Busy chef creates Durham's triple treat

aweigl@newsobserver.comOctober 27, 2012 

  • Tips from Amy Tornquist’s kitchen Chef Amy Tornquist and her staff share some advice based on their collective decades in the kitchen: • Chop and dice all ingredients before you get the heat going. • Keep your knives sharp. It takes less time to chop ingredients with a sharp knife. • Clean as you go. • Taste to check the seasoning before serving. • Don’t give up. Just because a dish didn’t turn out well doesn’t mean it won’t turn out great when you try again. • Overripe bananas can be frozen for later use in banana bread or hummingbird cake. • Always crack eggs into a separate container before adding it to a batter. It is a pain to scavenge for shells in the batter you hope to use. • Salt is an important ingredient when flavoring sweet dishes. If something tastes a little flat, add a touch of salt.
  • More information Tornquist’s empire • Sage & Swift Catering 2505 Whilden Dr., Durham, 919-957-7889, sageandswift.com • Watts Grocery 1116 Broad St., Durham, 919-416-5040, wattsgrocery.com • Hummingbird 721 Broad St., Durham, 919-908-6942, hummingbird-durham.com

In the seven years that Kelly Alexander has taught a food writing and culture class at Duke University, there is always one student who wants to write a profile of chef Amy Tornquist.

The mother of two owns three bustling Durham businesses: a catering company, the acclaimed Broad Street restaurant named Watts Grocery and a bakery called Hummingbird a few blocks away. The cupcake-loving, Pinterest-adoring young women envy Tornquist’s life as a mom and entrepreneur.

“That is their goddess,” Alexander says, “She makes it look very easy.”

Alexander even heard recently from one of those former students, who was quitting her job as a banker in Singapore to enroll in pastry school in France. The woman told Alexander: “I could never get my experience with Amy out of my head.” With Hummingbird opening in late August, Tornquist is carving out a business empire in Durham. She is one of a handful of female chefs in the Triangle who own their own restaurants. With more than 20 years in the business, she’s a mentor to many other female entrepreneurs.

To the outside observer, Tornquist, 47, may look like a superwoman, expertly juggling soccer games, ballet lessons and growing businesses. But she’ll be the first to tell you that she’s far from it.

What she will tell you is this: She is an insomniac, a worrywart, a mom concerned about her younger daughter’s recent diagnosis of ADHD and a businesswoman counting down the days three years from now when she will pay off her hefty business loans.

She also will tell you that she couldn’t do it all alone. Her husband, artist Jeremy Kerman, works for her at the catering company, Sage & Swift. Her 79-year-old mother, Elizabeth Tornquist, helps ferry her grandchildren to and from soccer and dance lessons. And Tornquist will praise her employees: Sunny Gerhart, executive chef at Watts Grocery; Glenn Lozuke, a longtime catering employee and alumnus of the acclaimed Magnolia Grill; Moe Melvin, the runner between her businesses for a dozen years; and too many others among her 50 workers to name.

Decisive businesswoman

Spending a day with Tornquist offers a glimpse of how she operates as a businesswoman: decisive, willing to teach, preferring not to micromanage her employees. It’s always clear who’s the boss, even when she’s working with her husband.

“The kitchen isn’t a democracy,” her husband, Kerman, explains. “...When we’re at work, she gets to be the boss.”

On this Thursday in mid-July, the to-do list is long: take her older daughter to ballet class in Raleigh, make desserts for the restaurant, check in with a contractor at Hummingbird bakery/cafe about paint colors, lighting and a metal wall sculpture, order alcohol for the restaurant, print out the night’s menu and be back home by 6 for a small dinner with family and friends.

Her husband is in awe of Tornquist’s business acumen. Just a few years ago, they laughed at the idea of opening a restaurant – and now she owns two. He says, “You have to marvel a bit at Amy’s ambition and drive.”

