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Country Chef in the City

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At Chicago’s popular Sable Kitchen & Bar, Chef Terhune centers plates on local products and Midwestern farms.
By Amelia Levin May 2014 Chef Profiles

It’s not easy, turning a hotel restaurant into a local one. But that’s the vision—and effect—of Heather Terhune, executive chef of Sable Kitchen & Bar at the Hotel Palomar in Chicago.

In fact, of the $8 million Sable Kitchen & Bar collects in revenues each year, Chef Terhune says the bulk comes from city dwellers looking for local food and hand-crafted cocktails, while breakfast draws the larger hotel crowds.

The reason? Chef Terhune thinks it stems from Kimpton Hotels’ chef-driven approach and her own dedication to showcasing Midwestern farms and food.

A Vermont native who grew up in a rural setting, Chef Terhune has spent a considerable amount of her time during Sable’s four-year existence working to forge relationships with farmers across Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, as well as other local producers.

Her dedication to Midwestern farmers began 16 years ago as a pastry chef new to Chicago. Even more opportunities to look local and work with farmers in that region emerged when, a year later, she joined Kimpton Hotels as executive chef of Atwood Café, in downtown Chicago’s Hotel Burnham. She was just 28 years old at the time, and the boutique hotel group operated 60 units with 65 restaurants.

“I’ve always learned from other chefs who pulled from local resources, and I don’t buy a lot of imported items,” says Chef Terhune. “All my friends growing up worked on their farms before and after school—that was your job. I always respected that, and so knowing where food comes from and what I’m serving my customers is so important to me.”

Now, to handle the high volumes at Hotel Palomar’s Sable, Chef Terhune receives deliveries from farmers twice a week. On other days, she’ll peruse Green City Market, Chicago’s largest, sustainable farmers’ market, often conducting cooking demos for shoppers there.

Farmers now come to her for guidance on what to plant. “Peter Klein of Seedling Farms showed me his fruit and seed catalogues before the season last year and asked what I wanted him to grow,” says Chef Terhune. “I was really blown away by how cool and smart that was, and now other farmers are doing the same thing.”

As a Vermont maple syrup devotee, she found it exciting to meet Tim Burton of Burton’s Maplewood Farm, who introduced his Illinois-based product. Four years later, she’s gone through gallons of the “liquid amber,” serving it at breakfast with pancakes and making glazes, dressings, and marinades—even homemade bacon—with the find.

Each spring, she looks forward to her favorite first green of the season, fiddlehead ferns, which remind her of the ones growing freely in the mossy grounds of New England. Last year, Burton supplied her with a special batch of ramps, the pungent, leafy, green-stemmed onions from which Chicago (aka, “stinky onion” in one Native American language), got its name. The first batch of sweet asparagus is also enough to make any Midwesterner forget about the cold winter.

Sautéing in butter with a little salt, pepper, and local garlic is all these gems need. “I try not to overthink it because I want to let the ingredients shine and speak for themselves,” Chef Terhune says, describing her cooking style as “five ingredients or less.” Still, she believes reliance on classic French techniques—like knowing how to make a perfectly not-browned omelet and a delicious, flavorful braise—must be part of any cook’s repertoire.

An enthusiasm for cocktail culture also comes into play. “From the start we have had such a large focus on cocktails of all kinds that it made me want to build the food menu around the ability to hold a drink in one hand and eat with another,” says Chef Terhune.

This philosophy takes shape in a menu of social plates, designed to feed two, four, or even larger groups, and that includes signature desserts like sweet corn crème brûlée along with an array of snacks like retro deviled eggs and homemade pretzels perfect for feeding a cocktail-focused crowd. At the bar, things like chartreuse on tap, homemade bitters, and an impressive whiskey selection have helped Sable earn accolades as a drink-making epicenter.

Of her right-hand man and beverage director, Mike Ryan, Chef Terhune says, “We have an amazing working relationship. We operate independently but share the same vision and trust each other, all egos aside.” Rather than hop on a trend bandwagon, the duo strive to create their own trends using seasonal ingredients for inspiration. It helps that Ryan has a culinary background and thinks like a chef, she says.

The safety net of Kimpton’s budget and the culinary freedom it provides has allowed Chef Terhune to forge her own path with few restrictions, though she will accommodate the typical hotel request for a plain grilled cheese.

A degree holder in agriculture and restaurant management from the University of Missouri in Columbia and a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, Chef Terhune has hotel experience from the start of her culinary career when she clocked time at Washington’s historic Willard and Watergate hotels.

She also gained notoriety as a contestant on Bravo TV’s “Top Chef,” where she honed her craft even more. Known for her bubbly but boisterous personality, at times she was portrayed by the show’s editors as the hot-headed one—though the reality was anything but that.

“I got to bond with and learn from 15 other amazing chefs, and I stand by everything I said and did,” she says, adding that the experience taught her some fun techniques, including a few molecular gastronomy tricks and how to slice a bunch of cherry tomatoes at once between two deli trays. More importantly, she notes, the experience made her a faster, more-efficient chef.

At Sable, Chef Terhune not only runs the kitchen for the nearly 200-seat restaurant, but also the 5,000-square-foot banquet space and in-room dining for 272 hotel rooms. Already this season, they are booked for 40 weddings alone.

Also this year, Chef Terhune will travel abroad for her second paid sabbatical, which Kimpton Hotels allows loyal staffers to take every seven years—and then it’s back to her favorite place: the kitchen.