Our Restaurant Week coverage continues all week and in addition to restaurant reviews, we’re also highlighting some of our favorite spots and creators.

The Red Herring is an institution in C-U, offering an ever-changing menu of vegan food. It was the first entirely vegetarian and vegan restaurant in the area, and continues to keep things interesting by constantly evolving its menu and sourcing from local producers whenever possible. I spoke with Holly Curia and Lauren Kolb, co-chefs at The Red Herring, about Restaurant Week.

Smile Politely: Can you tell us a little about yourself? When and how did you decide to become a chef, and how’d you come to own and operate a restaurant in C-U?

Holly Curia: I came to this town to attend the U of I, and fell in love with Urbana right from the start. I was always passionate about environmental activism, and healthy, healing foods. I learned to cook from my mother and sister growing up. I graduated with an International Studies degree in 2012, traveled the world and worked (and cooked) on organic farms for a few months. Then I landed back in Urbana to find meaningful work at The Red Herring doing all the things I care most about: cooking healthy food for my community, supporting local farms & seasonal produce, working for an organization where cooking with sustainable food is valued. The Red Herring is a project of a local non-profit organization, The Channing Murray Foundation. Their mission is to support projects that embody social and environmental justice practices.

Lauren Kolb: I moved here from Erie, Pennsylvania to attend law school at the university. Although I enjoyed the classes, I found the legal profession was not a good fit for me... too many ethical compromises, among other reasons. The Herring was a refuge for me throughout school and I began working here my second year. Despite having minimal kitchen experience, I quickly fell in love with the creative space, kind and caring staff, and stimulating work environment. When Holly asked me to take on a chef/managerial role, right around the time of my graduation, I was overjoyed to expand my participation in such a radically good project, and I still feel that way. 

SP: What have been the most rewarding parts of your job?

Curia: Cooking is so creative and experiential. It's uplifting to bring people joy and satisfaction from the food you make and the vibe you can create in your space. It's also incredibly rewarding to work intimately with local farmers to use their produce while planning menus. Lastly, I love to eat. When you're a chef, you get to eat a lot of good food.

Kolb: It certainly warms my heart to hear that customers love the menus we're cooking up; and I'm grateful we have the opportunity, especially in spring/summer, to connect people with local farmers and food. I'm also proud of the fact that we are able to grow some of our own food in a garden during the summer! Everyone on our team brings something unique to the kitchen in the form of love, innovation and/or energy. Finding the strengths and passions of the staff and empowering them to experiment with what they enjoy is my favorite part of leading in the kitchen.

SP: What about the most challenging?

Curia: The demands of the kitchen are real. Some days are long and exhausting, and some meals are stressful to pull off. The restaurant world can be incredibly fast paced, yet totally unpredictable. But it's also very badass and fun, it's just a different way to cook.

Kolb: The most challenging parts of my job have been dealing with financial concerns and occasional interpersonal conflict among staff, which is uncommon for us but definitely to be expected in a such a stressful and tiny work space. More recently we've been confronted with the fact that we are reaching our limit for the quantity of food we're capable of serving with the facilities available, so finding ways to efficiently organize the kitchen is paramount.

SP: What do you hope to get out of participating in Restaurant Week?

Curia: I want to help celebrate how awesome our local food scene is! Of course, it's always wonderful if we can make a new connection with someone who finds something they like in The Red Herring. 

Kolb: I hope to see some new faces at the Herring, and share our space and food with the community we care about so much. We don't do much promotion, so I think we're still relatively 'hidden' from many who might appreciate our service. I'm also looking forward to celebrating other local restaurants!

SP: Tell us about how you decided upon your RW menu. What can diners look forward to?

Curia: We wanted to do something that we knew we do well — we make great vegan burgers, and we pulled out all of our favorite seasonal ingredients for this particular choice.

Kolb: Our RW special is a beet burger with basil-lemon mayo, seared organic kale, and grilled onions, served with a side salad topped with cinnamon roasted walnuts, chopped apple, coconut bacon, red onion, and a creamy tahini dressing. Creating unique burgers is one of our favorite things at the Herring, and I chose beets because they're packed with antioxidants and nutrients, perfect for these bitter icy days. I based this burger specifically on a fusion dish I created about a year ago and I'll let you in on a couple of my secret ingredients: garlic and onion sautéed with balsamic vinegar, and a touch of dark cocoa powder!

The Red Herring
1209 W Oregon St
Urbana
M-F 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
W 5 to 8 p.m.

Note: The Red Herring is closed on Wednesday, January 30th. There will not be an Indian cuisine dinner this week.

Photo from The Red Herring’s Facebook page