Wild, wonderful West Virginia. Home to some of the most beautiful views of the Appalachian Mountains and a down-home atmosphere to match, this state is equal parts hospitality and adventure. We talked with a few chefs who call West Virginia home to hear about their wild cooking secrets, go-to local ingredients, and what makes their state so special.
Chef Tim Urbanic is the executive chef at Cafe Cimino Country Inn, which he owns with his wife Melody. Named after his grandmother, who he credits with teaching him how to cook, the restaurant offers diners a menu filled with authentic Italian cuisine with a decidedly West Virginia twist.
How has growing up in West Virginia influenced your cooking style?
I’m a very traditional Italian/Mediterranean cook. I’m considered an old-world chef. But I definitely see my West Virginia upbringing influencing what I cook every day. I grew up in coal country in a family of coal miners. There were a number of Italian immigrants that settled here to mine coal. That heritage slowly integrated itself into what we consider traditional Appalachian fare—the brown beans and cornbread. Italian immigrants brought olive oil from Italy, and they really jazzed up the food in West Virginia over the years. I learned to bring those traditional Italian family recipes to the table and take them to another height by turning them into a fine-dining experience. I learned to have a real respect and reverence for food, which can be seen in the way we present the food we make.
What are some other ways you try to add West Virginia flair to the Italian fare on your menu?
I think one of the greatest ingredients we have is the West Virginia hospitality. My wife (Melody) and the local servers really embody it, and as a result, people are really happy with the way we present the food to the table. Also, we always hire cooks with passion. We can teach people the skill of cooking, but you can’t teach someone to have passion. You just have to have that when you wake up in the morning.
Anne Hart is owner and executive chef of Provence Market Cafe, located in Bridgeport. Anne draws from the ingredients and local flavors of Provence and the Mediterranean. She works closely with local growers and farmers to cultivate ingredients for Provence Market’s menu, giving her international dishes an Appalachian spin.
West Virginia is known for being “Wild and Wonderful.” How do you incorporate this idea into your menu?
Foraging and harvesting locally has been a culinary trend worldwide for many years, but in West Virginia this is a way of life. At Provence Market, we have always incorporated West Virginia’s indigenous ingredients into our menu whenever possible. Ramps, morel mushrooms, and fiddlehead ferns in spring are the most notable ingredients. My daddy always dug them for me, and now that he is in North Carolina, he calls me inquiring, “They in yet?” Secret ramp spots, the elusive morel mushroom garden, and moonshine origins are all mysteries, but no self-respecting West Virginian would be caught without a batch of each in his freezer.
The menu at Provence Market features a number of dishes with international flavor. How have you been able to put a West Virginia spin on these international dishes?
My favorite summer dishes are taken straight from my farmers’ market basket I receive each week. Last week I did blistered blackberries, cilantro roasted cherry tomatoes, sautéed baby kale, and wilted leeks over grilled salmon. The plate was beautiful, amazingly fresh, and tasted like summer.
A favorite recurring special is my trout with brown butter, lemon, and capers prepared using classic French preparation. My ramp bisque is anticipated each spring. I turn my morels into an über Steak Diane. Vichyssoise is on the menu this week as more leeks and fresh dug potatoes are here. I can confit just about anything, and cassoulets can take on all kinds of playful ingredients. Miniature coq au vin using West Virginia quail is popular in the fall, as well as my Dijon pork stew and boeuf bourguignon. All use local pork and beef. It’s all about mixing local ingredients with an international cooking style.
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.
Cafe Cimino Country Inn
616 Main St
Sutton, WV 26601
Provence Market Cafe
603 S Virginia Ave
Bridgeport, WV 26330
76 High St
Morgantown, WV 26505