Foodie Nation: Carving Out a Culinary Community

May/June 2015


When the cake flour and confectioners sugar had settled at the Caritas House Sweets for the Sweet 2015 competition in Morgantown in late March, Joel H. Brown had taken the top award for his caramelized banana cake with buttermilk mousse, hazelnut sand and double chocolate malt ice cream topped with caramelized white chocolate sauce.
Brown was participating while wearing the crisp white chef coat featuring the logo of Rising Creek Bakery in Mount Morris, Pennsylvania, where he makes specialty baked goods on Saturdays and oversees breakfast on Sundays.
However, as Brown noted, “It’s my, air quotes, ‘fun job,’ my creative outlet.”
On weekdays, the Fairmont native and Morgantown resident works in the University Relations department of West Virginia University as a brand specialist.
Brown accepted his award happily but somewhat sheepishly.
“I do this for fun and it’s slightly uncomfortable for me to think I beat guys who do this daily,” he admitted.
Maybe the other chefs do make pastries and desserts for a living, but did they have a My Little Pony kitchen as kids? Brown did.
“I used to put my kitchen in between our kitchen and the laundry room and stand there by the hours playing with the My Little Pony kitchen.”
A self-acknowledged “foodie” — “a person having an enthusiastic interest in the preparation and consumption of foods,” according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary — Brown cannot remember a time he did not exhibit a great deal of enthusiasm for cooking.
“My mom always tells the story that when I was a little kid, one of the first phrases to come out of my mouth was, ‘Wanna cook,'” Brown said. “All the time that I was growing up, food was always a big part of family events and functions.”
He credits his mother, both grandmothers and even a babysitter with letting him help prepare meals.
“I’m most comfortable in the kitchen,” he said. “It’s the best-known secret about me. People are interested to find out how much I cook and my culinary geekery.”
To lay it out, not only does Brown have a second job that allows him to pursue his passion, but he also participates in area events that give him the opportunity to display his chef skills.
Like last December, when he prepared arancini, or stuffed rice balls, at the Feast of the Seven Fishes Festival’s cooking class — called Festival Cucina — in Fairmont, run by Shannon Colaianni Tinnell.
Tinnell, who co-wrote a graphic novel on the same topic with her husband, Robert Tinnell, considers them both to be foodies.
“I’ve grown up with it,” said Tinnell, a native of the Shinnston/Lumberport area of Harrison County who now lives in Morgantown.
“I’ve always been interested in Appalachian foodways, before it became trendy,” she added. “It’s a cross culture between my Italian Pittsburgh family and my West Virginia German mom. We always raised what we ate. We slaughtered our own cattle and milked the cows. So I was definitely aware of food. We never ate out.”
Tinnell grew up working in a Lumberport restaurant, Rogers Country Kitchen, owned by her stepfamily. When she met her future husband, a native of Marion County, she began exploring Italian dishes, especially fish, to make for the Feast of the Seven Fishes, the Italian tradition of preparing seven fish dishes on Christmas Eve.
Tinnell loves using local ingredients, including ramps and other items she and her husband can harvest from his family’s farm.
“Bob used to make fun of me because when we started dating, I would have parsnips growing in pots,” Tinnell said. “In Fairmont, I had enough room that I could grow peppers, herbs and tomatoes. And now we have a garden in town and a garden at the farm.”
The Tinnells also dine out, enjoying many of the same restaurants mentioned by other foodies, including Table 9, the Atomic Grill and the now-defunct Richwood Grill.
And even though Brown, like Shannon Tinnell, clearly enjoys preparing dishes — he and his blueberry yogurt cupcakes were featured in a story in O, The Oprah Magazine with his friend, cookbook author Dorie Greenspan — he also likes to hit the latest restaurants, sometimes with Candace Nelson.
Nelson, who works in WVU’s University Relations as a senior writer, shares her food adventures in a blog called “Candace Lately” (, which evolved after she moved to Morgantown from Wellsburg.
Her blog features an alphabetized (by city) list of all the restaurant reviews she has written, from diner to fine dining, from convenience store Sheetz to high-end Sargasso. Readers can learn about the latest food and drink spots, such as Insomnia Cookies in Morgantown and Mountain Dragon Mazery in Fairmont.
Unlike Brown and Shannon Tinnell, “I didn’t get interested in culture until I moved to Morgantown,” Nelson said. “It’s a much larger city than Wellsburg and it has a ton of restaurants. I like being able to write a little bit about what I’m experiencing while also talking about the person who has the restaurant and what they are serving. I like to mix those two things together.”
