By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Jun 29, 2016 at 1:01 PM

Tre Rivali, the restaurant at the new Kimpton Journeyman Hotel in the Third Ward, will open its doors to the public on Thursday, June 30.

In light of the opening, we sat down with Tre Rivali Executive Chef Heather Terhune in an effort to get to know her a bit better.

Most people met Chef Terhune during season nine of "Top Chef," a drama-filled season where her famous feuds with fellow Chicago chef Beverly Kim largely overshadowed her culinary prowess.

But, Terhune’s career encompasses far more than reality show spats. And hers is a culinary journey that began early.

"I was 4 years old when I told my parents I wanted to be a chef," notes Terhune as she waxes a bit poetically about her childhood in St. Albans, Vermont.

"We were surrounded by dairy farms," she says. "My dad hunted and made his own wine. And we had a big garden and tapped our own maple trees … my mother canned things … and all of those experiences really shaped my attitude toward food. Essentially, we were eating farm-to-table before anyone really called it that."

A move to Meryville, Missouri – where "there was land everywhere, and everyone lived on farms" – gave Terhune her first taste of the Midwest, the region which would ultimately serve as the launchpad for her culinary career.

She attended the University of Missouri in Columbia, where she earned her bachelor’s degree studying hotel and restaurant management. From there, she moved on to the New England Culinary Institute at Essex Junction, receiving a hands-on education from classically trained European chefs, along with an externship in New Orleans, where she learned (among other things) how to operate a wood-burning oven.

Upon completing culinary school, she moved to Washington D.C., where she began her professional career at The Willard Room before moving on to The Watergate Hotel’s famed Jean Louis restaurant. There, she worked under Michelin three-star recipient Jean Louis Palladin until his retirement.

"The chef there was Moroccan," she recalls. "And that’s where my love for Mediterranean cuisine really began."

She detoured to Durham, North Carolina, where she worked for Ben Barker at the landmark Italian restaurant Pop’s, before deciding she needed a change of pace.

"I’d visited Chicago and fallen in love," she says. "And I got a Zagat guide and sent my resume to every restaurant in Chicago I’d like to work at."

Before she knew it, she’d received a call from Kimpton, who was looking to fill a position at 312 in the Allegro Hotel.

"I didn’t even know who they were," she admits. "But apparently my resume had been passed along to them … and they essentially hired me over the phone."

Fast forward less than two years and Terhune got her first big break as opening chef for Chicago’s beloved Atwood Restaurant in the Burnham Hotel.

"At the time, I was still pastry chef at 312, but I was getting bored and I needed to do something else," she recalls. "They invited me for a tasting. And I remember thinking ‘I have no idea what I’m doing’ ... in the end, they took a chance on me.

"And, looking back, I took it head on. I asked lots of questions and I eventually put all the tools together and made it work."

From there, business exploded. And, as she honed her craft, she built a following for her creative, but deceptively simple, takes on rustic American-style fare.

In the years that followed, Terhune would take the helm at Sable Kitchen & Bar in the four-star Palomar Hotel in Chicago, as well as BDK Restaurant, an American bistro in the Hotel Monaco in San Francisco.

And by 2015, she would find herself back in the Midwest as the executive chef for Kimpton’s latest project, Tre Rivali at the Journeyman Hotel in Milwaukee.

Below are Terhune's thoughts on a variety of subjects relating to her work, experiences and interests, as told to OnMilwaukee.

On her new city

"This Milwaukee project (at the Kimpton) was always on the table for me. But, when they told me it was in Milwaukee, I was like, Milwaukee? I don’t know if I can live there.

But, I’ve come to realize that Milwaukee is kind of an untapped market. And I feel like it’s really on the cusp of a culinary breakthrough. So, I think it’s a great time for Kimpton to come in and build this hotel and restaurant.

So far, I’m really liking it here. Milwaukee is super friendly. It feels a lot like Chicago. It’s smaller, which isn’t bad. In fact, that means there’s community. I miss the chef community in Chicago and I’m really interested in building that here."

On local food

"I’ve been to Odd Duck, Vanguard, Wolf Peach … and, of course, I’ve been to Mader’s. I liked that. It’s very Milwaukee. I live really close to Glorioso’s, so I’m always going there. I also love Zaffiro’s. I love Chicago, but I really hate Chicago-style pizza. It’s like a big casserole.

I’m excited that I’m closer to Door County to pick cherries. I’m excited to go to a cranberry bog. And I’m really excited to live in dairy country, in the place with the best cheese in the world."

On "Top Chef"

"I actually loved it. I honestly didn’t think I was going to get in. But two days before my 40th birthday, I got the call that I’d gotten it.

I really did it myself, not for anyone else. I’m highly competitive, so I was really attracted to the idea of competing. I wanted to see if I could compete with people that were basically half my age. But I know now that I can still be creative and cook under pressure. And for me, it was a great chance to stretch, to go beyond my limits. And, in the end, I learned a lot.

There was ugly stuff. Cyber stalking and death threats. But, in the end it’s just TV. But it was great for the restaurant, which had only been open for a year, and really good for my career. I developed friendships and bonds.

At the end of the day, I always tried to remember to stay true to myself – but also to make sure to stay true to the brand. I didn’t want anyone to look bad.

As far as whether or not I’d ever do it again – no, never. I’d do a cooking show or something, but not 'Top Chef' again."

On teaching

"My first job is teaching. I always hire on personality before I base them on skill. Because you can teach anyone this skill, but you can't teach people how to be nice, how to have a passion for food and beverage.

I'm a teacher first, chef second. And if I can’t teach, it’s frustrating."

On the best things at Tre Rivali

"I’m super excited that we’re making all of our own pastas. We have an amazing extruder from Italy, and that will be visible in our pasta room. I’m excited about the wood-fired grill and rotisserie, pizza oven.

I can’t wait to serve up all the fish and seafood and octopus. I’m excited to hone skills I’ve gained traveling through Italy and Spain. And you cook American food for so long, that it’s good to break out. These are foods that I’ve always loved, and all of these ingredients that I’m excited to work into the menu. I’m also excited to expose Milwaukee to a different type of cuisine, my type of cuisine."

On her hobbies

"I just bought a bike. I do love to travel. I love to go to new places to eat. And I spend as much time as I can with my friends and family. I also sometimes practice yoga, so I can stay centered, though I haven’t done that in a while."

On guilty pleasures

"Somebody tried to shame me for eating a hot dog at Home Depot. But I’m never ashamed about a hot dog.

And, I’ll be honest, I am afraid I’m going to get addicted to frozen custard here. So far, I’ve been to Leon’s – which I thought was the best. Their vanilla custard is delicious. But, Kopp’s was also good."

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.