Adventurous Fare at Char-cu-te-rie in Visalia
New York on MainMay 2015
By Jordan Venema
Photos: Josiah Alter
If you’ve set foot in Visalia’s Char-cu-te-rie, you’ve probably caught a glimpse of owner Catherine Heaney. But only just before she dips behind the counter or through the back door, which, according to a warning sign, is home to killer bees and sharp knives. But she’s not dodging customers. As the owner, barista, proprietor and cook – call Heaney busy, but just don’t call her chef.
“No, no, no, no, no,” she emphatically declines the tag. “I’m just a borderline weirdo.”
Debatable, but however she cuts it, Heaney is the heart, mind, and hands behind Main Street’s culinary treatery, Char-cu-te-rie. The concept of Char-cu-te-rie is simpler to explain than pronounce, and loyal customers who don’t already call it home, fondly call it Char.
In Heaney’s words, “We’re a café and coffee shop that does light fare.” But it’s so much more. Light fare with simple ingredients, maybe, but complex flavors, and then there’s then epicurean treats and third-wave coffee, cheese and meat plates, bottled beers, homemade donuts, soups and daily specials that are usually plated with a pun, a la getting piggy with it.
In short, Heaney has built much more than a café, and she’s done it without a lick of culinary training.
In fact, she spent eight years in New York studying to become a clinical psychologist, accruing two master degrees along the way. She returned to Visalia to complete her clinical hours, but realized soon thereafter she preferred a different course.
Heaney followed her passion, she followed the food, and decided to open a café in Visalia. She also admits, “I wanted to open a place so I didn’t miss New York and the other places I’d been.” Enter Char, her own little corner of New York on Main.
While living in New York, Heaney had access to some of the world’s best eateries, from high-class restaurants to back alley holes-in-the-wall. And though she never formally studied food from the kitchen’s perspective, she certainly studied it from the plate. Char is Heaney’s informal education manifested in Visalia. “It came about through my experiences and traveling and living in New York, and experiencing lots of different foods.”
If New York is the capital of cuisine, then Heaney is its ambassador. Char is her catalogue of comestibles, a synthesis of sustenance, entrees transcribed from her dietary diary. But it’s also a place where Visalians can be adventurous.
“I wanted a place where people could try and experience new things,” says Heaney. Pork belly burgers, perhaps, or maybe the carrot coconut soup. Something sweet, then the milk chocolate donut bread pudding might be your thing.
And while Heaney’s culinary creations are her own, she neither shrinks from emulating the best she’s tried elsewhere. Like the Canadian Club (a Char must), an idea inspired by a Montreal eatery is called Au Pied de Cochon – Pig’s Foot. Basically, she adds a little maple syrup to a fried egg topped with cheddar. The result “is like bread pudding, the best thing ever, and so simple.”
Though she’s found inspiration from around the world, Char’s menu reflects local tastes. When Char opened three years ago, it only served coffee and a maybe a daily sandwich. But regulars began requesting formerly offered specials, which were subsequently incorporated into a menu. “Yeah, the menu was created by the customer, which is the best way, really,” she says. Specials have proven to be her bread and butter.
So consider Char Visalia’s own corner of cosmopolitan cuisine, a place to find big-city dishes at small-town prices. “I’ve actually been told that our prices are too low, and it’s a weird thing to hear, because I want people to try things and feel comfortable.”
Three years later, Char has grown beyond Heaney’s original vision. But that’s because she has grown, too – especially as, ahem, a chef. “I’ve always liked to cook to an extent,” she says, though her cookbooks aren’t the prettiest due to frequent use. But when she began recreating dishes from memory, there was no blueprint to follow. “Cooking became more playful, though I was still nervous.”
Through trial and error – “add a little more salt, or what if I add currants?” – Heaney taught herself what culinary training might have otherwise limited: how to enjoy food from the other side of the plate, from the kitchen, as a chef.
In early January, however, Heaney finally caved in. She took a three-week culinary course in New York. Don’t expect her to begin calling herself a chef anytime soon, though, which is fine, since the proof is in the pudding: Heaney knows a thing about food, and her customers know it.
Which is why they keep coming. They long ago figured out that Char-cu-te-rie isn’t really that hard to spell, let alone pronounce. Because however you rearrange the letters, they always spell the same thing: Delicious.
211 W Main St, Visalia • (559) 733-7902
Mon – Fri: 7am-4pm • Sat & Sun: 9am-4pm
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