Good Eats

Celebrating West Virginia Day

By Jed PortmanJune 20, 2013

On June 20, 1863, a group of counties in northwestern Virginia officially seceded from the Old Dominion and joined the Union as the new state of West Virginia. Today, the Mountain State celebrates its 150th birthday. Earlier this week, we spoke with Damian Heath, the chef and co-owner of Lot 12 Public House in Berkeley Springs, about the often-overlooked food traditions of his home state.

Heath, a Berkeley Springs native, left home as a teenager to attend college in North Carolina and culinary school in Baltimore. After a brief stint cooking in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, he moved south to Charleston, South Carolina, and then to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where he and his girlfriend Betsy—also from West Virginia—opened a restaurant. But the Mountain State called them home. In 1998, the pair moved to Berkeley Springs, got married, and opened Lot 12 in a restored Victorian house downtown. In the years since, Heath has racked up several prestigious James Beard Award nominations for his fresh, seasonal cuisine.

How do you define West Virginia food?
I’d say that West Virginia food is about getting the most out of what’s available. It’s immigrant cooking, poverty cooking. I mean, really, you’ll still find people eating groundhogs and things like that. We love ramps. They’re our bread and butter. You’ll see them sautéed with country ham and scrambled eggs. And we eat a lot of venison. Traditionally, we cut the tenderloin thin and pan-fry it with butter, but I’ve been seeing people getting a little more creative—smoking the hindquarters and so on. Pepperoni rolls, of course. You can find them everywhere. We are about two hours from Fairmont, where they originated, but they still sell them in 7-11 stores up here.

Another classic, during the spring and early summer, is pan-fried morel mushrooms on Wonder Bread. I like to dip cleaned morels in buttermilk and dredge them in gluten-free seasoned flour because it’s lighter and crispier. Then I freeze them on a cookie sheet and store them in Ziploc bags. That way, I have them year-round. In the fall, I'll fry them up and serve them with a nice aged venison loin steak, marinated in a little balsamic vinegar with herbs, garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper, and a splash of red wine.

What inspired you to move back to West Virginia?
Friends and family. I knew that it would be easier to run a restaurant with help from them. Today, you know, my aunt supplies me with most of my fresh flowers and herbs. Berkeley Springs was also a bustling tourist town at the time. It has kind of faded since. We’ve lost two big resorts, one that went under and one that was sold and never reopened. The majority of the tourists these days are people from Washington, D.C. who own second homes here.

Courtesy of Berkeley Springs CVB

How did moving to West Virginia affect your cooking?
I started buying local out of necessity when I first opened my restaurant because I just couldn’t find all of the ingredients that I wanted. I had to commission gardeners to grow them. Working that way definitely changed my cooking. When you’re working with farmers, and developing those relationships, you have to come up with ways to use whatever is in season.

How would you describe your style of cooking now?
I make upscale comfort food. There’s a lot of Italian influence, too. I have some Italian heritage. I’m not really into molecular gastronomy at all. You’re not going to find foams or anything at my place. Just good food made from good ingredients. Simple and fresh.

Are there any particular restaurants besides Lot 12 that you’d recommend for visitors to West Virginia?
I like to drive down to Shepherdstown. It’s to the southeast, even closer to D.C. than we are, and there’s a restaurant there called The Press Room where I love to eat. They serve the same kind of food that we do, simple and high quality. I used to work with the chef, actually. Beyond that? Well, I have two young kids, 10 and 7, so we are going to start doing some camping down in the center of the state. I’m looking forward to spending more time down there.