Jamie Oliver came to Huntington, and Jamie Oliver left Huntington. Newspapers, TV shows, magazines and all sorts of buzz has been created because of his visit. Not much has affected what the locals do every day. Life it seems has not changed. And yet, the world outside of WV, might believe that Jamie changed WV, or at the very least Huntington, and what kids eat there now. Think again. We are in Huntington and we are not seeing, tasting or feeling any change. But that said, this evening, we tasted, felt, and saw, change happening - in fact being lived in Huntington whilst at dinner at Huntington Prime. A change that began even before Jamie's TV appearance from Huntington aired. That change was the brainchild of another chef, Michael Bowe. Jamie has brought center stage the dialog we MUST have on what is parsed of as food at schools across America, and for that we are grateful to Jamie. And chef Michael is hopefully giving at least some parents in Huntington a new option for dining, where food is fresh, real, clean (yes food can be dirty, when laced with additives, chemicals, preservatives and who knows what else) and from this planet.
Michael Bowe, CCC (Certified Chef de Cuisine), is from Glasgow, WV. From the CIA, to Louisiana and now to Huntington, the chef is a native boy, on a noble mission. A mission that comes from the depth of his heart, the calling of his brain, and luckily for us, finds delicious translation through his able hands into food that will certainly create change if change is possible, in how and what West Virginians, the other 49 states and of course the people of Huntington eat.
The first signs of some hope were the fresh flowers, the simple clean shakers of salt and pepper, and the glasses of wine set on the table. Also the utter simplicity (well utterly simple at least for WV, where Bob Evans, Applebees and other such chains rule) of the space was telling of the food we could expect. And a statement about the taste, sensibilities and thinking of the proprietors.
Spinach and Onion Pizza, was ordered by us as a starter with Vegetable Tempura. The tempura looked so good (especially after the horrible version we ate at HIbachi Grill) that I was unable to photograph it before it was devoured by us. The pizza was surprisingly tasty. Well I should not say I was surprised. Since after meeting the chef, it makes sense that his food have good honest flavor. But I come to pizzas with a very puritan place. For me pizza is sacred. And the less people play with it, the better the potential for it charming me. Reading the menu, I was not sure I would love the pizza. But we loved it. The crust could be improved. Made a tad more delicate and supple, less crisp, more flaccid (can you imagine me asking for that? But good pizza should have that perfect balance between chewy, crisp, soggy and supple) and soggy. The flavor was terrific. I wish I was hungry, I could have eaten all of it myself.
The chrysanthemums in the simple glass vases with pebbles at the base, the ice water given casually without any ceremony, as if to say this is how water ought to have always been given, was another sign that gave us comfort in having made a good choice tonight. Our trips to WV, as many other states and smaller towns, not often lead to great culinary discoveries. Rather, they are fraught with the challenge of putting on a facade of feeling sated, feeling happy about our dinner, and thanking those we dine with, or those that take us to the restaurants about having given us a memorable experience. It has become part and parcel of living and dining in Small Town USA or what some call Hometown USA.
Brisket (cooked for 14 hours) was advertised on the menu as fork-tender, and it was that and beyond. Served with kale cooked with bacon and onions and fried mac-n-cheese. Grandma Hayes does not like Kale, and wanted baked potato instead. I wonder if Jamie thought he could change people like her, the natives of Huntington, and if the national media truly believes that change has happened? It has not. Grandma was able to get her way, get two starches with the brisket. She seemed very happy.
Mother Burd (Charlie's mom) ordered the prime rib and got it with baked potato and green beans. Loved it and found the beans just perfectly cooked. The potatoes were so beautiful to look at. How I wish more baked potatoes had that elegance. I have NEVER been a fan of this American indulgence. In fact I ate my first and only one in Ithaca, at the home of my dear friend Gail Finan. It was tasty, and hers I enjoyed with a delicious sauce that accompanied a chicken dish she had prepared. I think it was that yummy sauce that made the baked potato edible for me.
