I recently talked with Holly Curia, Head Chef at The Red Herring in Urbana about her experiences and motivations as a chef at a vegan restaurant. The food at The Herring is as diverse as the people who work and frequent the restaurant. With a variety of cuisines featured each week, The Herring demonstrates that plants and vegetables are anything but boring.

Smile Politely: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Holly. Tell us a little about yourself. How did you become a chef, and how long have you been doing this?

Holly Curia: Thank you for wanting to chat with us. I’ve been working at the Red Herring for about a year and a half, first as a prep cook and then later on as Head Chef, as I am now with much support from our cooperative and creative staff. I graduated from the University [of Illinois] in 2012 with a degree in International Studies, which led me to travel for a bit of time after I graduated. I found myself almost exclusively attracted to traveling by way of working and living on organic farms around the world. I’m fascinated with green agriculture, home grown food, and finding a deep connectedness with nature, so much so that upon returning to Urbana to settle down, I decided I wanted to devote my life to a project like The Red Herring — a place focusing on a plant based menu and with a mission to support a greener planet.  I grew up cooking all my life with my family, almost every day, that’s how I learned to cook for people, and I learned to do it at the Herring through experience and long hours of hard work. I’ve now been the Head Chef for one year and have loved every day of it.

SP: What drives you to succeed personally and professionally?

Curia: As cliché as this may sound, my number one driving force is to make the world a more harmonious and joyful place for all living beings. The greater peace I can spread the more successful I feel; this is something I embody both personally and professionally. I believe we live in a world where we are universally connected and there is such a thing as one love, so I really just try to be good to the Earth and all that it entails.

SP: Why vegetarian and vegan food?

Curia: Four areas of concern that prompt us to consider a plant-based diet are personal health, animal health, environmental health, and societal health. We can potentially ease stress to our bodies, reduce poor living conditions for livestock, create more diverse and sustainable uses of our land, and feed the world more efficiently all through greater reliance on vegetarian and vegan food. One thing to consider: most of the corn and soybeans grown here in Illinois and other grains grown in our country go to feeding livestock, some estimate as much as 85 percent.

SP: Tell us about The Red Herring. What’s its history?

Curia: The Herring got it’s start as a program of Channing-Murray Foundation, which serves as a campus center having its roots in Universalist-Unitarian principles of social and environmental justice. Originating as a coffee-shop during the 60’s, we had a social activist mission that made an effort to lure students from their usual college experiences (hence Red Herring) with a more exciting, activist experience. A great deal of music performance and political organizing took place here. Before the nineties, some food service did occur at the coffee shop, but at that point restaurant service took off, becoming an institution for providing vegetarian food and thus furthering foundation principles. The Red Herring has gone through many managers and staff, all while accumulating a rich history of diverse contributions. Today we have a wonderful ambience in our dining area of eclectic artistry, lovely flora, and conscientious people. We have had an all vegan menu for the past two years, a change from our regular vegetarian menu prior. We began having vegan fusion dinners a year and a half ago, where we highlight a different area of the world by interpreting aspects of those areas’ cuisines in vegan form.

SP: What was it about The Red Herring that interested you as a professional?

Curia: I find my work here at The Herring allows me to make a much greater impact than simply filling bellies. It connects our community to a natural, pure source of food and an all around healthier lifestyle and mindset. We aspire so much here to support local agriculture and businesses, to create an inclusive and dynamic community environment, we buy mostly organic goods, we compost and recycle all we can, we offer free yoga classes, we have our own herb garden, we are activists in our work and get to collaborate with groups from all over the world through fundraising and community events, and our number one goal as a non-profit business is to work towards social and environmental justice. This place, to me, is a dream in that it encompasses such a wide array of activities and ideas, and it gives a space for all that this community and campus have to offer.

SP: What was the impetus for the vegan fusion dinners?

Curia: Vegan fusion dinners allowed us to offer exciting and diverse foods during evening hours. Besides our regular lunch hours, this once a week dinner service helps us to share diversity within our richly cultured community. A wider array of community members might often attend our Wednesday evening meals, and it thrills us to create a dining experience that allows more of our community to enjoy. 

SP: How do you select particular dishes? Why one thing instead of another?

Curia: This is a very diverse process. First of all, we have the creative need for a soup special every week and a special dish of the week, plus the Fusion Dinner menu, so on a weekly basis we are having to come up with lots of new ideas. This is something that everyone on our staff participates in, we all explore blogs, magazines, cookbooks, old family recipes, or try our own inventions at home. Then we bring our ideas to the kitchen,  plan out when everything can be made. We often make these choices based on what is growing locally or seasonally; in fact, we try very hard to follow these guidelines year round, especially when the farmer’s market is in season. Customer relationships drive decisions, too, and we listen to their suggestions. We keep customer favorites in mind, such as our African Groundnut Stew. We frequently explore gluten-free cooking, as a large part of our customer base has a consciousness regarding nutritional sensitivities.

SP: How do you keep it interesting (for yourself and for the diners)?

Curia: We use a variety of local, organic produce, which always allows us to stay passionate.  As we keep close contact with several area growers, our relationships give us a constant source of inspiration and amazement in what they produce. Collaboration with community members in creating dishes based on their suggestions adds excitement as we can learn from each other. Whether diners simply bring in ideas or teach us their diverse preparation techniques in person, it adds a whole new dimension to what we can provide as healthy, inspiring cuisine.  

SP: What cuisines do you look forward to taking on?

Curia: Right now I am just so looking forward to having access to our farmer’s market produce in just a few short months, especially fresh tomatoes! Also our final Fusion Dinner of the semester: Breakfast for Dinner — that will be on May 13th.

SP: Favorite Red Herring meal this semester?

Curia: I have two favorites for this, and both were weeks where our entire staff had a strong role in deciding what was made. A few weeks ago we had daily pizza specials, each day pertaining to a staff member’s favorite toppings. Also, just last week, each day we had our staff member’s rethink a regular menu item and put their own personal spin on it, which was fun for both us and our regular customers!

SP: Anything else you’d like to share with SP readers?

Curia: We will be open this summer, so come on by! Also, follow us on Facebook. We update our menu specials and events daily. 

The Red Herring is located at 1209 W Oregon Street, Urbana. Breakfast and lunch are available Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Weekly fusion dinners are Wednesdays from 5-8 p.m.

The Red Herring is closed during spring break, Monday, March 23rd through Friday, March 27th, and will reopen on Monday, March 30th.

For more information, and information about specials, follow The Red Herring on Facebook.

All photos by Scott Wells.