Tea Leaf owners share their guarded recipes

December 29, 2004|EMILY TOADVINE

After 15 years of running a restaurant together, Jane Stevens and Rosemary Hamblin feel a sisterly bond toward each other. As with any good restaurant, they also have developed signature dishes for which they carefully guarded the recipes.

But since they've decided to close their business, the two retired teachers ruled they could share some of their divine secrets of The Tea Leaf sisterhood. They've made many Chicken Pot Pies and Frozen Lemon Desserts over the years, but they never revealed the methods. With the doors closed since Dec. 17, they didn't want to leave any of their devoted customers hankering for the dishes.

Hamblin says the pot pie found favor with many people, but it's not complicated.

"The secret is we use cream of celery soup," she says.

Stevens, a lover of all things lemon, says she discovered the recipe for her dessert on the container for a bottle of Minute Maid frozen lemon juice. She has modified it quite a bit, but she never saw it again on a lemon juice container. She swears by Minute Maid.


"It has to be that juice. It can't be out of frozen lemonade," she says.

The two women revealed the important ingredients as they gathered in the sunny tea room in the basement of a historic downtown building that used to be a Presbyterian church.

As they took an afternoon break on their next to last day, they reflected on their years in business. One of the things they will miss is acting as hostesses for the Chautauqua tea for the Great American Brass Band Festival, which they did every year. They'll miss the 70 to 80 people that came every day for lunch.

With the late-afternoon sun filling the room, they sat at one of the wooden tables that all are marked as sold to different customers. One table they had built for them will be donated to the Community Arts Center for its conference room.

The tables in the tea room are labeled J1, 2, and 3 and R1, 2, and 3 for the days when the owners also were the waitresses.

The fastest woman alive

It wasn't long before the owners were relegated to the kitchen, where they were joined by Lillian Curtis, who is retired from managing cafeterias in the Danville school system. Hamblin refers to her as the fastest woman alive.

"She's our ace in the hole," Hamblin says.

They each found their niche, with Stevens preparing the chicken dishes, Curtis working as baker and Hamblin preparing most of the vegetarian items.

Stevens and Hamblin relied on many people to help run the business, especially their grandchildren. Stevens is reserving one table for a granddaughter.

"They're all in mourning because they think it's all a wonderful game we've been playing," Hamblin says.

But Hamblin, who is 75, and Stevens are ready to end the game. After six days a week that start at 7 a.m. and don't end until late afternoon, both say they can't wait to put their feet up.

"Do you see the shoes we've had to resort to?" Stevens says, showing her black Echo lace-up shoes.

Hamblin says at least her previous career as a first- and second-grade teacher and Stevens' as librarian at Jennie Rogers Elementary School prepared them.

"That's why we can stand up for such long hours. In first grade, teachers don't sit."

When they retired from teaching, they were ready to embark on a new venture. Both had prepared food for numerous school and family functions, and they thought Danville needed a children's bookstore.

"We still had the Hub and the Hub was attracting tons of women around here. They were looking for a sit-down place for lunch. We were little old ladies and we thought, 'That's what we like,'" Hamblin says.

They were trendsetters

As they look back at their beginning, they see that they were trendsetters. When they opened in the fall of 1989, they were the first to have $1 drinks.

"All my friends said, 'One dollar drinks. That's expensive,' Hamblin says. "I said, 'But you can have unlimited refills."

The price of drinks and refills has remained at the $1 price and now people see that as a bargain.

They also were the first restaurant to bar smoking, which also offended some of their friends, but they had a practical reason for doing it.

"We're unvented. It's an old building and we have children's books," Hamblin says.

They took a class offered through the Chamber of Commerce on starting a small business and they were the only ones in it. One of the next steps was to pick a name. They considered Turning Over a New Leaf, but it was taken. When they settled on The Tea Leaf, they were surprised to find that there is antique china made in England that is called Tea Leaf. Members of a Tea Leaf Club have even dined at the restaurant.

Although they are sad at the thought of closing their business, they look forward to the next chapters in their lives. Hamblin is interested in helping with an after-school program.

"I want to work with children again because I've missed them," she says.

Stevens plans to volunteer, especially at Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center.

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