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How Chef Liz Huff Put Catalpa on the Map

  • 8 min to read

Liz Huff’s doctor stopped his exam to ask her a question: Had anyone ever told her they had a hard time finding her uterus?

“I looked at him without even taking a breath,” Huff recalls now, “and said, ‘Oh my God! It happened at the grocery store yesterday!’”

Joking aside, Huff knew something was wrong – really wrong. That she’d gone to the doctor in the first place was proof enough. The owner and chef of Catalpa restaurant in Arrow Rock, Missouri, claims a high threshold for pain, the legacy of a serious car accident in college. Slice a finger open in the kitchen? Grab the superglue, keep going.

Yet in the fall of 2012, her body was breaking down, and not simply because she was a chef in her early 40s who worked 18 hours straight, who stayed at her restaurant after her small staff had gone home for the night to do the tasks that they’d neglected. Clean the espresso machine. Stock the beer cooler. Change the toilet-paper roll.

The intense effort, not to mention the risk of opening a big-city-style restaurant – reservation-only, a chef’s table in the kitchen, a focus on locally sourced, seasonal ingredients – in a town with 56 residents, was paying off. Earlier that year, the readers of Rural Missouri magazine had voted Catalpa the state’s best restaurant. (As Huff remembers it, the magazine’s staff admitted to her that they hadn’t even heard of Catalpa until their readers voted it the winner.)

But then, one day, making the routine 45-minute drive from Arrow Rock to Columbia, Missouri, to gather ingredients for the restaurant, Huff had to pull over to take a nap.

“I didn’t want there to be something wrong because I didn’t have health insurance, and I didn’t want to lose my restaurant,” Huff says. “So I’m just not going [to the doctor] unless I feel like I’m dying.

“And then I felt like I was dying, so I went.”

The doctor found a large tumor – 7 pounds, it would weigh – and several smaller ones. Whether they were uterine or ovarian was unclear. He wanted Huff to schedule an immediate surgery.

Huff asked the doctor whether she could wait instead until the new year, two months away.

She told him, “I have Christmas parties already booked, and these people are counting on me, and that’s my money for the winter because I’m closed January and February.

“He said, ‘Are you serious?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m serious.’

“So I went basically from November to January not knowing if I was going to die.”

It was a gamble, but maybe not as audacious as it seems. This wasn’t Huff’s first close brush with death, and here she was, still cooking.

The house that Catalpa occupies was built in the 1960s, which makes it brand-new in Arrow Rock. Nineteenth-century buildings line the tree-shaded streets of this tiny town, which is a National Historic Landmark. You can eat lunch at the J. Huston Tavern (1834), see the house where the great painter George Caleb Bingham lived (1837) and catch the Lyceum Theatre’s latest production inside a former Baptist church (1872).

Catalpa doesn’t stand out, though. The house is a scaled replica of Bingham’s, and unless you’re a period expert – or unless Huff herself leads you on a tour, pointing out such incongruities as its two chimneys but only one fireplace – you might assume it, too, was a couple of decades shy of its bicentennial.

The dining room is cozy; a mere nine tables fit into a space decorated with vintage photos, family furniture and Arrow Rock memorabilia (and featuring that one working fireplace). You’d call the kitchen spacious only if you were apartment-shopping in New York City, and Huff forced her builders to cram the stove, the fridge and all of the other equipment into essentially one-half of the room so that there would also be space for a chef’s table.

“I want people to eat with me in the kitchen,” Huff explains. “The whole idea of this place is having people come over to your house for dinner. I have a dinner party every night. I genuinely feel like the people who come here are my friends.”

Huff will sometimes leave the kitchen and walk into the dining room to describe a special or show off a tray off desserts.

The restaurant’s size limits the length of its menu, but not its scope. Dishes might include spanakopita, pheasant-Cognac sausage or garlic shrimp with red chiles that Huff herself brought back from the small New Mexico town of Chimayó.

Huff’s passion for cooking and curiosity about food began in her childhood. She and her older sister grew up in nearby Marshall. Their father was (and is) a lawyer. Their mother was an artist; she painted, sculpted and worked with ceramics and fiber. She’d studied art at Mills College in Oakland, California, where she’d made a diverse group of friends – and learned their recipes.

“We didn’t even have a Chinese restaurant in town,” Huff says, “and my mom was making Mongolian barbecue.”

Her mother’s cooking was so globally influenced – Cambodian food on the stove, seaweed in the pantry – that Huff and her sister’s friends would refuse to spend the night or would come over only after dinner.

Huff was 10 years old when her mother died of breast cancer. “She was sick for a lot of the time I remember,” she says. “[But] one of my favorite and most vivid memories is the cooking. We would watch Julia Child as a family on PBS.”

Huff’s father never remarried or even dated after her mother’s death, and he remains a central figure in her life. “His whole life was work and us,” she says. “Every good thing in my life, he’s been a part of.”

Huff’s father made a mean meatloaf, but she still found herself yearning for her late mother’s exploration and experimentation in the kitchen.

“So I started cooking.”

She continued to watch Julia Child. She drew from her mother’s recipes and a book called Cooking for Kids. She experimented. Even then her philosophy of cooking was beginning to coalesce. When she was sixteen, she worked at The Old Arrow Rock Tavern, now J. Huston Tavern. During the summer, the chef let her make the cobblers for dessert.

