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Hearth brings meaning to fine dining

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hugh higgins

To Hugh Higgins, the word “hearth” has special meanings beyond that of a fireplace.

He breaks the word down in two parts: ‘heart’ and ‘earth’ as two of the most important ingredients in his new Peoria Heights restaurant, Hearth, at 4604 N. Prospect Road.

To know the personality of this man, an easy going type who developed a rich taste for good food and drink, it is easy to connect him to his own definition of the whole word. “Hearth…cozy, warm and comforting.”

That also describes the concept of his restaurant, which is where French Toast once operated in the heart of the Peoria Heights business district: “American Cuisine…Local Farm First.”

When Higgins decided to throw caution to the wind and open his own place, using a cooking style and menu choices he has enjoyed making for his family and friends through the years, there was no question he would embrace the farm-to-table culture.

“I’ve always been a bit of a tree hugger anyway. And then what really changed me when it comes to food was watching ‘Food Inc.,’ the documentary. It was incredibly eye-opening and more than a little scary. We’re poisoning ourselves everyday. So if I can give my customers healthy food and help out local farmers and businesses along the way, so much the better,” Higgins said.

“The stuff they put in our foods…we don’t know the long-term effects of this stuff yet and frankly, I don’t want to know,” he added.

At this point, Higgins said he doesn’t feel he can rightfully claim to be a farm-to-table restaurant because that part of his business is still a work in progress. “I am working real hard to get there but I’m not real happy with the quality of some of the ‘clean’ products out there, at this ploint. I’ve challenged my suppliers to find it and they are working at it, also. But I will serve antibiotic- and hormone-free organic food whenever possible. I hope to someday serve nothing but that,” he said.

“It has to be of a quality that I feel good about serving it in a fine dining restaurant. That is more costly, yes, but I have to bite the bullet if I want to serve my customers the best food I can get.”

His menu at Hearth consists largely of classic American food with a southern twist, learned by spending a lot of time with family in Kentucky while growing up. “I think we needed that kind of food here and I was looking to offer something unique, something that will bring in repeat business. Things like shrimp and grits, collard greens, our oyster po’ boy. We’re talking very affordable, very filling dishes. It’s food I like and I think my instincts were correct; people love our food,” Higgins said.

Another part of his menu people like is that it offers vegetarian and gluten-free dishes everyday, not just by request. “Our grits and rooms, which is grits with sautéed mushrooms instead of meat, is very popular. You don’t even miss the meat. Vegetarians love coming to a place where they don’t have to ask for special foods,” he said.

To open Hearth, Higgins gave up a lucrative job he’d worked hard to attain. He was downstate Illinois manager for Pernod Ricard, the second largest liquor manufacturer and supplier in the world, for eight years. Before that he spent 23 years as a wine salesman for Southern Wines and Spirits, a large wholesaler.
Those jobs not only made him an expert on wines and spirits but it taught him a lot about the restaurant business. He could already cook, something he said seemed to come natural to him and something he enjoyed.

“My passion for cooking has always been there. It never went away. In fact, it increased. I knew this was something I had to do,” he said.

When he made the decision to start his own restaurant, it didn’t come without some trepidation. The Pernod Ricard job, he said, “came with all the bells and whistles” in the way of salary and benefits. “It was tough to walk away from those things and into such a volatile business. But here I am.”

So now he has 12- to 14-hour days, making sure to be there early enough to help prepare for lunch and then dinner. While most of the cooking is now handled by his brother Rudy Higgins for lunch and his 26-year-old son Seth for dinner, “I still have to see every plate that goes out to make sure it’s good enough. Then I visit every table and listen to my customers. It doesn’t end there, of course. I tend bar when I need to and I bus tables…whatever is needed, I will do it. I’m certainly not above it.”

“I’m working harder than I ever have. But I knew it was going to be that way, so I’m not complaining.”

The Prospect Road location wasn’t Higgins’ first stop. He’d looked at several places before stopping in to chat with Mary Kilpatrick, owner of French Toast, while working his previous job. “She’d heard through the restaurant grapevine that I was thinking of starting my own place. She tried to ward me off, but I didn’t let her scare me off,” he said.

So he showed her his restaurant business plan and got her approval, as well as that of the founder of Biaggi’s. A few days later, she called him and said she was ready to retire.

“We sat down and talked and worked it out. She was great. She still is. She lets me call her with questions and helps when I need it,” Higgins said.

But the biggest help, he added, was that she hired Seth Higgins for the last few months she kept French Toast open so he could learn fine dining skills. “Seth started cooking in college (at Illinois State University) at the Garlic Press, where he got a great foundation. Then when he came back here he went to work at One World Café, which was a great place to learn the pressures of running a kitchen. So I think he’s had a pretty good education and now, he’s doing great. I talk with him about recipes and such and he gets it. He gets it. And when a customer asks to talk with him to compliment, I love seeing the pride on his face when he comes out of the kitchen,” Higgins said.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).