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Interview Thu Apr 03 2014
Chicago produces many contestants for Top Chef (tributes from the Windy City District, shall I say), and though everyone knows the Fabio and the Izard, a few chefs have remained relatively low key. Heather Terhune, executive chef at Sable Kitchen & Bar, competed in the Texas season and left the show with a reputation more rooted in her social interactions than her culinary abilities.
In any case, Terhune still currently serves as executive chef at Sable, part of the Kimpton hotel and restaurant franchise. Originally from Vermont ("the land of maple syrup, cheddar cheese, and Ben & Jerry's"), Terhune considers herself a Midwestern native despite having lived in multiple cities across the US (including New Orleans and Washington DC). Terhune is different from most executive chefs in that she's female, doesn't need a pastry chef, and runs Sable as if she owned the business. Her menu features farm-to-table small-plates, including all the bacon n' truffle catchphrase dishes you'd expect in a chic River North restaurant. Despite my reality TV biases, my conversation with Chef Terhune revealed a confident and assertive leader, perhaps easily prone to misunderstanding but pure of character.
I'm just going to ask it: What is like being a female executive chef in the kitchen?
You know, it's funny because people ask me that question all the time, but I don't see it any differently than what it would be like for a man. I've been in this business for over 20 years, and I've never ever looked at gender as some sort of hindrance.
It doesn't really matter as long as you're working hard and doing what you want to do. Yes, this business is very male-dominated, but as a woman, you know that going into it. Every kitchen I've ever worked in, there was maybe one other woman or it was just me.
The term "farm to table" is used by so many restaurants nowadays, but what does the term mean to you?
A lot of people say it, but maybe a lot of people don't practice it. I don't use any large, big box companies like Sysco or US Food Service. Everything is usually local or small family business.
I don't like that impersonal touch, that impersonal feeling of using larger warehouses. Sure, it's cheaper. So I do all the banquets here in the hotel too, and I've never had to resort to using a large, large company.
When I look at building menus, I never look at cost as a factor. Of course, I try to look for the best pricing possible, but I know if I'm buying from a farm or buying grains from Three Sisters, that it's a personal touch. I'm not saying I'm buying organic, but I'm buying from people I trust.
How has your background affected your cooking philosophy?
My mom was a stay-at-mom and my father worked for a battery company for 30 years, so they were feeding five kids on one income. Learning to make bread and pastry from scratch -- those influences then are what drive my cooking today.
What do you like most about Chicago?We always grew up farm to table, not really knowing it -- tapping maple trees in Vermont, having big gardens, canning, pickling, making jams. But really, it was being thrifty and doing it more from an economic standpoint.
I love Chicago; it's really one of the best food cities. There is really where I built my career. The chef community in Chicago is probably one of the best ever -- it's so tight knit and not as backstabbing. People are very, very supportive and on-board with what others are doing.
What's one fact people don't know about being a chef or the restaurant industry that may be surprising?
My first job is teaching. I always hire on personality before I base them on skill. Because you can teach anyone this skill, but you can't teach people how to be nice, how to have a passion for food and beverage. I'm a teacher first, chef second.
You were on "Top Chef" -- how was that experience?
I loved it, I really loved it. It was a great time for me to focus because they take everything away from you, including cell phones, magazines, TVs, radio. You don't have much contact with the judges. Obviously, you can't become friendly with people judging your cooking.
I really did it myself, not for anyone else. I wanted to see if I could compete with people that were basically half my age. I was the oldest person on the show at the time. But I know now that I can still be creative and cook under pressure. At the end of the day, I had a restaurant to come back to. I was very fortunate that my company was like, "Yes, go do it." A lot of chefs that went on [the show] quit their jobs or their employers weren't very understanding when they got back.
But I've never been somebody who wanted to be on TV or to be famous. It's not really who I am. I'm comfortable on camera...but I never think of it as "Oh, I need to be famous." I don't watch culinary shows on TV. The one show that I watch is "Mind of a Chef" on PBS -- it's amazing. I also love "America's Test Kitchen" because all the recipes actually work.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Who knows, I'm always open to working for other people or myself. I want to write a cookbook someday. Figure out how to bottle my bacon jam.
What's the biggest misconception have you about you?
I don't listen to what other people say. If people say nasty stuff on Twitter or Facebook, I really don't pay attention to it because it doesn't matter. A lot of chefs are really shy, painfully shy, but I'm not one of them. I'm very normal. [A lot of chefs have tattoos], but I have no desire to get a tattoo. I do normal, boring stuff.
What are some of your other interests besides cooking? What do you do on your days off?
Read, hang out with friends. I try new restaurants, new bars.
Is there a special benefit of being a chef when dining out?
Yes, there's perks to it. It's always nice when you get enhancements to your meal, [but] I never expect anything, nor do I want anything. I love Au Cheval. I think it's one of the best, well-executed restaurants in the city. They have the best burger I've ever in my entire time -- I think about it all the time.
Death row meal?
People also ask that a lot, but I would cook the same thing: roasted chicken. I get a lot of influence from Julia Child, and I was fortunate enough to meet her one time in Boston. She was really gracious and smart. I like simple food. If you were to come to my house and have dinner, I don't ever cook anything fancy. The simplest things are the most beautifully executed.