West Virginia’s Best “Wild” Chefs

West Virginia
Chef Heath Finnell digging ramps.

Chef Heath Finnell can be found cooking up the tasty dishes on the menu at Café Bacchus, the Morgantown restaurant he owns with his wife, Judy Spade. Chef Heath was born, raised, and learned to cook in San Francisco before moving to West Virginia. These influences can be seen in Chef Heath’s “Mexibilly” style, which incorporates traditional Mexican fare with Appalachian ingredients and flair. We sat down with Chef Heath to learn more about how his style has been influenced by his new home.

What item on your menu would you say truly represents West Virginia?
The biggest hit is our apple butter ice cream. We make it in house with locally produced apple butter, and then it is topped with a Mexican-style caramel that has locally made applejack (an alcoholic drink distilled from fermented apple cider) plus bacon toppings. It is our most popular and signature dessert. I’ve made apple butter with my grandmother-in-law a few times. She is 95 now and hopes that I will continue the family tradition.

What are your favorite wild ingredients to work with?
I love ramps! They are versatile and have a lot of flavor. I’ve incorporated them into sausage with potato; they make a delicious soup; they add a little heat and depth to salsa or sauces. We created a dish that had ramp mussels, ramp salad, and ramp sausage. For Sunday brunch, we stuff a pickled ramp into an olive and serve it as a garnish to our house-made Bloody Marys. It’s a hit.

My wife and I go to her family farm every spring and dig up the ramps in a patch she planted when she was seven years old. So, besides them being a great addition to food, I enjoy being outdoors and digging them up.

I understand that you were born, raised, and trained in San Francisco. How has moving to West Virginia influenced your cooking style?
I’ve had to adjust the heat in foods to satisfy West Virginia tastes. While there are a few West Virginians who enjoy spicy foods, most do not. I grow hot peppers, like habañeros, ghost peppers, and Trinidad scorpions. I dehydrate and freeze them just in case someone wants a spicy dish. I can really turn up the heat in our jambalaya. When the waitstaff asks for the jambalaya to be extra spicy, I get a devilish grin, and make them go back to be sure that the customer knows that I can really make it hot.

 

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