Comfort Food With a Touch of the South

by Jonathan Wright

At Hearth, the name says it all...

“It’s heart and earth,” explains Hugh Higgins, “but in the middle is art.” On the first day of spring, the proprietor of Peoria’s newest fine dining establishment is showing me around, a touch of jazz in the air pronouncing hope for the new season.

“We use the ‘local’ theme—local artists and local scenes—whenever we can.” Indeed, while the restaurant highlights Southern cuisine, there’s something unmistakably Midwestern about Hearth. Along one wall, four canvas prints by photographer David Vernon depict the same Tazewell County tree in the spring, summer, winter and fall—symbolic of the menu’s seasonality. Across the room, framed artwork by Craig Stocks and Doug and Eileen Leunig adorn the walls, the hand-blown glass of Hiram Toraason resting comfortably near a ceramic piece by Higgins’ son, Seth.

There’s a palpable sense of warmth at Hearth—from its earthy walls to its trio of fireplaces to the proprietor himself, whose easygoing hospitality is clearly modeled by the waitstaff. There’s history, too: a mosaic of Pabst Blue Ribbon labels in the entryway, a broken chalkboard reclaimed from Pekin High School, black-and-white images depicting the sidewalks of the French Quarter and the historic charm of Charleston, South Carolina. Ever mindful of its lineage, Hearth inherited some of these pieces from French Toast, the restaurant that occupied this space for a dozen years before it. On the restroom doors, two sepia-flavored photos of young children are hung with care. “That’s my mom and dad from 1937,” says Higgins.

A Dream’s Design
This is the site of Hugh Higgins’ dream come true—and it’s a family affair, with older brother Rudy running the kitchen in the day, and son Seth taking over at night. “Years ago, my brother and I worked in the restaurant business together,” he recalls. “We always wanted to have our own place.”

In the late ‘70s and early ’80s, Higgins cut his teeth at a range of Peoria establishments: prepping vegetables at a downtown Chinese restaurant, serving as a short-order cook at a bowling alley, cooking and waiting tables in the Raintree dining room at the old Continental Regency hotel. Meanwhile, his brother ran the kitchen at the Sea Merchant in East Peoria, forerunner of Jonah’s Seafood House, among other restaurant gigs. In 1982, he left food service to sell wine and spirits, something he’s done in various capacities for the last three decades.

Recently, however, Higgins had grown disenchanted and needed a change—“so I started working on this plan.” With eyes on creating his own restaurant, he took a business course at Bradley University and began to research how he could make his dream a reality. Whenever he traveled, which was often, he would seek out the best restaurants, “just trying everything I can.”

“I’m getting up extra-early and taking a cab to a restaurant so I can be there when the doors open,” Higgins says. “I’m ordering three different breakfasts and a dessert by myself… I can’t eat it all but I just had to try everything!” After tending to his work commitments, he’d do the same for dinner. “I’d meet the chef and [ask], Do you have a cookbook? Great! Can I buy a cookbook? ‘Do you want to see the kitchen?’ I’d love to see the kitchen!

“I just kept pursuing it,” he laughs. “I’m going to Charleston… I’m going to Miami, looking for Latin cuisine. I’m in Dallas… let me try some Texas brisket. The whole time, I was doing my homework, but doing it out of market. It allowed me to do something I was passionate about, and it gave me hope there was something else for me out there.”

Passing the Torch
Last July, Higgins stopped by French Toast to visit with owner Mary Kilpatrick, a longtime friend who also ran Wine Country next door. “When I first started selling wine 32 years ago, she was one of my best customers,” he notes. An anchor in the Heights long before it became a food mecca, Kilpatrick told him that after 24 years, she had just sold Wine Country.

“So we’re talking, and she says, ‘A little bird told me you were thinking about getting into the restaurant business,’” Higgins recalls. After hearing out the requisite warnings—the long hours, the hard work, the high failure rate—he declared that he wouldn’t be scared off. Impressed by his drive and vision, Kilpatrick wished him luck finding a space.

“Three days later, she calls me back and says, ‘How would you feel about pursuing your dream at French Toast?’ I was absolutely shocked,” Higgins says. “So we met on a Sunday, had a bottle of champagne and started talking.” Having just sold one business, Kilpatrick hadn’t anticipated also selling French Toast. “But she saw this passion in me, and it was an opportunity for her as well.” Soon, Higgins’ son was working in the kitchen at French Toast, while he and Kilpatrick put together the deal. “Her last day of business was October 14th. I took possession on the 16th, and the wheels started turning really fast.”

After a month of extensive renovations, Hearth opened its doors in the middle of November; Higgins credits Kilpatrick for helping him pull it off. “We talk almost every day,” he says. “She’s helped me with so many things... and she’s invested in my success. If I succeed, she succeeds. So she’s working with me to be successful.”

Elevating Comfort Food
Hearth’s fare can be described as “comfort food with a touch of the South,” says Higgins, a nod to his Kentucky childhood, where he grew up “in the same small town my dad grew up in. My grandma had a huge garden, and we’d sit on the porch swing, shell peas and shuck corn—that’s what you did at night. So I’ve always loved that kind of food.”

Offering a casual lunch and elegant dinner, the restaurant smokes its meats in-house—all of them antibiotic- and hormone-free, and sourced locally whenever possible. A longtime advocate of community supported agriculture, which allows consumers to purchase food directly from farmers, Higgins sees this niche as a growing market. “The more local you can be, the better the quality and safety,” he explains. “I don’t say that I’m ‘farm-to-table,’ but that’s what I’m striving for. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer every week.”

Hearth’s dinner menu features a range of flavorful entrees, from the lacquered salmon with pomegranate-balsamic glaze to the maple-leaf duck breast, nestled upon a blackberry/pinot noir reduction. Among Higgins’ favorites is the bone-in pork chop, paired with smoked collard greens and cornbread dressing—a recipe straight from his grandmother’s kitchen.

“At lunch, we have things like an oyster po’ boy or catfish po’ boy sandwich, definitely Charleston, New Orleans-type things,” Higgins adds. “We have a New Orleans barbeque shrimp as an appetizer, shrimp and grits… Our mac and cheese is made with truffle butter and a little bit of truffle oil… It’s rich and warm, with the fresh breadcrumbs and crunch on top and the ooey gooey… We take a classic comfort food but modernize it a little bit, and maybe elevate it some.”

Given Higgins’ extensive knowledge of wines and spirits, it’s no surprise there’s a well-curated bar. “We have a tremendous selection of bourbon, rye, Irish and Scotch, and we do whiskey flights… so you can taste them side by side,” he says. There’s also a solid wine list and a diverse selection of craft beers, which he and his staff have sought out personally. “We’re always looking for new things.”

The Family Connection
Along with his new restaurant gig, Higgins hosts Homemade in the Heartland, a cooking show created by Peoria architect Rod Budzinski, which first aired on WTVP-TV last fall. “The concept is to create more family time at meal time. When people take the time to sit down and eat together, it makes for great conversation and greater awareness of what’s going on in each other’s lives.

“It’s not just about cooking,” he adds. “It’s about trying to make those connections between family and history and memories—and how powerful meals can be to do that.” The idea hearkens back to Higgins’ own formative years in the Bluegrass State. “We didn’t miss family dinner,” he says. “We all sat around the table—that’s what I grew up with.” With its tasteful melding of art and history with food and family, it’s a notion that sounds a lot like Hearth itself. a&s

Hearth is located at 4604 N. Prospect Road in Peoria Heights. For more information, visit hearthpeoria.com or call (309) 686-0234.

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