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Chris Rutherford returns to his roots as pastry chef at Walnut Hills restaurant

At the back entrance of Walnut Hills Restaurant, a long display case houses more than a dozen full cakes and several dozen slices. 

A soft fluorescent light illuminates them, enticing diners with their expertly groomed frosting and perfectly placed accents.

Each cake isn’t so much a sugary treat as it is a work of art, albeit one that is made to be devoured in a gleefully gluttonous rampage. The artist is Chris Rutherford, Walnut Hills’ executive pastry chef, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“When somebody eats a piece of cake and they call and say it’s the greatest thing ever, it’s a lot of satisfaction,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford joined the staff at Walnut Hills in January to culminate a long and winding road to and from the restaurant business.

A native of Denver, Colorado, Rutherford went to culinary school as a young man and became an accomplished pastry chef in his hometown. He worked at the well-regarded Plum Tree Cafe in the early 1980s and used it as a launching pad to several other top jobs in the city.

Eventually, however, Rutherford discovered another passion — golf.

He started teaching lessons to children and had as much success with it as he did with cooking. Rutherford started the Junior Champions of Colorado program and had a number of his pupils win state and regional championships.

Rutherford moved to Mississippi from 1985-89 to get his start in the golf business at Vicksburg Country Club, then moved back to Colorado to continue it. He came back to Vicksburg in 2001 and has lived here since.

“I grew up in a real athletic family and played a lot of sports — except golf. I got into it a little bit older and fell in love with it,” Rutherford said. “I loved it and had great success, but I had been doing it a long time and it was time for a career change.”

Even while he taught golf, Rutherford never let his culinary skills slip. He made desserts for several Vicksburg restaurants as a side business and at home.

“I always cooked at restaurants even when I was full bore with golf. I love cooking. I’d go home after work and fire up the grill,” he said. “There’s not a whole lot that I don’t like cooking. I saw a recipe that had tasso ham. Instead of going to Louisiana to buy it, I bought some pork loin and cured it for a week myself.”

Late in 2016, Rutherford said he started to get burned out on golf after 30 years in the business and decided to once again pursue a culinary career. One of his side jobs at K.J.’s River Town Grille dried up when the restaurant closed, and the quest for a new one led him to Walnut Hills.

Rutherford and owner Joyce Clingan had never met, but hit it off immediately.

“It was a fluke. He came in and said, ‘Do you have a job open?’ and I said, ‘I’ll make one,’” Clingan said. “My grandson was one of his golf students and I’d heard what kind of person he was.”

Since coming aboard at Walnut Hills in January, Rutherford and Clingan said sales of the restaurant’s cakes have spiked. Rutherford has mixed the restaurant’s traditional menu with a few new additions and daily specials.

Among the offerings in the display case are chocolate cake, carrot, red velvet, turtle, German chocolate and hummingbird cakes, as well as bite-sized petit fours that are sold for $2 each. All cakes are sold whole or by the slice.

Alongside the cakes are a number of pies made by longtime Walnut Hills chef Herdcine Williams.

“A lot of cakes Miss Joyce has been doing for years herself, and we still do. I just use the same recipe. Everything we had before, we still have,” Rutherford said.

Among the items Rutherford has added to the menu are tiramisu and turtle cake. Other specials are added either whenever the mood strikes him or when he stumbles across a new recipe, as was the case with the turtle cake.

“I have to make tiramisu everywhere I go, and I have the freedom to make stuff I like, like cinnamon rolls or petit fours,” Rutherford said, as the smell of fresh-baked cinnamon rolls crafted as a special for the day wafted from the kitchen. “We started doing a turtle cake that’s a bit of a fluke. We had some caramel left over from making caramel cake, and next thing I know I’m adding nuts and everything else to it.”

Rutherford says he and the Walnut Hills staff bake about a half-dozen cakes per day, in addition to a daily special or two. There are also plans to begin a brunch service.

With so much going on at Walnut Hills, Rutherford said he’s dived headfirst into the restaurant business once again and mostly left golf behind. He said he’s only played twice this year.

Not that he minds. When surrounded by good people and good food, some created by his own hands, he’s right where he wants to be.

“Miss Joyce and everyone here have taken me in and treated me like family. I love being at Walnut Hills,” Rutherford said, adding with a smile, “I look forward to coming to work every day. I always tell people the best part of my job is eating at Walnut Hills every day for lunch.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured sports reporters in the paper's 137-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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