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Women Behind the Stove - Heather Terhune, Sable

By Anthony Todd in Food on Nov 2, 2010 4:00PM

Chef_Heather_7079.jpg Some say that professional cooking is still a man's world, but more and more women are taking charge of Chicago restaurants. Heather Terhune is the executive chef of Sable, one of Chicago’s hottest new restaurants of 2010. For the inaugural post in our new series on women chefs, we sat down to talk to her about her beginnings, her experiences as a female executive chef, and why her kitchen is nothing like “Kitchen Confidential.”

Chicagoist - How did you get started as a chef?

HT - I grew up in Vermont, with my three sisters and brother. While we grew up - people think it’s ridiculous - we tapped maple trees and we had a giant garden. My parents introduced us to a lot of different foods and cuisines and we’ve always been interested by making our own things. We made our own wine and beer, probably mostly to save money, because there were five kids and only one income. We were always close to farms.

My parents said that I had decided to become a chef by the time I was four years old. We always got to choose what we wanted for birthday dinners, and I told them I wanted artichokes and spareribs, which they thought was odd. I always wanted to be a chef, never a teacher or a doctor. I was always focused on that goal.

Chicagoist - What was your start in the food world?

HT - Mcdonalds was my very first job, which I loved. It was back when there was actual cooking there, and there was beef lard in the fryer and everything was made from scratch. I never worked in a restaurant until I went to culinary school.

Chicagoist - You started out by getting a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management. How did you get to culinary school?

HT - Literally, I looked in the back of Bon Appetit magazine when I was a sophmore in college. There was no internet then, so how did you search for a school? And nobody I went to college with wanted to be a chef. I went to New England Culinary Institute because of the student teacher ratio - seven teachers to one student, a model that hasn’t changed. I had no knife skills, nothing - I figured it was culinary school and they’re going to teach you! School was six months on, six months off, for internships, and I went to New Orleans.

Chicagoist - What was your experience like during your internships?

HT - It was great because they really taught you. I remember one day a friend of mine asked, “Hey, have you ever broken down a whole tuna before?” I hadn’t, and they allowed me to screw up and make mistakes. So that was an amazing experience.

I didn’t work with a chef who screamed at me - my chef was actually a woman, Haley Gable. I worked with a woman chef, and was surrounded by other women, which was rare in such a male dominated world. When I went to school, there were 47 students in my class and 7 were women. There was 1 in each class, and a lot dropped out because they couldn’t really take it. But, I’m a middle child - I’m scrappy. Failure was not an option for me.

Heather started out as a pastry chef at her first job, which is a more traditional field for female chefs. But… things didn’t quite work out.

HT - I was bored out of my skull doing just pastry. I was baking, which I loved, but I thought it was too limiting - I missed working on the line, I missed the camaraderie between the cooks and the adrenaline. I missed the fun!

I came to Chicago in the summer of 1997, and I fell in love with the city. I got the Zagat guide and sent resumes and letters to every restaurant I thought I might want to work at. That’s how I ended up with Kimpton.

Heather moved from being the pastry/sous chef at 312 to the executive chef slot at the Atwood café, until this year when she opened Sable in the Hotel Palomar

Chicagoist - It sounds like you didn’t have too many challenges as a woman becoming an executive chef.

HT - You know, I’m very headstrong. I know that some women say “It’s really tough.” It is really tough, and I worked with a lot of jerks. For a lot of guys, when there was a really heavy pot, no one would help you lift it. I decided that “I’m just going to figure out how to lift it myself. I’m going to get stronger, so I can lift it.” I don’t take any flak from anybody, and I just put my head down and did my work. I’m not a crier, and you’ve got to have a thick skin if you want to work in this business. You’re going to take a lot of flak from people, but I always wanted to be a chef.

Chicagoist - Do you think it influences your hiring at all?

HT - Yes and no. I would like to hire more women. I try, but it’s hard to find women, I have to tell you. I try to get lots of externs, because I know how important it is to have mentors. NECI always tries to send me women, because they know that I’m willing to teach. It’s hard - out of my 30 employees in the kitchen, I have one woman. I don’t think that there are a lot of women going to culinary school these days! It’s hard to find someone who wants to be a line cook.

Chicagoist - Based on your culinary school experience, do you have any idea why that would be?

HT - I asked the admissions person at NECI, and they say fewer and fewer women are coming through. It’s funny, you would think that with the influence of food network, it would be more prevalent.

Chicagoist - The flip side of that though is the other side of the food network - people like Tony Bourdain who say that kitchens are hellish for women, and that you’re going to be sexually harassed. That doesn’t sound like your experience.

HT - It hasn’t been, but I have seen plenty, trust me. Chefs doing drugs in the office, plenty of bad behavior. But I think you have to make that choice - you make a decision about what you want, and what path you are going to go down. A lot of people I’ve worked with have been drug addicts or major alcoholics. I’m all about having fun, but I’ve always been focused on my career. You create workplaces - I don’t surround myself with those kinds of people.

Chicagoist - We’ve heard a lot about evil chefs - there was a notorious piece in the New York Times a while back about a chef going nuts in the dining room.

HT - I grew up with those chefs, working my way up. Chefs who threw knives and chefs who threw tantrums, and I always said, “I’m never going to be that type of chef.” It’s not effective. Having a happy cohesive work environment is wonderful - we have no front of the house vs. back of the house, it just doesn’t exist. I think there are still restarants that work like that, but I think it makes us a better restaurant. We are the hotel, we are the servers, we are one unit.

I think those restaurants just aren’t very successful. You chose your own path. You can chose to be the victim, and say it’s so hard to be a woman and a chef in the kitchen. It IS hard. It’s long hours, and it’s hot, and there is a lot of stress, but I’ve never had a problem with any of my employees having a respect issue. But I’ve never asked them to do anything I don’t do myself.

Chicagoist - If you create a culture where it’s unacceptable, then it doesn’t exist.

HT - Absolutely. We don’t have sexual harassment issues here - no one would dream of it! And if there was an issue, I would be the first one to say that’s not ok.

Chicagoist - As more and more great woman chefs take the helm, do you think that will become more normal?

HT - I think that culture of harassment has to go away. It’s better if there are more women, because the testosterone tends to level out. You can always tell when you walk into a kitchen and it’s all just guys. You’re like, "What is happening here!?” You throw a woman into the mix and everything calms down.