Personally, I only eat meat if I know that it is humanely treated, and even then I keep it to the rare occasion. This means that I take my vegetables very seriously. The problem with being an almost vegetarian is that most chefs don't focus on the greenery as much as they focus on the meat and fish dishes. Vegetable dishes are therefore a side dish and after thought. Not so with Executive Chef of Sable Kitchen and Bar and 2011 Top Chef contestant, Heather Terhune. Chef Terhune puts as much energy into creative and sustainable vegetable dishes, as she does procuring meat from small, local farms and selecting fish that adheres to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program standards. Needless to say, I am thrilled that she is the November 25th invited chef on The Dinner Party at City Winery.
It was the Mini Wild Mushroom Veggie Burger that first attracted me to Chef Terhune's Sable, originally named after Chicago's first permanent resident Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. The trick with a restaurant which skillfully and delectably serves its veggies, as well as meat and fish, is that you can take a meat eater there and they won't even notice that they didn't order any of the meat dishes. Since my original love affair began, I have devoured eclectic veggie dishes such as Roasted Beets: Pistachios Crusted Goat Cheese and Honey, Crispy Red Lentil Cake with Coconut Curry Broth, Peanuts and Zucchini Salad and Caramelized Onion, Rosemary, Brie and House Made Ricotta Flatbread. And let's not forget the Sweet Corn Crème Brulee.
I asked Chef Terhune about her use of pure ingredients vs. her need to be creative. "Keeping the integrity of the ingredients is the easy part. I always let the simple ingredients shine through and that is where the creativity comes from. I try not to over complicate my cuisine."
Chef Terhune isn't from Chicago and I wondered how she felt about being in one of the most culinary cities in the world:
I love Chicago. I started thinking about why I moved here (in 1998) the day Charlie Trotter passed away. I remember buying his first cookbook in 1994. It was expensive and I had to save my money to buy it. This book and his vision on cooking inspired me to move to Chicago and seriously peruse my dream of becoming a chef, a dream I have had since I was four years old. Doing a stage at Trotters was definitely the most difficult thing I have done in my career, but the most rewarding.
Working as a chef in Chicago's competitive market also has its challenges.
Some days are harder than others and you must keep up your energy to help handle the stress. We have a lot of fun, which is important to staying sane. Loving what I do and having a passion to be creative and being able to express myself is what keeps me going. Chefs need instant gratification. Our guests do that for us. That is what makes it so fulfilling.
Certainly cooking on and being a part of Top Chef was also an incredible opportunity, with not just a few tricky spots. "Top Chef was one of the best experiences of my life. It is never something I ever thought I would do, but the opportunity presented itself and I took a risk. The risk really paid off. I think every chef who is selected wins in some way. I gained more confidence as a chef, developed life-long friendships and had so much fun at the same time. Even though there was some negative feedback while the show was airing, I still believe it was one of the best career moves I could have made and it paid off. I love cooking and competition, and I would do it again.
Experience Chef Terhune's dishes on the November 25th Dinner Party at City Winery when she will be cooking Three Sisters Oat Risotto with Wild Mushrooms, Spinach, Fennel, and Fresh Herbs and Grilled Pork from Slagel Farms with Roasted Butternut Squash, Maple Gastrique and Crispy Kale for author Scott Turow, NPR Sound Opinions' Jim Derogatis, burlesque dancer Michelle L'Amour and everyone in the audience before sitting down and joining the dinner table conversation herself. Below is a sneak peak of Heather working her magic at Sable Kitchen and Bar.
Follow Elysabeth Alfano on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DinnerPartyChgo