The state of West Virginia is known for its mountainous landscape and picturesque views. We talked to a handful chefs who hail from West Virginia to hear about their wild cooking secrets, their go-to local ingredients, and how their state inspires them in the kitchen.
Chef Oscar Aguilar, the chef at both Mackie’s Biergarten and The Station, grew up in El Salvador, and influences from his childhood mix with local West Virginia ingredients to create his unique cooking style.
How did you get your start in cooking?
I am from El Salvador, so I started out learning the traditions from my home country. My mother was a well-known cook in town. She and my grandmother would often cook for church events and other gatherings. Beginning around age 10 or 12, I would help them prepare food for these events, and I learned a lot from them when we would cook together. My mother also ran the cafeteria at the school in town, so I would go and help her during my break from classes. I learned many of the traditional techniques by cooking with her.
How did moving to West Virginia influence your cooking style?
Coming to West Virginia influenced my cooking style in that it presented me with many new techniques to learn and many new ingredients to work with. West Virginia has a lot of cool local, wild ingredients – like ramps – that I had never worked with before. When I would be introduced to a new ingredient, I would often connect it to an ingredient I worked with in El Salvador, so I could apply techniques from El Salvador to this new ingredient. I would also use new techniques that I was learning from working in kitchens in the States to prepare ingredients from El Salvador. The two styles and cultures really work well together.
What can you tell us about “The Station,” the restaurant that you are in the process of opening?
The Station is a new restaurant that I will be opening early next year. It will be a farm-to-table concept restaurant. I really want to take advantage of the fantastic wild ingredients that West Virginia has to offer, while also incorporating the produce from West Virginia farmers. I’ll be putting my special touch on all the ingredients to come up with a very unique menu.
Lara Graves and Phillip Kendall co-own Avenue Eats in Wheeling, West Virginia, which features a menu full of Appalachian flavor. We talked with the duo and the team of chefs who run the kitchen at this unique culinary destination.
West Virginia is known for being “Wild and Wonderful.” How do you and your team incorporate this idea into your menu?
When we think of West Virginia and its ‘Wild and Wonderful’ motto, we think of nature and freshness. We create our menu items fresh everyday. This can be tasted in our fresh-ground, grass-fed burgers, and salads with fresh mixed greens and other fresh produce. Our team also loves to pick from the wild. Chad and Erich both find themselves picking wild mushrooms and ramps during the season. We pickle the ramps for our charcuterie board and incorporate locally grown produce when possible. Zach and Max both love their experiences cooking fresh from local farmers markets and enjoy the times we get to cook at events showcasing our love for local ingredients. Plus the local farm fresh eggs we use make everything amazing!
Are all the member of your team from West Virginia? If not, how has moving to West Virginia influenced your cooking style?
Three of the four chefs are from West Virginia, with Zach living just over the river in Ohio. Although all of our chefs have lived outside West Virginia, they made the decision to come back to the mountain state to settle down. Erich noted that he finds himself still drawn to the southern feel of cooking he had when living in Asheville, North Carolina. He brought his love for fried green tomatoes along with him when creating our BLFGT— bacon, lettuce, and fried green tomato sandwich.
The menu at Avenue Eats seems to feature fare with a number of different influences. Can you give us an example of how you’ve been able to put a West Virginia spin on an unexpected dish?
A great example of a menu item with a West Virginia spin would be our gourmet Sloppy Joe (pictured above). We all remember Manwich and this is definitely NOT your mom’s Manwich. Our spin (and probably what makes this so amazing) is the grass-fed beef, but most importantly: the WV moonshine—made just 45 minutes away from Wheeling—that we use in our sauce.
Richard Arbaugh is the executive chef South Hills Market and Café in Charleston, West Virginia, which he co-owns with his wife. Richard, a native of Chatham, Virginia, has been cooking as long as he can remember, and using the many unique ingredients found in Appalachia. Today, he pairs the knowledge of local ingredients he gained as a child with his classical training.