“That was fun,” she says, “but you had to use canned fruit. Even when I was sixteen, I knew that’s not the way to do that. There are apple trees all over town, and apples are falling and rotting on the ground. Let’s go get some!”

Huff wanted to keep cooking after high school, but this was just before the explosion of all things food-related in America, when culinary school didn’t carry the Food Network-approved cachet that it does now.

“My sister was at Colgate [University studying] philosophy and religion and doing all these really smart things,” Huff says. “I thought I’d better do the liberal arts thing, too.”

Huff went to the College of Santa Fe, now known as Sante Fe University of Art and Design, to study pre-elementary education. It was there, a couple of years later, that she got into a terrible car wreck. She punctured her lungs, broke both of her knees, her arms and 12 of her ribs. The damage to her face alone would require several surgeries to repair.

She still thought becoming a teacher was a noble pursuit, but when she came to in the hospital room, she’d made up her mind.

“It would be a shame to die without doing what you want,” she says now.

She was going to cooking school.

Catalpa isn’t the first restaurant that Huff has opened in Arrow Rock. It isn’t even the first restaurant that she’s opened in the house on High Street.

Once she’d recovered from her accident, Huff followed a very specific plan to learn as many facets of the restaurant business as she could before opening her own place. She enrolled at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont. She thrived there, though not without enduring the additional stress of being one of the very few women in the program.

“It was rough,” she says of the razzing. She recalls one instructor sending her into a walk-in freezer to repair a small piece that had broken off an ice sculpture by gluing it back on with her own spit. When she emerged, shivering, after running out of spit 20 minutes later, he informed her he’d just been “shitting” her.

(Not coincidentally, the kitchen staff at Catalpa is entirely female. “There’s some sort of base understanding about my work ethic and my insistence on extreme customer service that seems to work better with women than with men,” Huff says. “I don’t know why.”)

After graduating, she worked as a food-service manager at Harvard Law School, an experience that taught her she wasn’t cut out for paperwork. She learned butchery at a shop in Boston, a place that she’d sought out because she’d read in a newspaper blurb that Julia Child herself shopped there. (She did; Huff took her order by telephone.) She gained front-of-house experience managing a tapas restaurant.

Huff returned to Arrow Rock in 2001 to open the first iteration of Catalpa. “It was gangbusters,” she says. “It went really, really, really well.”

Successful as it was, the restaurant lasted only two years.

“The major problem there was substance abuse,” Huff admits. “I got out of control with it. I worked so hard, and after work every night you just sit around and drink because there’s this mentality, like, ‘I work so hard I deserve to get really drunk,’ or ‘I deserve to go out and score some coke,’ or whatever it is.”

Huff checked herself into a 28-day treatment center in Boonville and then, after tying up loose ends in Arrow Rock, moved to the Virgin Islands to work. She wanted to stay clean, but the challenges were many – in the Virgin Islands, of course, where it seemed like everyone was a vacationer looking to party, but also when she returned to Arrow Rock a few months later. Yet because she never lost a job or became homeless due to her substance abuse, part of Huff believed she could get by.

“Until I realized that I had to quit everything [including alcohol], it didn’t work,” she says. “I really wanted to stay clean – and I just kept screwing up.

“I took a bunch of my dad’s blood pressure pills, [lay] down and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ You really feel like that’s the best way because you’re hurting your family, and everybody’s worried about you, and you just can’t seem to get it right.”

She was rushed to the hospital in Marshall, had her stomach pumped and was then taken to the ICU in Columbia and remained there for several days. Then she checked herself back into treatment.

“That’s the whole turning point,” Huff says. “I didn’t [get sober] because I felt it was unfair to my father; I didn’t do it because I felt like my sister wanted me to. I didn’t do it because of society. I didn’t do it for anything other than me.

“Because I wanted to live, and the only way to live was to be clean and sober.”

Huff has been ever since, eight years now, even through the anxiety two years ago of not knowing whether her tumors were cancerous.

“At that time I was 41,” Huff says. “My mother died when she was 44. I felt like, I’m going to die before I get to live. If there [were ever a] time I would go have a drink, that would’ve been it.”

The tumors were benign, and as 2014 draws to a close, Huff finds herself in a very good place. In her personal life, she’s found happiness with her boyfriend of one year, Bret.

“He actually makes me like myself, which is pretty great,” she says and then pauses before continuing. “It’s incredible. I went through some pretty dark times.”

Catalpa also continues to gain acclaim. Again in 2013 and 2014 the readers of Rural Missouri saluted it as the state’s best restaurant. Meanwhile, Huff is preparing to start bottling her own line of salad dressings, something she did successfully when she opened her first Arrow Rock restaurant.

But you don’t need to know any of Huff’s story to understand that Catalpa is something special. You’ll notice it as you soak up every last drop of the chile-laced oil from those garlic shrimp with your made-from-scratch yeast roll. You’ll notice it as Huff steps out of the kitchen and into the dining room to talk up that day’s special or to parade around a tray of apple strudels.

She’d gathered the apples that morning – or, rather, she’ll tell you with a wicked smile, she saw them going to waste and absconded with them, to give them new purpose in her kitchen.

Catalpa, 503 High St., Arrow Rock, Missouri, 660.837.3324, catalparestaurant.com

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