Nov 10, 2018
It wasn’t long ago — a little over six years, now — that Rochester native John Steward, the new head chef at Terry Hills, fell in love with the gritty, cut-throat nature of restaurant culture.
“I found a job in a kitchen as a dishwasher and just loved the environment,” Steward said, adjusting a backwards ball cap as he settled himself in the then-vacant dining room off Clinton Street Road on Monday afternoon, golf carts whipping around the expansive course outside. “It was vulgar, it was — it was a kitchen, and I loved it. And then I got on the line and loved it even more.”
With a massive cup of coffee in hand — one, he hoped, would provide some much-needed respite from the grueling restaurant hours he’s endured in recent weeks — he unearthed his dreams for Terry Hills.
But first, a little history.
It was a whirlwind journey that led Steward, unsure of his direction in life, from maneuvering through stacks of gunky plates, discarded food and the racks of silverware he scrubbed back to shining, through the technical, multi-faceted processes of food prep, and then, finally, to the envisioning of himself leading a kitchen of his own, he said.
“I knew I wanted to be an aspiring chef — I still consider myself one,” Steward said. “And I took the steps to make that happen.”
Step 1: Find a better job at a better kitchen, which just so happened to be Char Steak and Lounge in Rochester, where, under the direction of a chef who saw “a lot of potential” in young Steward, he’d spend much of his time learning and growing over the next four years.
Step 2: Hit the books.
“I went and sat in my apartment cutting onions and potatoes, you know?” Steward said. “My apartment roommates weren’t happy, but that’s what I did. I did a lot of research, a lot of reading, a lot of experimenting on my own, a lot of watching Netflix documentaries. It just kept growing.”
As he expanded his knowledge base and strengthened his resume, he took the teachings and techniques he’d learned at Char everywhere he went, he said. He ran a kitchen at La Luna for six months before he was recruited to be sous chef at Le Roy’s Creekside, took a few months off as a new father, and soon found himself fully immersed in the application process at Terry Hills this past summer.
“I went through a few processes and different interviews, I met with the owners,” Steward said. “Throughout the entire process, I was told that they want to take the food program to the next level. Eventually, they believed I was the one who could do that.”
Steward believes it, too.
With a passion for careful execution, preparation and presentation, the young man has set high hopes for what he considers one of Batavia’s premiere dining facilities, he said.
And while he appreciates — and wholly respects — the work that’s been done at Terry Hills before him, he’s ready for a revolution.
“Across the board, essentially, I’m trying to improve the quality of food and the standards here,” Steward said. “And it’s not that the food here was bad — everyone I’ve talked to who has eaten here has great things to say — but to me, it just wasn’t the best we could be doing.”
Since his start in August, he’s taken careful steps to improve and to enact change, he said. What he envisions certainly doesn’t call for a complete reinvention of the wheel, but if providing diners with a unique culinary experience requires that some old recipes be tweaked, or that the kitchen make the transition back to scratch cooking, then so be it, Steward said.
He’s here for the food — and he wants patrons of Terry Hills to be here for it, too.
“There’s always that comfy, homey meal that restaurants should provide, and I agree with that whole-heartedly,” he said. “But at the same time, when people go out to dine, I think part of the experience is ordering something you typically don’t eat or can’t make at home that you want a professional to make.”
And, as with all things, quantity does not always equal quality.
“It’s an expansive, huge menu,” Steward said. “And that’s a struggle to maintain. By modernizing, I think there’s going to be some growing pains. If we ever want to improve food quality, it means we’re going to need to put more time into prepping that food.”
During the offseason, which is rapidly approaching, he and Terry Hills managers will sit down to attack and restructure the current menu, Steward said. But good things are certainly afoot, and from fresh pasta to seafood and house-made desserts, the changes are sure to please, he said.
A recently unveiled “Chef’s Selection” menu, which offers three courses for $25 and is available Wednesday through Friday, 4 p.m. to close, provides a brief glimpse toward the future.
Picture a wedge salad with balsamic onions, cherry tomatoes, candied bacon and house-made bleu cheese, or a shrimp, scallop and crab seafood bisque — one thing he’ll never change. Add in a chicken roulade with hollandaise, or a steak frites dish served with house-made truffle parmesan fries, and finish the meal with a freshly prepared dessert served with whole, natural ingredients.
That, Steward said, is the type of experience he aims to provide.
“We’re still using the same ingredients, but now maybe we’re not using so much of this, we’re not using so much of that,” Steward said. “We’re taking raw products and manipulating them into what we need them to be, and that’s what has all the guys and girls excited back there.”
“All the guys and girls in there, I couldn’t ask for a better crew,” he continued. “They’re talented, they work hard, but more importantly they’re willing to make mistakes to learn and they have a great attitude. I think we can really do some great things here.”
And so he left the people of Batavia with a challenge, he said — to come out for a meal, to try something new, and to leave with a full belly, a smile, and maybe even a new perspective on dining.