Regional Dining Guide

Hearthrock Cafe: A New Chef Brings New Enthusiasm

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Todd Cooper, Hearthrock Café’s new head chef, is part of some big changes at the establishment. Learn about the new and exciting updates and find out why longtime fans of Hearthrock shouldn’t worry about a thing.

Hearthrock Cafe Chef Todd Cooper wants to follow the farm-to-table trend as much as possible.

Hearthrock Cafe Chef Todd Cooper wants to follow the farm-to-table trend as much as possible.

Todd Cooper’s energy and creativity have landed him a job as head chef at Benson Stone Company’s Hearthrock Café, 1100 11th St., and he has big plans. “I want to continue to develop the menu,” he says. “I don’t want it to sit still. I want to grow and have the restaurant grow with me.”

Hired in September, Cooper hit the floor running. Now he’s part of some big changes taking place at Hearthrock, as the business rolls out a new café menu, more bakery items, a new web site and more.

Longtime fans of Hearthrock need not worry. Cooper is aware that some things don’t need changing. He says he won’t interfere with what already works, like many of the signature dishes for which the café is known. These include a tender and savory pot roast sandwich and BBQ pulled pork, which is smoked in-house. There are three homemade BBQ sauces to go with the pork – House Sauce, Brickyard and spicy Pepper Pot.

Cooper is following the farm-to-table trend by working with seasonal and fresh ingredients as much as possible.

“I’ve been cooking all my life. You have to enjoy learning and be open to how experts can help you. The trick is to never let yourself become too comfortable and always aim for growth and improvement in what you do,” he says.

A new computerized menu board above the café counter, where people place their orders, will help customers keep pace with what changes Cooper is introducing. These include daily and weekly features and three new homestyle soups in addition to the three favorites already on the menu.

The bakery case also has more items on display, such as cupcake-style cookies with fillings and new flavors in scones and muffins. Cooper looks forward to combining seasonal flavors and cooking special offerings in the spirit of various holidays.

When his changes are finalized, there will be a wider variety of quesadillas, flatbreads, soups, seasonal salads and wraps. The soups will be made with homemade stock and lots of fresh vegetables and chunky portions of meat.

Some new dishes Cooper has already introduced include a Mutated Reuben sandwich, made with a homemade sauce and pickled red cabbage; a roast beef sandwich smothered in muenster cheese and a homemade mushroom sauce; and a Cordon Bleu sandwich made with his version of a honey Dijon sauce, piled high with chicken, ham, and Swiss cheese.

Owned by Benson Stone Co., Hearthrock is known for an atmosphere that’s warm and cozy with fireside seating, yet open and airy with lots of natural light.

The cafe specializes in breakfast, lunch, espresso drinks, gourmet coffees and teas. The café offers two flavors of the day plus a decaffeinated and regular blend of coffee. A bottomless mug is $1.50. Customers can also purchase whole beans or ground coffee by the pound.

The breakfast menu includes biscuits and gravy, homemade waffles with toppings, breakfast sandwiches and quiche that’s served all day. Signature lunch sandwiches include a Smoked Turkey BLT, Beef & Asiago and Chicken Breast Bruschetta. A Grilled Chicken and Spinach Wrap is served on a sun-dried tomato and basil tortilla.

One of Cooper’s most successful creations is his Benson BLT, made with double bacon, garlic aioli, Roma tomatoes, Romaine lettuce, guacamole, red onion and served on marbled rye.

Prior to working for Benson’s, Cooper worked seven years as the sous-chef at Octane in downtown Rockford, under the tutelage of Chef Patrick Alberto. Cooper credits Alberto with taking him under his wing and helping him transition from cook to chef. Alberto also allowed Cooper the freedom to try new things, he says.

“He taught me to take chances with flavor combinations and showed me foolproof techniques. He helped build up my confidence, making me feel good enough and ready to run my own business. If it hadn’t been for him, I wouldn’t be here today,” he says.

Andy Benson’s encouragement also inspires Cooper.

“The entire staff made me feel at home and accepted right away.”

Cooper is aware that people of all ages have patronized Hearthrock regularly for years. He says he wants to cater to their needs, while also cooking up some new ideas that attract even more business.

“I love talking with customers, learning more about them and what they like and I will always take into consideration what they are saying about food,” he says.

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