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Under the Toque: Atwood Café grows from Terhune’s Midwestern roots

Under the Toque: Atwood Café grows from Terhune’s Midwestern roots

Diverse roots, an almost insatiable interest for discovery and love for the kitchen combined to drive Heather Terhune to the executive chef post at Atwood Café in Chicago’s Hotel Burnham in 1999 at the tender age of 27.

Terhune was born in Vermont, but was raised an hour outside Kansas City, Mo., by parents from New Jersey. An early fan of food and cooking, Terhune credits her parents with fostering a food-loving household where bread was made from scratch and preserving and canning vegetables from the garden was the norm. Her Midwest upbringing also instilled a fondness for comfort food, especially good steaks and Kansas City barbecue.

Her formal food education began at the New England Culinary Institute in Essex, Vt., and the University of Missouri in Columbia, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and hotel and restaurant management. She continued learning with early-career stints at Bacco in New Orleans and the former Washington, D.C., fine-dining destination, Palladin, in the Watergate hotel, working under Jean-Louis Palladin. After a stint as a pastry chef in North Carolina, Terhune returned to the Midwest and worked at other properties for The Kimpton Group, before jumping at the chance to run a kitchen at Atwood. And the learning never stops for Terhune. She spent a month in Italy last fall, reinforcing her philosophy of using fresh, in-season ingredients.

What got you interested in cooking?

My parents tell me I told them I wanted to be a chef when I was 4 years old. We used to get to choose what I wanted for our birthday dinner and I chose artichokes and spareribs. My parents were like, “Where the hell did that come from?”

My mother is a great cook. So is my maternal grandmother.


Keep an eye out for new products that are interesting, and try not to be intimidated.

Cooking is supposed to be fun. It’s not supposed to be stressful.

Because we didn’t really have a lot of money, my dad hunted. We had a huge garden. I grew up preserving and canning and really eating all kinds of different foods. My parents have a great palate for unique and interesting food. All of our relatives lived on the East Coast. That is where we used to go, mostly, on vacations. So we would be introduced to a lot of foods from New York and New Jersey—Jewish cuisine, Italian—things that you are never going to have in a small town in Missouri.

Does your background influence your cooking style?

Definitely. I love meat, and that is a very Midwestern thing—growing up on great beef, great steaks. Kansas City has great beef. And what influenced me and my passion for cooking, how I develop menus, I think, is really taking stuff I had in my childhood and twisting it. It is comfort food here. Atwood Café is upscale American comfort food. There is nothing that I would put on my menu that I wouldn’t eat myself or that I don’t love.

Do you think that formal training is what makes a chef, or is work experience more important?

Honestly, I think it’s passion. I don’t think it has to be either [training or work experience]. I didn’t really have a lot of experience working in kitchens before I went to culinary school. I did different things. I worked in a day care [center] when I was in college. I was a manager of a grocery store. I knew I was going to be a chef for the rest of my life, so I didn’t really feel I needed to work at the local small-town restaurant to gain experience. I think it is about learning and are you passionate about what you are going to do.


Title: executive chef, Atwood Café, ChicagoBirth date: April 11, 1971Hometown: ChicagoEducation: New England Culinary Institute, Essex, Vt.; University of Missouri, ColumbiaCareer highlights: becoming executive chef for The Kimpton Group’s Atwood Café in 1999; spending September 2007 in Italy

You could have a lot of experience and work in all these great restaurants, but if you have bad habits or are not open to learning a new technique, then I don’t think you are going to be successful.

Tell me about your experience at Atwood Café.

It was a great starter restaurant: 75 seats, no banquets. It was perfect. I have really grown up in this restaurant. I really figured out how to run a business, how to become a good manager. How to really hone a menu. I have discovered that keeping menus simple and keeping the ingredients as what shines is really the most important thing.

Last September, I got to go on my sabbatical, which is a great benefit my company has. After seven years as a GM or executive chef, you get to take four weeks off. I went to Italy, and it was probably the most amazing experience of my life.

What did you learn there?

I didn’t do any work per se. But I did learn a lot, and that is really what I brought back with me. I was thinking about the ingredients. I spent all my time in Northern Italy. You know, it’s simple, a delicious grilled steak. But it is the best steak you have ever had. And maybe it has a drizzle of really great olive oil. I think that it really hit me; a light bulb went off. You really have to let the ingredients shine through. Buying quality ingredients is something that we really pride ourselves on. And the seasonality: We don’t use things that aren’t in season. It just doesn’t make sense. It is a good philosophy to have.

What are the differences in being a pastry chef and an executive chef?

Obviously it is a lot more responsibility being an executive chef, because you run it. Kimpton lets us run our restaurant like it’s our business. So you have to have your hand in everything. I know for myself, I would be completely bored if I was just doing pastries.

I love the aspect of baking. I love doing pastries, but I get to do that here. Because, at most of our restaurants, you can’t afford to have a separate pastry chef, it just doesn’t work like that. It really is an ideal situation. You get to run a restaurant like it’s your own, yet you don’t have to financially back it.

Also you get to be involved in every single aspect of menu development, from purchasing equipment to menu design to restaurant design. Whatever it takes. That’s what you do.

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