At the beginning of summer, I went to a really fun event at The Outsider where some of Milwaukee's bloggers got together to learn how to make flower crowns and enjoy the great rooftop views at one of the best restaurants in the city. We snacked on amazing hors d'oeuvres and sipped delicious cocktails. Let's just say the hummus and flower cupcakes were life-changing.
Fast forward a few months, and I finally had the opportunity to chat with the genius behind the bites – Heather Terhune. Heather is the Executive Chef for both Tre Rivali and The Outsider, the restaurants at The Journeyman in Milwaukee's Third Ward. Heather has such a cool background and was an absolute blast to talk to. Check out my Q&A with her below to learn more about her career, guilty pleasures, and advice for future chefs and at-home enthusiasts:
My Midwest Is Showing: How did you get where you are today? What was your education and career path?
Heather Terhune: I always wanted to be a chef. My parents told me I asked for artichokes and carrots for my 4th birthday. I was born in Vermont, and I was always surrounded by food and foraging. My parents raised us to be farm-to-table, we just didn’t really know that at the time. We lived closed to dairy farms and got our milk locally, and I grew up canning and pickling. We did a lot of fermentation and made wine. There were a lot of cool things we did. We always just thought our parents were being frugal, but they really gave us a love of food and culture. My grandparents lived in New Jersey, and sometimes we would go into New York City, so we really were exposed to a lot of interesting things.
I went to college at the University of Missouri in Columbia and have a Bachelor’s in Hotel & Restaurant Management. After I graduated I went to culinary school – it was always my plan to go to college before culinary school. So I went to New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. After six months, I did an externship in New Orleans at a Creole/Italian restaurant where I learned so much. Then I went back to school for six months, and during that time we worked at an inn, so we got a ton of experience in the hotel/restaurant business.
After school I moved to D.C., and I worked at the Willard Room at the Willard InterContinental Hotel right next to The White House, and then I worked at the Watergate Hotel, and I worked with the famous chef Jean-Louis Palladin. He was really the first chef in the mid ‘90s to bring that fine French dining experience to the United States. That was always my goal – wherever I lived, I wanted to work with the best chefs and learn. After he left to open restaurants in Las Vegas and New York, I moved to Raleigh, North Carolina where I stayed for two years.
I decided to move to Chicago in 1998. I got a Zagat Guide and sent my resume to every restaurant I would want to work at. I ended up as the Executive Chef at 312 Chicago, which is how I got my start with Kimpton. I worked at a few Kimpton restaurants in the following years and moved around to San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Nashville, Denver, and Milwaukee.. To be honest with you, Milwaukee was never on my radar of places I wanted to live. But once I got here last January, I realized how great the city is. It has a lot to offer and should not stand in the shadow of Chicago.
MMWIS: How does your diverse background inspire your work today?
HT: I worked in some Italian restaurants, but never as the executive chef. I was always working in American comfort food. The original concept at the Journeyman was Italian, but I didn’t want to go in that direction. I started thinking about the places I’ve traveled to and thought about the Mediterranean, specifically the countries that touch the Mediterranean Sea – that’s where I pulled all of my inspiration from. I get inspired by local ingredients and the simplicity of food. I once went to Italy for four weeks, and it changed my life. The food is super simple – they really focus on ingredients, using them in the height of their season, simple preparations, bold flavors. This is all how I cook today, so that really inspired the menu.
MMWIS: What's a normal day like for you?
HT: I’m lucky because I have a staff. I have a sous chef who opens, I have a sous chef who closes, so typically I work the mid-shift. I probably go in around 11 until whenever I feel comfortable leaving. I work at least 10-hour days, but usually more like 12-hour days. It’s all about making sure everything is set and ready to go. Today is not typical, but I’m doing a tasting for a bride whose wedding is on New Year’s Eve, and her menu is customized. The chef is the face of the restaurant, so there’s a lot of PR, marketing, and interviews. I’m working on menu development for our new dessert menu. There are a lot of moving parts. We have a rooftop bar, we’re working on our budget for 2018. It’s not just cooking. You have to be very organized – it’s like a ballet. So really, there’s not a typical day. There’s always something that’s going on, and you need a lot of people to keep the train running. It doesn’t stop – we can’t close the restaurant because too many people called in sick. You just figure it out.
MMWIS: What's the most challenging part?
HT: Making sure that not one area is lacking. The chef has to be the most calm and level-headed person in the kitchen. I could be freaking out on the inside, and mostly I am, but you have to be the person to say everything will be fine. You have to think quick and be a good problem solver.
MMWIS: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
HT: If you want to be an executive chef, you must love everything about it, and that includes the ugly parts. You have to like the stress, you have to like the late nights, long hours, working with all different kinds of personalities. You have to want to stand on your feet for 12 hours a day. You wear your shoes out. Restaurants can be so frustrating to work in, but they are so much fun. I get to play with food, I get to be creative, I get to see people get excited about ingredients. There is a bit of a misconception now that once you graduate from culinary school, you’re going to be a chef. It doesn’t work like that. You have to work your way up. I started from the bottom and worked every single position in the kitchen.
MMWIS: What's your favorite meal you've ever created? Favorite food of all time?
HT: If I’m cooking at home, I really go back to basics. I think about Julia Child and what she would cook – she was a big influence for me. Simple foods are the best foods. Roasted chicken, roasted vegetables. Something that is not fussy, that you throw in a pan. I’m all about one pan meals, because I hate washing dishes. But it’s hard to decide what my favorite dish I ever created was because there’s so many. Also, chefs tend to be insecure and have a lot of self-doubt. I never like anything that I cook. Nothing is good enough – it can always be better.
As for guilty pleasures, I do love Cheetos. I like salty snacks over sweet. If I come home late, I love cereal. Life cereal is my favorite cereal. And peanut butter and jelly. Creamy Jif, not crunchy. But I do like crunchy peanut butter for peanut butter cookies.
MMWIS: What advice do you have for at-home chefs?
HT: Don’t be so overwhelmed with the process of it. If you can read, you can cook. Start small and work bigger. Go get an America's Test Kitchen cookbook and start there. Buy the best ingredients you can find. Don’t buy off-season. Go to the farmer's markets; know where your meat and eggs are coming from, especially here in Wisconsin where agriculture is so huge.
MMWIS: You’ve traveled the world and lived in so many different places. What are your thoughts on the Midwest and Midwesterners?
HT: I’m always drawn to the Midwest more than any other part of the country. People here are warm and welcoming and very grounded.
MMWIS: If someone was visiting Wisconsin for the first time, what would you tell them to do first?
HT: You have to eat frozen custard. And I’ve run the gamut on the best places, and I think it’s Leon’s. They’re famous for their butter pecan – it’s unbelievable. It’s cash only. Leon’s was the inspiration for Happy Days.
MMWIS: How does your Midwest show through your personality and/or what you do?
HT: I have small town values even when I’m in a big city. And I cook very simply. I am who I am.
Photos courtesy of Tre Rivali and The Outsider.