Charlie ordered the West Virginian Trout, served alongside Kale with bacons and onions and what I found to be the most delicious roasted potatoes I have ever eaten in a restaurant. They were creamy, not too crisp, perfectly salted and far from oily or fussy.
My dish was the Potato and Onion Ravioli with the mushroom-cream sauce. Not a big fan of cream sauce with pasta, this dish was as good as any version of a creamy pasta dish I have ever eaten. With 88% Humidity, I cannot fathom indulging myself to a cream sauce, and so, I would be lying if I said I was smitten by it. But it was just fine and in fact true to its description.
The roasted potatoes, the asparagus and the mac-n-cheese were delicious and highlighted the attention to detail given by the chefs in the kitchen to each element they place atop the plates leaving their kitchens.
The customers and servers were excited being part of visible change unfurling this very moment in West Virginia. It was a change that permeate the food, the service standards and the aura of the restaurant. And was a change that the diner was able to fathom, embrace, accept and celebrate.
All one has to do is stand up, and at the corner of the bar, you can see your pizzas being made in front of the Woodstove oven by a chef. Made fresh, minutes before they come to your table. Can it get fresher?
The Soup & Salad Bar at the center of the restaurant, is a wonderful way in which the chef has created a change, that makes a change, and yet also gives the diners something they are so accustomed to wanting. But unlike those horrible salad bars that give the diners ingredients that have not been fresh for ages, but only seem fresh in name, the station here celebrated fresh and home-made. The dressings are home made, the greens local and simple, and the breads baked in house, and the soups simple and tasty. You can come feast on them and eat all you can and want for under 10 dollars. Or you can enjoy them in addition to what you order for a meal, for only $4. This is a bargain one should not miss.
West Virginian grandmothers, or shall I say the two that I know, are wonderful, brave, generous beyond measure, and independent and fierce - all at once. But I also see in them a little bit of what one finds across America - a disconnect between us and the planet at large. America being so huge, Americans seem to live as Americans, and often not even knowing diversity that exists within the country. This knowledge makes it is easy to forgive the xenophobia and parochial thinking that are part and parcel of so many otherwise exemplary lives. When I see Grandma Hayes enjoy something, I hope that it is something that the world at large can also enjoy. And when that happens, I know we have discovered something quite special, and something that has the potential to change lives. Grandma was smiling and was happy tonight. That appreciation, from a woman who represents what Jamie Oliver set out to change, is appreciation that is nothing Jamie could have hoped to incite. Jamie correctly has brought attention to what kids eat at school, and often what they eat all day (yes, many of our kids come from families where poverty or other constraints keep the care givers from being able to give a meal at home). And hopefully we will use what Jamie did as an honest exercise to ensure change is created and change is established. Not another moment of passing fluff in our history as a nation of rhetorical debates and news cycles, that come and go, without doing much. We would fail Jamie, and fail our kids, if we do not change radically how we eat, how we think of food, and how we ensure schools are not offering food that is really not food.
The appreciation, the amazement and the surprise I could see in the eyes of grandma was nothing Jamie set out to achieve. Rather, this is an appreciation that can only be found when you are presented with change that does not rob you of the comfort you expect to be part of your life and in this case, dining. And so, tonight, we salute chef Michael Bowe for what he has created and what he stands for.
It will be chefs like Jamie and chefs like Michael, each doing their bit, each inciting change and dialog at levels quite separate but also connected. It does not help the kids if schools begin feeding them correctly and at home, they are still fed garbage. We need a radical change around food, and that can only be created and sustained when at all levels of the food chain, we find real food. Of course in many diverse forms, tastes, looks and flavors.Huntington Prime
Huntington, WV 25701
PS: Jame knows a good thing when he sees it, or rather, his people know a good thing when they see it. Whilst his team was visiting Huntington after having filmed the show last year, they discovered Huntington Prime. Chef Bowe tells me that they were kind enough to take this restaurants story to Jamie and through him to USA Today and the Washington Post. Kudos again to Jamie and to Michael Bowe!