Chef and entrepreneur Heidi Vukov is a longtime Myrtle Beach resident, known to many as the owner of Croissants Bistro & Bakery, which now boasts two locations on the Grand Strand. With her recently-opened restaurant, Hook & Barrel, she is deeply committed to sustainability while cooking with the most environmentally-friendly equipment available.
The kitchen at Hook & Barrel is completely gas-free. Vukov is also one of four chefs in the state to be named South Carolina Chef Ambassador for 2018 by Governor Henry McMaster – a continuation of an initiative enacted by former Governor Nikki Haley in 2014. According to the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism’s website, the program “seeks chefs who embody the best of South Carolina’s food scene, both in the quality of their provisions, as well as their dedication to using healthy, locally-grown ingredients.”
This year, all four Chef Ambassadors are women.
Governor McMaster said in a press release that “these four women are among the best and brightest culinary stars in our state. Being named a Chef Ambassador allows these chefs to shine a unique spotlight on not only their exceptional talents, but on the destinations in South Carolina where they live and work.”
Vukov moved to Myrtle Beach in 1991 from Pennsylvania.
“I have lived here more than anywhere else in my life, so this is home. This is where I raised my children,” she said.
She said that both of her grandmothers were great bakers with completely different methodologies.
“My one grandmother was in Pennsylvania. She grew up in the depression and could make something out of nothing,” she said. “My other grandmother was in Germany, right on the French border – and so she had all kinds of exotic ingredients that she could use, and so she made fancy things.”
These two sensibilities made an impact on Vukov – and to this day that combination is evident at her restaurants. “Bonjour, Y’all” has long been a tagline for Croissants, and it was incorporated into the title of her 2015 cookbook [with co-author Sara Sobota] “Bonjour Y’all: Heidi’s Fusion Cooking on the South Carolina Coast.”
She decided that culinary [with an emphasis on pastry] was to be her career path while she was working at the Palm Beach Hilton, where she began in front-of-house operations, but became catering director there.
Vukov went to school for marketing, an asset for any restaurateur.
“I really do enjoy understanding what brings people to the table,” she said. “How do you get them to come here? Fortunately, we have benefited from a good word-of- mouth because we have worked hard for 22 years, baking cakes.”
The original location for Croissants opened on 27 th Avenue North in Myrtle Beach in 1995, with seating for roughly 40.
In 2007, she moved into the building on 38th Avenue North and Robert M. Grissom Parkway.
“We had a great first year, and then the economy tanked,” she said. “I had just made the jump into a bigger location with more square footage and higher rent.”
In 2008, Croissants started serving dinner. The name went from Croissants Bakery & Café to Croissants Bistro & Bakery. When Hook & Barrel opened, Vukov said decision was made to once again concentrate on breakfast and lunch, coffee and cakes.
Although Hook & Barrel is big on sustainability, Vukov asserted that this is now becoming de rigueur at many restaurants.
“If they are not, they need to get on board with that,” she said. But according to Vukov, Hook & Barrel is the first full-service restaurant in Myrtle Beach and possibly the state to boast a completely green kitchen.
“What this means is that we don’t have any gas coming into the kitchen. There has been a lot of research about how chefs have developed lung disease as a result of cooking on gas. We have super energy-efficient electric equipment – cleaner, greener, safer.”
She said it was a huge risk to take because no one had ever done that here yet, but many restaurants elsewhere are quickly getting on board. She cited one of her chef heroes, Chef Thomas Keller [owner of the landmark Napa Valley restaurant, The French Laundry], who is turning some of his restaurants green.
Vukov couldn’t be happier about being named a South Carolina Chef Ambassador.
“The four chefs that were chosen are all women, which is super cool,” she said, adding that the Chef Ambassadors go around the state and into other states to promote South Carolina. “We’re a tourist destination, so we are representing the state to promote tourism as well as promoting the use of the agricultural items that are available to us. I think that’s it’s going to be an exciting year.”
She said February is going to be a busy month.
“I am going to be participating in three events as a Chef Ambassador. All three of those events are within the state – but we do have events scheduled out of the state, and I understand that they are continuing to add additional events as the year progresses.”
Chef Tom Mullally was department chair of Horry-Georgetown Technical College’s culinary program for two years and continues to teach at what is now the International Culinary Institute of Myrtle Beach. He has known Vukov for the 24 years he has been on the Grand Strand.
“Heidi is a really good lady, and we have always been good friends,” he said, adding that he once filled in as interim executive chef at Croissants for three months, and recently cut fish for her at Hook & Barrel right after it opened.
He noted that Vukov is not afraid to work, and is always busy – whether in her restaurants, catering or community efforts – and she is a big supporter of the International Culinary Institute as well.
“Heidi is most definitely an asset to our culinary arts and hospitality industry. She is a lady with a big heart and our local community loves her,” he said.
Sara Sobota, co-author of “Bonjour, Y’all” and senior lecturer of English at Coastal Carolina University, said she has known Vukov for 10 years, and that Vukov approached her with the idea for the cookbook in 2013.
Sobota said Vukov is driven.
“She has a clear idea of what she wants and high standards of quality in all areas. For the cookbook, that meant the writing, the styling of the food, the photography, and the accuracy of the recipes had to be precise, sharp and accurate. That worked very well for me, as she would offer ideas and then give me the creative space to shape them into fully developed and engaging pieces. Heidi is also warm, generous and appreciative of good work. Working with her was a rewarding partnership,” she said.
Vukov is married to local physician Gary Vukov. All four of her adult children have returned to Myrtle Beach after living in different parts of the country.
“Two of them are working with me,” she said. “Ben is our director of operations and Alex is our director of marketing. Matthew and Bryan are not working in our restaurant, but they have their own careers.”