Chef Profile: Kendall Huff

The executive chef of quick-casual vegan restaurants on trends to watch—and ditch

When Kendall Huff figured out that her beloved cows, Sally and Butterscotch, hadn’t gone “on vacation,” she declared herself a vegetarian. In the 23 years since, she’s never wavered from her vow.  After honing her skills at hotel restaurants, like the Peninsula Chicago and The Nines in Portland, Ore., Huff ended up as an executive chef for Native Foods Café, a chain of quick-casual vegan restaurants. The first one opened in 1994 in Palm Springs, Calif., followed by restaurants in Portland, Ore., Boulder, Colo., and three in Chicago, bringing the total to 14. To say she’s busy is an understatement, but Huff wouldn’t want it any other way.

What do you like to cook when you’re off the clock? I am a huge fan of noodles, dim sum and fresh vegetables. I can’t get enough ginger. I like that you can take about five ingredients when you’re cooking any kind of Asian cuisine and tweak (them) to make completely different sauces with the same ingredients. 

One trend you wish would go away? Foam. I used to work a lot with foams at the Peninsula. They’re neat but I really like to eat and I don’t know how much foam I can consume or have to consume to actually be filled up. I think it’s nice and pretty, but I’m a Midwestern girl—I like my food.

The most overused spring item that you love anyway? Saffron. Springtime is a big time for saffron even though you can get it year round. It has a great, unique flavor. It’s super healthy—great for vision, stomach problems, joint and muscle issues.

Your favorite kitchen tool? I like the microplane, but I can’t leave a paring knife behind. There’s always a paring knife in my bag, so it’s a tie on that one.

Your guiding principle to cooking? You have to have fun. There’s always something delicious in the end. Most of the time, it’s something that you’ve created from scratch. In the food business, things get busy and rough and a little bit too stressed-out, and that’s when I just like to step into the kitchen and say, ‘Alright, it’s relax time. What do I get to create now?’ It’s a very refreshing feeling when you’re cooking.

If you had to choose one ingredient to eat for the rest of your life, what would it be? Seaweed. 

What’s the Next Big Thing? It’s got to be vegetarian-vegan cuisine. It’s so big right now, and just being able to spread that plant-based love all around, people are getting really excited about eating healthy these days. 

Finish this sentence: There’s never enough time to …? See the world. 

Any advice for the reluctant diner? Try a little bit of everything. Keep an open mind. 

What’s your process to developing new dishes? Half of the time, I just randomly think of something I ate as a kid—like a pot pie or something—and then I’ll just take that and recreate it. 

What was your biggest kitchen disaster? Doing a wedding—and we were about 40 plates shy. I was covering for somebody else, so I  just assumed that everything was ready to rock, and I didn’t check up on any of the prep. The next 30 minutes (were) a little bit of a disaster but, you know, the bride and groom were happy at the end of it and we didn’t get in too much trouble. I was more upset with the fact that I didn’t recheck the prep.

WHO’S THIS HUFF CHICK?

Age: 30

Hometown: Richmond, Ill.

Education: Illinois Institute of Art, Chicago, Ill.

Mentor(s): Terry Crandall, executive chef at the Peninsula Chicago, and Thomas Keller for inspiration.

What makes you so special? Reader’s Choice Award 2012 and Best Restaurant of the Year 2011 from VegNews Magazine.