Tornquist says she gets that drive from her mom, Elizabeth. Mother and daughter were on their own from the time Amy was 6 weeks old, and things were tough until Elizabeth was hired to teach writing at UNC’s nursing school. Amy was 8 at the time. Now almost 15 years past typical retirement age, Elizabeth continues to work as a consulting medical editor, in part to help pay her grandchildren’s $40,000 annual tuition at Durham Academy.

Both women are brilliant. Tornquist graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with honors and a double major in American history and Russian and Eastern European studies. She was once fluent in French and Serbian and knows some Italian, Spanish and German.

Crook’s Corner turning point

After graduation, she thought she’d have a career in law or publishing. But her path made a far different turn when she took a year off to work in the kitchen at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, where the head chef, the late Bill Neal, helped raise the profile of Southern food in the 1980s. Neal recognized Tornquist’s talent right away.

“When you are working with someone, you can just tell who’s got it,” Crooks’ owner Gene Hamer says, “And she had it.”

In that kitchen, Tornquist also worked beside other chefs who would go on to win James Beard awards – the Academy Awards of the restaurant business – John Currence, now of City Grocery in Oxford, Miss., and Robert Stehling, now with Hominy Grill in Charleston. Working with those men and others, Tornquist realized her future was in the kitchen.

“You are either a kitchen pirate or you’re not,” Tornquist says. “It was a great experience for me. I knew it was there that I felt most at home.”

Studying in France

Tornquist studied cooking at the La Varenne school in Paris for a year and then stayed in France three more years, working as a personal chef for a British diplomat.

In 1992, she returned to Durham and opened Sage & Swift Catering with her first husband. The marriage ended, but Tornquist took over the business, which grew slowly over the next 15 years. Her company catered Duke’s faculty dining room and managed the cafe at the Nasher art museum – baby steps that prepared her for opening a restaurant.

In 2007, she opened Watts Grocery to stellar reviews. N&O restaurant critic Greg Cox gave the restaurant 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.

He wrote: “Tornquist’s passion for locally grown produce and artisanal foods ... translates into a seasonally changing menu that marries the rustic Southern flavors of the Durham native’s childhood with her classic French training.”

Tornquist is modest about her food, describing it as “simple.” It’s similar to that of her mentor, Bill Neal – well-executed Southern classics tinged with French technique. On her menu, diners will see Southern favorites like deviled ham and barbecue shrimp next to duck confit and beurre blanc.

“She wants to keep a lot of the older North Carolina traditions going,” says her friend, chef Scott Howell of Nana’s in Durham. “She cooks what she knows.”

She also shares what she knows, helping other women entrepreneurs succeed.

Without really knowing Phoebe Lawless, the owner of Scratch in Durham, Tornquist offered her the use of the Sage & Swift kitchen at night to get Lawless’ farmers market stand off the ground. Lawless credits Tornquist’s generosity with her own business success. “Without that transition,” she says, “I could never have opened Scratch.”

And Tornquist is still always there to offer advice. Both Lawless and Jennings Brody, owner of Parker and Otis cafe and shop in Durham, say the same thing about Tornquist: She’s always a text away.

Ah, time for supper

By 5:50 p.m. on that Thursday in mid-July, Tornquist walks through the door of her Durham home. Her husband is preparing dinner. Her daughters and three friends can be heard upstairs, squealing as they play a game of Sorry.

Tornquist is soon pitching in to cut up watermelon and cantaloupe as her husband sautés triggerfish for tacos. Tornquist fills her husband in on the day: the silly name of a new peach cocktail (Aaahh Peach Out!), the electric-blue paint color at the bakery, how she had to teach a kitchen assistant the difference between a compote and a puree. Kerman sets out taco toppings on the dining room table.

“Are you all ready to supper?” Tornquist asks her daughter Lizzie. When Lizzie says “yes,” Tornquist tells her to fetch the other children for dinner.

“I think we’re going to have to have supper,” Tornquist says. “I’m tired.”

Weigl: 919-829-4848

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