Written by Patty Rasmussen Friday, December 02 2011
Snapshot: Heather Terhune, executive chef, Sable Kitchen & Bar
Though she proudly tips her toque to her small town roots, growing up in Vermont and the Midwest, chef Heather Terhune says moving to Chicago was one of the best decisions she ever made. Based on the rave reviews for her restaurant, Sable Kitchen & Bar, Terhune’s fans would agree.
Under her direction as executive chef, Sable – a Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants property which opened in April 2010 – has been named one of the “Best Restaurants for Business” by Crain’s Chicago Business and one of the “Best New Restaurants in Chicago” by Chicago magazine. Food & Wine magazine tabbed Sable one of the “Best New Bars in America.” Terhune was named one of Crain’s “Women to Watch” of 2011and earned a spot as a contestant on the current season of Bravo’s Top Chef Texas.
Terhune has worked everywhere from McDonalds to the famed Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., to the Jean Louis restaurant in the Watergate Hotel. Prior to opening Sable, she spent 11 years at Atwood Café in Chicago, another Kimpton property.
She graduated from the University of Missouri (Columbia) with a bachelor’s in agriculture and hotel/restaurant management then earned her associate of occupational studies in culinary arts at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont.
Womenetics: What does it entail, to be an executive chef?
Heather Terhune: It’s a lot more than just cooking; you have to be a good manager. It’s not like I sit at a desk all day because I certainly do not, but there are still managerial things I have to do. I still approve time cards and write schedules. I still write menus and make sure to deal with employee issues from a human resources standpoint. I’m in charge of picking out all our china, glass, and silver. Everything you would do if you owned your own restaurant is what I do on a day-to-day basis.
Womenetics: What’s the difference between opening your own restaurant and running one with a company like Kimpton behind you?
Terhune: It’s like having your own restaurant without the risk; not putting the money in myself. Having a large company behind us is security. We don’t have to worry about whether people will get paid or whether the bills will get paid on time. We have a whole department that deals with that. Having Sable and my name associated with Kimpton has been a great benefit.
Womenetics: How much of you is in Sable?
Terhune: It’s 100-percent me. Sable and I go hand in hand. I come up with all the menus; I decide what’s on or not on the menu. Conceptually, from the very beginning, I was the one saying, “Let’s do half and whole portions,” or asking “Can you hold a drink in one hand, can you eat with the other?” In other words, it was really getting my company on board with a different concept, convincing them that this is the direction restaurants are going – all sharable small plates.
I’ve worked for Kimpton for 13 years. They’ve watched my career grow and have been the catalyst in helping develop me into the chef I am today. I get so much freedom and creative control. No one is barking orders down at me telling me I have to put a chicken Caesar salad on my menu, because I don’t and will not. They practice what they preach when they say (their restaurants) are chef-driven concepts.
Womenetics: Where did the name “Sable” come from?
Terhune: The founding father of Chicago is Jean Baptiste Point du Sable so that’s where they started thinking about Sable as a name.
Terhune: We have such a unique concept and are in an amazing neighborhood (River North.) I used to be in The Loop; that was the theater district. Most of my business was driven by ladies who lunch or people who go to the theater. Here it’s a completely different story. We get the after-work crowd. We get the before-theater crowd and the late-night crowd. I serve food until 1 a.m. every night.
It’s a very approachable restaurant. You can have three completely different dining experiences here. We have a back room that seats 24 that’s quiet and intimate that’s used for regular dining. You can sit in the main dining room and watch the open kitchen or you can sit in the lounge and have the full menu. From the front of the restaurant to the back, there’s no differentiation of menu. You can watch the bartenders or socialize at large tables, sit by the kitchen, or have an intimate dinner. It’s almost like three restaurants in one.
Womenetics: One restaurant critic called you the “antithesis of the PR driven chef.” I’m pretty sure that’s a compliment. What does that mean to you?
Terhune: That is a good compliment. I think it means I understand my clientele, and I understand the market here in Chicago. I don’t have an ego that guides me. I don’t put something on the menu simply because it’s something I like and I think you should like it, too. I have an opportunity to teach people about branching out and trying new things, but at the end of the day if people don’t like the food I’m making here they aren’t coming back. I want people to come back over and over again. I also know what it takes to promote myself while keeping Sable on the forefront of everyone’s mind. That’s what drives me. I want Sable to be a success; I also want to be successful. My entire team around me will take nothing less than greatness.
Womenetics: What was one of your favorite food moments – something you made, a special occasion, something that was made for you?
Terhune: I have a lot of favorite food moments, but something that really sticks with me is when I went to Italy on a four-week sabbatical in 2008. I rented a house in Tuscany. One of the best memories was using the outdoor wood burning oven every day and being able to buy food in the market. Just buying and cooking a chicken; it was one of the best meals I ever had. It was amazing to cook for myself in a foreign country and understand that this is how people live in other parts of the world. They don’t have a mass grocery store, they don’t have commercialized food; everyone eats very clean.
