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A LOVE AFFAIR WITH FOOD
EDEN'S COUNTRY HOLIDAY FEAST

Bernadette Heltz, known as Becky to her friends and fans, may prepare some of the most interesting food around. But if you haven't dined in the Southtowns in the past 20-some years, you may never have tasted her cooking.

Installed for the past three years at Katherine's on Main Street in the charmingly named Eden, Heltz has never displayed her talents north of her hometown of West Seneca. It wasn't because she lacked the necessary skills to survive in Buffalo's competitive culinary environment. She simply was busy elsewhere and never ventured north to work, with one exception.

In what could be the most unusual first cooking job in the history of the profession, Heltz began her career at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. She prepared the meals for a young patient so immune-compromised by chemotherapy he lived in a plastic-enclosed chamber: "The boy in the plastic bubble" is how Heltz describes her first clientele.

Those were the days when, having trained for it at Erie Community College, diet therapy was her career of choice.

"I was always interested in the food field," says Heltz, a hearty woman with a dark-blond bun, a cheerful broad face attesting to her Polish ancestry and smooth skin belying her 53 years. "My mother was a wonderful cook. Thanks to her, I began a love affair with food."

Another love affair, this one with her husband, took her to Tennessee where they lived on the military base in Millington. There Heltz experimented with food for her husband's buddies willing to be culinary guinea pigs if it meant home-cooking. "One night I prepared ham loaf with a pea sauce," says Heltz. "My husband was aghast. But the guys ate it up."

Using conventional ingredients in unconventional ways is a Heltz trademark: Case in point -- osso buco-style halibut -- a recent menu addition, Katherine's term for a special.

The Coach Stop Inn in Eden offered Heltz her first real restaurant job, and it lasted 10 years.

"Greg Laing, the manager, instilled in me that no matter how much you think you know, there is always more to learn," she says. "We had a unique way of doing things there. We changed things all the time. There was no repetitive stamp on anything. Making food was play."

She started as pastry chef/salad girl. "I made the desserts the way they wanted for a while, and then one day they said 'Why don't you come up with something unique?' Then they asked me if I could handle the kitchen on Friday."

Soon she was kitchen manager, handling all the ordering. Her days at the Coach Stop came to a halt when the manager's sister went to cooking school and took over the kitchen.

Heltz tried to retire, but it didn't take. Soon she was managing the kitchen at Point Breeze on Lake Shore Road in Angola, sending out 400 fish fries every Friday night. Here she learned how to train employees. A stint running her own kitchen at Chaplas, a restaurant she opened with a friend on Route 5, proved she could hold her own as a chef, and helped her put her son through college. Four years at the Boston Garden in neighboring Boston followed, before Katherine Ochal, determined to open her own restaurant, tracked her down.

Katherine's, ensconced in the former home of the owner of the Eden Cheese Factory, entered its fourth year of operation in October. The curious stone building that housed the cheese factory still stands next door. Initially, Heltz says, Katherine's tried to present a mixture of low-key items and sophisticated entrees, but the customers who had followed Heltz from restaurant to restaurant didn't want low-end food. "They weren't looking for fish fry with macaroni salad," she says. So she proposed a menu that represented the kind of food she'd want to offer friends if she had a home in the country, and no one is complaining now.

Entrees are grounded in country French traditions with new twists and plenty of variety on the plate. Each main ingredient, simply prepared, arrives with inspired accoutrements. Grilled South Pacific lehi is served with sweet-sour roast pineapple pepper sauce, triangles of crispy polenta and a small mound of snow peas with mushrooms.

On another night, medallions of lamb arrive at the table resting on tomato-basil concasse, accompanied by baked barley with toasted cumin, herbs and peas. For the less adventurous, Heltz also prepares more elementary fare, such as her simple and popular Delmonico steak au poivre with red potatoes and stuffed onion.

It's a surprise, finding such interesting food in this quiet little hamlet. "We like playing with unique things," say Heltz, reminiscing about a recent favorite salad featuring cactus paddles. But things never get out of hand, thanks to Heltz's unfailing innate culinary compass. "I think I just know what works and what doesn't work. It's an instinct. It's not something you can learn. If you don't have it when you go to the CIA (Culinary Institute of America), you aren't going to have it when you come out."

Heltz did not go to the CIA or any other cooking school, but that, she thinks, is a plus.

"Give me a self-taught person anytime," she says. "They have more humility, understanding and a basic love of food. Those are the basics of a good cook."

Katherine's

CUISINE: Country French.

SIZE: Seats 43.

ATMOSPHERE: Cozy and charming.

ENDURING FAVORITES: Steak au poivre; frogs legs meuniere; veal chop stuffed with Swiss chard, prosciutto and pine nuts, topped with blueberry Stilton glaze; roast duck with plum ginger sauce; mushroom spinach crepe with bernaise sauce.

PRICE: "Beginnings" from $3.75; salads from $4.75, entrees from $17.75.

LOCATION: 8159 North Main St., Eden.

PHONE: 992-4911.

HOURS: Lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner hours begin at 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, with latest reservation at 8:30. Closed Monday.

Lois Baker's January Gourmet story will feature ...