaurants in Cincinnati and Indianapolis, Puska has spent the past 32 years--nearly
half his life--as owner and chef of the elegant Glass Chimney restaurant in Carmel.
So it was a bittersweet moment when he told his employees this month that he is hanging up his chef's coat and giving up his 70-hour workweeks to retire.
The restaurant will prepare its last meal April 26.
"My heart's still in it, but my body doesn't want to do it anymore," Puska said, visibly emotional to be closing and saying goodbye to customers and his two dozen employees. Some of the employees have been around as long as the restaurant. Many of his customers are grown children of his earliest patrons and now bring their own children.
"I know so many of the customers," Puska said. "They're friends. But you've got to make the call sometime."
Restaurant industry veterans know The Glass Chimney for its white-linen tablecloths, servers in formal attire, and distinctive European cuisine. A couple might begin dinner with oysters Rockefeller, share chateaubriand bouquetiere, and finish with raspberries romanoff. Including a selection from the restaurant's wine cellar, dinner easily could reach $150.
"It'll be a sad day in the restaurant business when it closes. The area is losing a tradition," said Tony Hanslits, director of culinary education at The Chef's Academy, part of Indiana Business College.
"Lasting 32 minutes for some restaurants is something, so it's a testimony to Dieter's culinary skill that it's been around 32 years," said Hanslits, chef and co-owner of several Indianapolis restaurants before joining the culinary school in 2006.
Hanslits said The Glass Chimney's customers were willing to pay up for what they considered an exceptional meal.
"They're not going there for the restaurant's name. They're going there for Dieter," said Hanslits, who calls Puska a mentor. "Money wasn't an issue for diners. They knew the meal would be worth it. That's big to be able to trust your chef."
In addition to Glass Chimney, Puska is closing Deeter's, his more casual restaurant next door. (He used the wrong spelling for the restaurant's name to avoid the risk diners would read it as "Diet-ers".) Four years ago, when he began having health problems, he closed a third restaurant, Deeters & Gabes, at West 86th Street and Ditch Road.
Puska said his decision to leave the restaurant business now has nothing to do with the softening economy. He acknowledged, however, that fewer people eat out when times are tough.
"It's a rough business," he said. "Nobody needs me. I'm a luxury item."
High-end restaurants actually are outperforming casual eateries, though the entire industry is susceptible to economic pressures, said Steve Delaney, a principal with locally based Sitehawk Retail Real Estate who specializes in the industry.
Still, The Glass Chimney has had to deal with more competition lately as upscale restaurants opened in Carmel's Clay Terrace and in Westfield, Delaney said. Bistro de Paris, a high-end French restaurant, is set to open in the new Carmel arts district by Valentine's Day.
The closing is a sign of the times in the local restaurant community, said Patti Denton, co-host of "Too Many Cooks!," a radio show on WICR-FM 88.7.
"Fine dining places are more of a special-occasion type of place," said Denton, former food editor for The Indianapolis Star. It can be a tough niche, she said, since consumers have so many less-expensive options they can choose.
But Puska said it wasn't competitive pressures that drove him to close.
"I've been thinking about this for a long time," he said. Working 12-hour days takes a toll on the body, even when it's something a person loves doing, he said.
Married, with four grown children, Puska said he'll spend time fishing and reading. He might travel to New Zealand, where a daughter delivered his fourth granddaughter this month.
Puska gave his staff four months' notice to help ease their transitions to other jobs.
He said he'd consider selling his Old Meridian Street building to another restaurateur. The structure, built as a house in the 1930s, has had two additions over the years. But industry experts doubt any buyer would attempt to carry on Puska's creation.
So when the restaurant closes, the area will lose one of only 15 restaurants that have entrees priced above $40 on their menus, according to Indianapolis.Citysearch.com.
"The Glass Chimney was distinctive in our community," Denton said.