I typically don’t eat processed food anyway, but it was reinforced by my experience in Italy. It’s very farm to table. That’s something my parents taught me growing up. Living in Vermont, we were tapping our own trees for maple syrup. My dad hunted. We grew our own vegetables. My mom taught us how to can and to pickle. I was usually envious of those kids who ate sugared cereals, ate junk food, and went to McDonalds all the time because we never got to do that, except once in a great while. Instead they formed us into the people we are today. They taught us, “This is where your food comes from.” That’s how I cook now.
Womenetics: I read that you try to be a locavore as much as possible. What are some of the ingredients you’ve learned to incorporate in dishes now that you’re in Chicago?
Terhune: I was fortunate enough to be exposed to a lot of different, ethnic foods when I was growing up because my parents are both from New Jersey; we grew up eating weird things. Being here in Chicago and seeing all the products that are available is really a way of life. I get sorghum from this little farmer outside Indiana.
But when you start working with people in cultures you pick up things, like togarashi. I didn’t start using togarashi until two years ago. I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know it was a Japanese spice blend. Being exposed to a lot of different people means you’re always learning. That’s what’s so great about this business. I learn something new every single day.
Womenetics: Who were your greatest influences in life and in the kitchen?
Terhune: My mom is an amazing cook, so is my grandmother. They taught me a lot about pickling and canning, things I still love to do today. I learned a lot from my first real cooking job, during my externship at a restaurant in New Orleans. Not only did I have a woman chef, which is something you never see, but she really helped me see that women can be chefs. I worked with a lot of women line cooks there. They taught me a lot about character and not letting guys push you around, standing up for what you believe in.
That was really influential, and I’m still friends with those people to this day even though I worked there in 1994. They were really encouraging. I had never seen a whole tuna before, and I didn’t know the loins were in four quadrants. They taught me a lot about food and where it comes from. Being able to make mistakes is something that they taught me was OK.
Womenetics: Can you give me an example of a time when you failed, but learned something important as a result?
Terhune: I remember breaking down a salmon, and I really messed it up. I was worried that I would get in trouble. They said, “Don’t worry about it, we’ll fix it. Here’s another fish.” That’s a really great lesson and something I try to do now, especially when I get these young cooks who also make mistakes. I tell them, it’s OK to make mistakes. Just don’t make the same mistake over and over and over again. Being a teacher in this business is huge.
Womenetics: Are restaurant kitchens still dominated by male chefs? If so, do you see that trend changing?
Terhune: There are a lot of male chefs in the business, but I am seeing a lot more female chefs. There are a lot of talented women in this business. It is hard, and there are a lot of women who can’t or don’t want to do it. This is hard work, long hours, you have to be willing to put up with a lot of crap from a lot of people when you’re a line cook, and it’s tough. You have to learn to compartmentalize it and push beyond that piece of it. I think men are seeing more and more that women in the kitchen are good. I like seeing a woman in the kitchen to balance out all the testosterone. I was always one of the only women in the kitchens where I worked, and you have to work harder, longer, faster than anyone else just to prove, to yourself and them, that you are good enough.
Womenetics: What are your signature dishes?
Terhune: Right now I’d say some of the signature dishes are the sweet corn crème brûlée. I have a lot of vegetarian/vegan friends, and I hate when you go to a restaurant and they have one item that’s vegetarian/vegan. I am known for desserts; I used to be a pastry chef. It’s important to me. I have nine desserts on my menu because I hate going to a restaurant, and they have three desserts and one of them is ice cream or sorbet. It’s so boring. It’s hard to choose what we’re known for, but people do come here for the pork belly BLTs or the short rib sliders with the root beer glaze. There are things that people always get when they come here – deviled eggs or pretzels – I’m not reinventing the wheel, I’m just doing food that’s delicious; foods I like to eat that are sharable.
Womenetics: I understand your first cooking job was at McDonalds. Did you learn anything there that you still use today?
Terhune: I learned a lot there. I learned about organization, cleanliness, and working together as a team. In the mid- to late '80s when I worked there, things were still made fresh. I made the biscuits in the morning. I learned a lot about dedication and helping someone out and those things that formed my work ethic.
Womenetics: I’m sure you have a crazy schedule. How do you unwind?
Terhune: I’m trying to find a balance with my schedule. Typically I come in at 4 p.m. and leave at 3 a.m. But I try to do two mid-shifts each week so I have a semi-normal lifestyle so I can hang out with my friends and go to dinner. It’s really all about eating and drinking and experiencing new restaurants. I like to see what everyone else is doing. I’ll go to a new place, a favorite place, or a neighborhood place. I try not to make any decisions when I’m off. I can do a whole lot of nothing. I like crafts, and I’m trying to learn how to knit. Not sure how well that’s going to go. I don’t have a lot of time for things, and I’m very impatient with myself.
Patty Rasmussen is an Atlanta-based freelance writer. She spent 12 years covering the Atlanta Braves for ChopTalk Magazine and has written for Major League Baseball publications, Georgia Trend magazine, WebMD, and Blue Ridge Country.