New chef at Terry Hills sets out to take what's good and make it better

Oct 29, 2018

johnstewardterryhills2018.jpg

Let's talk about French fries.

The lowly fry. Can you really kick it up a notch?

Cooking a gourmet fry is actually no secret. Any competent chef can do it. But it's a lot of work.

The new chef at Terry Hills, John Steward, is ready to do the work.

It's a four-day process that consists of blanching, drying, blanching again, more drying, freezing and then frying.

The result is a fry that has a veneer of crunch and a soft, fluffy center, like a perfectly cooked baked potato or a mouthful of savory clouds.

We told Steward we were going to write about his fries and that some people might find that odd. He agreed.

"People will be like 'oh, this guy doesn't know what he's talking about, talking about good French fries,' " Steward said. "A fry is a fry, you know. But at the same time, people feel like, 'oh, why is this fry so good? What's so different?' And that's what we need right now. We need people talking about Terry Hills. So many times I hear that people forget that Terry Hills is a restaurant."

A native of Rochester, Steward, is a new father, current resident of Le Roy and the former sous chef at Farmer's Creekside Tavern & Inn.

Terry Hills isn't his first head chef's job, but it may be his most important. It's a chance, he said, not only to take Terry Hills to the next level but also to better establish his name and provide his staff with the training necessary to help advance their careers. Those are his goals.

They're ambitious for a guy who a little over six years ago started in the restaurant business as a dishwasher and quickly moved through his first kitchen, entirely self taught, to be ready to run a kitchen himself a few years later -- La Luna, in Rochester.

"Yeah, I never went to a culinary college or school," Steward said. "Everything I've learned, I've learned on the job. I've done a lot of research on my own, watched a lot of shows, read a lot. When I first started, I would go to the public market and buy a bag full of potatoes and  sit in my apartment working on knife cuts."

Danielle Rotondo, VP, and co-owner of Terry Hills, said Steward was just what management was looking for -- young and ambitious and eager to take the dining experience for lunch, dinners, and banquets to the next level. He came out on top after three rounds of interviews and several reference checks.

"We want to grow; we want to do more; we want to show Batavia that we're not just a golf course," Rotondo said. "You know we have our golf course, our restaurant, our banquet facility, we have all of that here, and, yes, we want to show that there are some different things out here and there are different ways to do it. Yes, it's Batavia, but we can also go on the edge a little bit and try something else."

To show off how Terry Hills will take it to the next level, a couple of weeks ago the restaurant hosted a chef's menu night for a few dozens guests both to introduce some new dishes and as a kind of soft opening on how things are changing.

It was at that chef's menu night that we tried those crisp, fluffy fries. But Steward also introduced diners to his gnocchi carbonara, like everything that night, made from scratch, consisting of hand-rolled, house-made ricotta in a rich and thick carbonara sauce with diced ham and peas.

Steward also served a dry-aged strip steak, a pan-seared salmon, chicken roulade, to go along with a wedge salad, a Caesar salad, and a grain medley.

Many of these dishes -- particularly, say, the fries and the gnocchi -- take substantial prep time but Steward said there's no reason he and his line staff aren't up to the demands of the extra effort.

"As you're organized, you always have lists going; then it should be executable," Steward said. "There's no reason why it shouldn't be executable."

Steward said what makes a good dining experience is fresh ingredients, scratch cooking, and service. It's his job to oversee all aspects of a guest's experience at Terry Hills now, and he plans to pay attention to those details.

"Even if I go to a diner, or if I go to a finer place, you can see if the food is taken care of, if people care about quality," Steward said. "I think that is what makes a good meal -- making sure you use fresh ingredients, you use the proper techniques, execute the proper techniques. Your execution is what makes a good meal."

He said he expects the care of the kitchen staff to be carried out into the dining room by the servers.

"Nothing frustrates me more when I go to a place, and I ask a server a question about the menu, and the server is like, 'I don't know,' Steward said. "You should, you should. To me, I feel like it's your job to know the menu to know what the chef is trying to cook.

"There's going to be time and money invested to ensure our staff is trained properly."

The one thing Steward didn't change for the night was Terry Hill's famous seafood bisque.

"The only thing I might change is the garnish and change the saltines to oyster crackers," Steward said. "I think a seafood bisque should have oyster crackers."

While upgrading the sit-down lunch and dinner menus for Terry Hills is high on the agenda, Steward said he also plans to revamp the banquet service.

"I'm not knocking the former chefs here, but some of these recipes are outdated," Steward said, "by like 25 years."

That doesn't necessarily mean there will be big changes in menu choices. He already considers Terry Hills the premier banquet facility in Batavia. He thinks a few changes to how things are done will make it even better.

"I understand that like I can completely get everything off the menu," Steward said. "But, again, some of the techniques we're using here again are outdated. No one uses them anymore so. Therefore, we need to update our techniques to make a better product. The quality of the product will improve but still essentially be the same, they will have the same ingredients, but it's just going to be a better product overall because it's done better."

Steward said the chef's that inspire him include: Massimo Bottura, owner of Osteria Francescana in Italy, now ranked the #1 restaurant in the world (Bottura was the subject of the first episode of Chef's Table on Netflix); Thomas Keller, a chef and restauranteur in California; and, Wylie Dufresne, a chef in Manhattan.

"I pride myself working hard, putting in the hours," Steward said. "I think anyone who does that is going to do well in any field."

Steward thinks he can take what he's learned on his own and use that knowledge to help make his line cooks better. He would like to be known as a chef who helps his staff advance their careers.

"I really want to make really good food," Steward said. "In that process, I want to teach the guys that are here, too. As I said from day one, my goal is for you guys, whenever your time is up here, is to walk into any kitchen (and) be the best cook that walks in that kitchen because you've got trained by me."

By Howard Owens, The Batavian

Category: Food & Dining