Union Hall chefs past and present keep food creative

Kim Henck is the owner and chef of the historic Union Hall Inn in Johnstown.

“I have always had a passion for food. As a child I was responsible for the desserts of the household,” he said.

“At what age?” I asked.

“Eight,” he responded.

Henck grew up in the Cape Verde Islands, off the coast of West Africa. Henck’s family had a cook, as his parents were full-time missionaries.

“The cook didn’t make desserts,” he said.

His mother told him that if he wanted desserts, he had to make them himself, and that he did. No chocolate chips available, Henck had to be creative – creme brulee from evaporated milk, native fruit pies. Henck’s parents wanted him to have an American education, so at age 13 he was sent to friends in Plattsburgh, where he completed his education while working a full-time job, good training for later owning a restaurant. It was in Plattsburgh where he met his wife, Ann. An engineer by education, Henck attended Morrisville College and then worked for 28 years at MCA/Universal, Gloversville, as production control manager, more good training for the restaurant industry.

“I have always loved to cook,” Henck said. “For years I have done the cooking at home. I read a lot and have a lot of cookbooks; my favorites are ‘Mama Leone’s’ and ‘The Professional Chef’ from the Culinary Institute.”

Henck soon learned that cooking in a restaurant was different than cooking at home. Multitasking is an understatement.

“I couldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for Lauren Saltsman, the chef. He told me I would get used to firing up all the dishes at once and I did, although I occasionally burn a piece of bacon,” Henck said.

“I like to cook simple food but with a step up. I like using the best ingredients. I’m a stickler for quality.”

Henck said that he was not really a chef. “My daughter is the chef.” Well, all of the customers of Union Hall might disagree.

Megan Hench Saltsman gives that term “multitasking” a different perspective. When one visits Union Hall, Megan is the hostess, the bartender, the waitress, the manager, the banquet manager, the chef or the pastry chef.

Her career started with washing dishes at the Brass Rail. Although her brother got her that job, it was her father’s zest for cooking that kept her in the industry. Out of high school, Saltsman went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, receiving an associate degree in baking and pastry and a bachelors in professional studies. While at the institute, Megan interned with Dan Budd, the chocolatier for Bill Clinton. After college, Saltsman worked at the Marco Island Marriot.

“It wasn’t really what I wanted to do; the desserts came in frozen and all I had to do was cook them up. Why go to school?” Saltsman said. She didn’t stay for long.

“My dad had always wanted a restaurant, so when he called and said he was thinking of buying Union Hall and would I come home, I joked, ‘Is there any opportunity for me to meet anyone to marry up there?'”

When the Hencks first bought the restaurant, Lauren Saltsman was the head chef. Megan claims, “We had a lot in common but did not start dating for several months. We were married after three years.”

Today they are the proud parents of two little girls. Perhaps working in a busy kitchen together is a good way to train for a life together.

Currently, Megan is working on new menu items and taking over some entree cooking. She loves to make risottos. When I asked Megan to give advice to someone entering the profession, she answered, “Tell them it’s a lifestyle, not a job.”

Lauren Saltzman went into the food business because of his love for art and all things creative. He feels that the culinary arts is the best creative outlet there is because it uses all the senses.

“I like to put things together, make them work and see how they work, how the food grows and how the farm gets the food to us,” Lauren said.

Lauren started cooking in high school while apprenticing under Culinary Institute of America-trained chef Jim Rose.

“When I finished my degree at the Culinary, I came back here and worked with Jim. I was able to put my skills and passions together. When Jim sold the restaurant to Kim, I was the head chef for many years until I left to work at Sam’s Seafood Restaurant,” Lauren said.

When he left Union Hall, Lauren explains, it was time for him to professionally move on, and a good move for him and his family.

Today, Lauren is the head chef at the Chartwell’s kitchens at Fulton-Montgomery Community College. After being responsible for the menu in two prominent area restaurants, Lauren wanted to find out what corporate food service was all about.

Lauren applies the militaristic discipline he learned at the culinary institute to his culinary endeavors, but he is always curious and creative. He recently acted as chef at the Wild Game night at the Eccentric Club. His new interest is in molecular gastronomy.

Other than his family, Oreos and French fries, his after-work passion is working with cars in his dad’s shop.

You can meet Henck, Megan and Lauren at the Soroptimists’ Celebrity Chef Dinner on April 7 at the Holiday Inn.

Comments can be sent to anita@anitaalcarte.com.