By Faith Bemiss firstname.lastname@example.org
March 27, 2014
Editor’s note: This is another instalment of an ongoing series of “Meet the Chef” by Democrat food writer Faith Bemiss that profiles local chefs, cooks, bakers and others versed in food and drink. This week features Chef Liz Huff, of Arrow Rock.
ARROW ROCK — Catalpa Classic and Innovative Dining Owner Chef Liz Huff delved into food professionally due to fond memories of her artist mother Rita Bennett Huff’s love for international foods and the knowledge of the countries where they were prepared.
“My mother was a big cook,” Huff said. “We watched Julia Child together as a family when we were little. And we would have Cambodian food for dinner, we had fish flakes and seaweed in our pantry. Kids wouldn’t spend the night at our house, you know. Kids would come over after dinner because they never knew what we were going to eat. It just seemed normal to me to eat that way.”
Her mother died from cancer when she was 10 and Huff said she never forgot how food brought them together, leading to a “natural progression” to a career centered around food.
“When we were little we had a cultural lesson every time that she cooked,” Huff said. “We would learn about that country and the food flavors, and the people and sometimes we would go and look it up in the encyclopedia. I just grew up with it, you know and it fascinated me. And I just always wanted to do it.”
Huff went to college for pre-elementary education at a time when it wasn’t as well thought of for women to go into food professionally — before the day of Food Network, she said.
“The Food Network happened my last year of school,” she added. “And that opened it up to women in this country. Because before then it was seen as a vocation.”
She eventually went on to graduate from the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vt.
“I looked at all of them, but thought that one was best,” she said. “Because it was all hands-on. Like bake shop class, (it) started at two in the morning — if you want to be a baker you start at two in the morning. Some of the other schools everything starts at nine in the morning to three in the afternoon. You may think you want to be a baker at nine in the morning, everyone wants to be a baker at nine in the morning. But no one wants to get up at one in the morning and go into work. That’s why I’m not a baker.”
Huff said she tries to be a “well-rounded” chef although she does do a lot of baking at Catalpa. All desserts and ice creams and even salad crackers are handmade at her restaurant.
Huff said she isn’t a perfectionist per se, but is big about plating and presentation; she wants each serving to be a work of art and not a replica of each other.
“If it’s different than it was last time, but it’s interesting, it’s okay,” she said. “I always tell the girls, ‘act like you don’t care, but you do’ when you’re plating. Behind the scenes you care, because we don’t want everything to be matching, we don’t want it to be perfect, we don’t want it to be the same. We want the same consistency and flavor, but we don’t want it to look the same as the next one. It’s a living thing, it’s a moving thing.”
Huff loves to interact with her customers. Besides having a dining area out front, she has a Chef’s Table that can be reserved, adjacent to the kitchen so visitors can watch her cook. And she loves for her kitchen to be accessible.
“The plan is, I want you to feel like you are coming to my house for dinner,” she said. “I do not want you to feel like you are at a restaurant, I want you to feel like you are at my home.”
Huff, whose fine dining restaurant has been selected for the third time in a row as the first place winner in Rural Missouri magazine’s People’s Choice Awards, is introducing a filet mignon steak from Italian-bred beef called Piedmontese this season.
“It’s exciting, I’m so excited,” she said. “I believe I’m the only restaurant in Missouri that’s carrying it.”
She said the fibers of Piedmontese beef are half the length of American-bred beef, making the steaks twice as tender.
“This is a grass-fed beef that’s finished on corn,” she added. “The nutritional value is amazing, it’s like a third less calories, more protein and less cholesterol, less fat and it tastes better. There’s absolutely no hormones, no antibiotics, so it’s completely natural.”
She said she had been reading about it in her trade journals and some friends of her’s in Clifton Hill are getting into the breeding program; she was also sent samples from Nebraska. Ahead of the trend, she also found that the beef was served at the White House recently, sealing the deal to introduce Piedmontese to customers.
“It’s on both coasts, but no one’s doing it here yet,” she said. “It’s Europe, it’s London and Paris and then it’s L.A. and New York and then it’s us about 15 years later. I feel like I’m on the trend with the coast which is really, really cool.”
Huff reopened Catalpa, located at 503 High St., three years ago after a 10 year hiatus. Her season opens April 11 and she, Sous Chef Mary Wise and staff sometimes feed up to 70 people a night. Catalpa will be open April through New Year’s from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights and days coinciding with the Arrow Rock’s Lyceum Theater productions. Reservations are recommended.
“So they can call me on a Sunday at two in the morning I don’t care,” she said laughing. “That’s the beauty of being my own boss, because we can just make decisions on the fly. We’re ultra flexible because we want people to come here.”
For additional information call Huff at 837-3324 or visit facebook.com/catalparestaurant. Catalpa’s new 2014 menu is available today at catalparestaurant.com.