How would you describe your cooking style?
I would consider my style of cooking what I call “Modern Appalachia”. I was classically trained in French, Asian, and Mediterranean fare. I try to incorporate a bit of that in all my dishes. You might have a beautiful blue fin tuna with local mushrooms, pork belly pot stickers, and the preserved fiddleheads we have from Charleston. I believe my style is something that will always evolve, but will always add just a bit of West Virginia to each dish. I’ll always continue to use local products as well as techniques local to the area, like curing and preserving. These are subtle, but necessary to preserve not just culture in West Virginia, but Appalachian culture more broadly.
What are your favorite “wild” ingredients that you love to work with?
Some of the greatest local ingredients are foraged mushrooms of all varieties: chanterelles, morels, shiitakes, and hen of the woods, to name a few. Every spring we love when we are able to showcase ramps in our modern interpretations. My favorite ingredient would have to be Jerusalem figs that my father-in-law grows and harvests every year. I love having the ability to use a local ingredient in a dish in a way a customer might have never expected.
How do you think growing up in West Virginia and Virginia influenced your cooking style?
I believe growing up on the southern Virginia border and summers spent in West Virginia in my formative years offered great inspiration to the development of my style as a chef. I remember going to the corner markets and finding pickled foods like eggs, pig knuckles, and fried pickles. It also helped me discover that food translates to hospitality and comfort.
The menu at South Hills Market features many dishes with international flair. How do you keep a West Virginia spin on these dishes?
I grew up learning traditional Appalachian cooking techniques, and then in culinary school was classically trained in a number of international techniques. I’m as comfortable making tournedos Rossini as I am making Chicken and Dumplings. I’m always interested in preparing ingredients using new techniques that will enhance quality and surprise our guests’ palates while still preserving the integrity of the dish. I want guests to sit in my dining room and experience my interpretation of a dish while still remembering the way their grandmothers prepared it. I don’t want local ingredients to be totally unrecognizable.
Kin Tsoi is the executive chef at 9 Dragons restaurant inside the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races. Kin, who was born in Hong Kong, helps to bring international flavor to West Virginia. Kin marries local ingredients with his authentic Hong Kong cooking style to create the perfect East meets West menu.
What are some of your favorite local ingredients you like to use in your dishes?
My menu includes a whole grouper, which is prepared with ginger and scallions. I think this is a good example of brining West Virginia and Hong Kong together in a dish by utilizing popular ingredients from each location. There’s also a Beef Tendon and Brisket served with a Korean style stew that I think helps blend the styles as well. This area is full of a lot of really nice locally grown or wild ingredients, and I like to include them whenever possible.
What do you think makes 9 Dragons stand out among other Asian restaurants?
The menu at 9 dragons is different from what people think of when they think of “American” Chinese food. It’s much less greasy and less salty, and we tend to use less sauce than what you would normally find in an Asian restaurant in America. We do have some more widely recognized dishes, like General Tsao Chicken or Sweet and Sour Chicken, but we try to also include more traditional, authentic dishes as well. Many of our chefs are originally from China, so they have been trained in very traditional ways to prepare food. Our guests have the opportunity to experience a pretty traditional Chinese meal without having to leave West Virginia. We also serve our food on a “flow” basis, so food goes out to guests as soon as it leaves the wok, which is a more traditional way to serve. We love that we can bring our guests a traditional Chinese dining experience in their hometown while utilizing some ingredients from their home.
57 Fayette Mine Road
Lansing, WV 25862
1201 Valley View Avenue
Wheeling, WV 26003
South Hills Market and Cafe
1010 Bridge Road
Charleston, WV 25314
750 Hollywood Drive
Charles Town, WV 25414
If you’re interested in delving even deeper into Appalachian cuisine, read about best-kept food secrets in West Virginia by clicking here. You can also find information about various food festivals in West Virginia by visiting this page.