Catherine Heaney is an admitted food geek. She studies food, she talks about it enthusiastically – sometimes too much – and she loves to create new foods in her kitchen.
As the owner and chef of Charcuterie, or Char for short, Heaney’s downtown Visalia cafe has been concocting an eclectic mix of French and American cuisine since 2012.
As most customers will tell you, eating at Char is like taking a food journey, and one you are not likely to forget. Imagine eggs fried in maple syrup, tamarind-marinated pork belly, or popcorn with shavings of microplaned frozen butter.
“I want people to feel like they have had the kinds of food experiences I’ve had and visited the places that I have been to,” Heaney says. “I hope people get excited about the food here, because I sure do.”
Heaney laughs when she thinks about the times she’s had to dial back her intensity when talking about food.
“A lot of people appreciate my nerdiness about food, but I sometimes have to remind myself to calm down, especially when I see people’s eyes start to glaze over,” she says.
Raised in Visalia, Heaney attended New York University where she earned her undergraduate degree in psychology. She later received her master’s degree in social work from the New School, also in New York.
But her plans to be a social worker didn’t work out and Heaney fell back on one of her true passions, cooking.
While not a formally trained chef, Heaney has attended several intensive cooking classes, including a three-week course at the French Culinary Institute in New York and a one-day course at the Michelin-starred Paris House in Woburn, England.
Today, Heaney sharpens her skills by devouring cookbooks and experimenting in her kitchen. She admits to being a perfectionist and is sometimes gently scolded by her staff for taking too much time on presentation.
“Let it go, just let it go,” she says, imitating her staff.
She likes pushing the envelope and experimenting with new ideas. She’s driven by her own sense of creativity and the limitations of her kitchen. The 960-square-foot, wood-floored restaurant was once an ice cream parlor with lots of freezer space but little else in the way of a kitchen.
She does not have a hood, range or full-size oven. Instead she creates her food using two toaster ovens, a grill, a prep table and hot plate.
What is perhaps even more remarkable is that Heaney and her staff of five employees are able to prepare breakfast, pastries, sandwiches, salads, ice cream and coffee drinks.
“It is a challenge, there is no question,” she says. “Sometimes the power will go out, or we run out of room. It’s like a dance, and one that we have learned to do well.”
She is grateful her customers are opened minded and willing to try new foods, like the breakfast sandwich she created called the Canadian Club. The centerpiece of the dish is an egg fried in pure maple syrup. A thick piece of applewood smoked bacon and cheddar cheese compliment the egg that sits between two pieces of toasted sourdough muffins.
“I was nervous about it first, but it turned out so good and has become a favorite,” she says. “The egg white sets up really nice and the yolk is nice and runny. It tastes just like candy.”
Also a favorite is the Truffle Egg Toast, a delicious dish combining a poached egg, brioche bun and havarti cheese. This poached egg is like no other. Heaney uses the French method, known as sous vide, that slow cooks the yolk to a rich and creamy texture. It’s like eating egg jelly.
Her pastries are French-inspired and include her version of cronuts that she calls cronutters. The light and fluffy doughnut hybrid changes all the time, and is sometimes topped with coconut cream frosting, seasonal fruit, even cereal.
“I really appreciate the science in baking and the precision it takes,” she says.
I’m on a mission to make the perfect croissant and cronut.
She has also recently added ramen to the menu after visiting her sister in Honolulu and eating at several Japanese restaurants. She loves the complexity of flavors and the symmetry and balance in presenting the dish.
A restless chef, Heaney has learned the art of curing meats, including bacon and pancetta. She’s even cured eggs.
Her sandwiches feature many made-in-house ingredients and a few have silly names, like John Truffolta, a truffle egg salad with crispy prosciutto di parma on a brioche bun. There is also the Fresh Pig of Bel Air, with French double cream brie, Niman Ranch bacon on a brioche bun, and the Rosemary’s Baby, slices of rosemary ham, aged sharp cheddar and English mustard on a toasted baguette.
Frequent customer and food blogger Kindra Franzen, www.bonappetitpaleo.com, says she appreciates the quality of ingredients, especially items such as the Niman Ranch bacon. It left such an impression on her mother-in-law that she was still thinking about it hours after having eaten at Char.
“I can tell by the way she cooks and the ingredients she uses that she truly has a love of food,” Franzen says. “She isn’t just feeding you, she is sharing an experience with you.”