And then Nelson is friends with Sher Yip, an accountant for WVU whose family owns Von Son Asian Market.
While Nelson likes to write about food, Yip prefers to photograph it.
“Everything you order is a piece of art that the chef makes,” Yip said. “Everyone eats with their eyes first. I also get to help local businesses in showing off their food.”
The word “foodie” apparently dates back to the early 1980s, when authors Ann Barr and Paul Levy published “The Official Foodie Handbook” in 1981. Around the same time, legendary food critic Gael Greene used the term in New York magazine.
Of course, North Central West Virginia is not exactly the foodie capital of the world, let alone the United States. However, the past decade has seen growth in area farmers markets and restaurants operated by chefs who try to obtain their ingredients as locally as possible.
Consumers also have had more opportunities to learn about cuisine and preparing meals through media such as the Food Network, established in late 1993 and featuring Julia Child-like how-to-cook shows including “The Barefoot Contessa” and “Every Day with Rachael Ray” and the competition shows “Chopped” and “Iron Chef America.” The network’s popularity can be measured in part by the creation of similar series on other channels, including Bravo’s “Top Chef,” Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen” and the Travel Channel’s “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.”
Marion Ohlinger, the chef/owner of Richwood Grill, which closed in late 2013, believes that in Morgantown, pioneering restaurants, including his own as well as Cafe Bacchus and the defunct Madeleine’s, gave diners more opportunities to exhibit culinary courage, while television personalities including Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” motivated and encouraged them to try new things.
“Those guys kicked down the doors and opened minds to show what kind of food people eat around the rest of the world,” Ohlinger added.
In recent years, Judy Spade, co-owner with her husband, chef Heath Finnell, of Cafe Bacchus, (, has seen diners try new dishes that they never would before.
“Heath did a pork belly — it was delicious — in 2006. Nobody ate it,” Spade said. “We talked it up and told people what it was, but nobody would eat it. Nine years later, people want pork belly because they know what it is.”
The same thing happened with Pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup, which happens to be a favorite of Yip’s.
“Heath did it eight years ago and people didn’t know what it was,” Spade said.
“Because of the Travel Channel and Anthony Bourdain, people know what it is now.”
Added Mark Tasker, the chef and owner of Table 9, which opened in the Wharf District of Morgantown in November 2013, “When I started to use celery root, people were very, ‘Ahhh, not so much.’ They didn’t want to mess with it. Now the more they see the Food Network, the more they are willing to try it.”
Of course, someone who has been a foodie from birth such as Brown already has a hankering for haute cuisine — as well as diner fare and everything in between — without help from television.
However, “My mom and dad said I would act like I was on a cooking show before we had mainstream cooking shows,” Brown said.
But for the general population possessing non-gourmet appetites, the emergence of food-themed programs has helped the epicurious learn the difference between barramundi and bonito, saffron and sumac and bone marrow ganache and bone marrow gratinee, as well as generated interest to be more daring when selecting an entree off a menu or gathering ingredients to make a dish at home.
“I think it’s really interesting that five years ago, you would never see a bottle of sriracha in a grocery store,” Brown said. “Now you see grocery stores try to stock world ingredients. One of the things I encourage my friends who don’t know what to make for dinner is to go down an aisle you never go down and pick up something you are not sure what it is and do research and try it. You never know if you would like it unless you try it.”
That is advice Yip, who also loves to cook, already utilizes.
“I’ll cook anything and everything,” he added, listing dishes such the Israeli Shakshuka and Filipino garlic rice.
“I’ll see things I have never tried, and can’t get around here, so I look up the recipe and make it myself,” Yip said.
He also sometimes has friends over to teach them how to make sushi.
Yip’s sense of adventure seeps into his choices when he goes to a restaurant. He rarely checks out the regular menu and instead usually chooses a special.
“What is familiar is boring,” Yip added. “You can have that anytime you want. That’s why I try to eat the specials and not order off the menu. I could do that any day of the week. But if it’s special, they will have it one day. That’s it.”
And if it’s a special, there is a good chance it will be made with fresh and seasonal ingredients, and maybe even local ones.
That was the goal of Deb Workman when she helped establish the Bridgeport Farmers Market in 2009, now held at the Bridgeport Conference Center.
She also served for seven years as a “citizen” chef on the team of Provence Market Cafe owner Anne Hart during the Cast Iron Cook-Off, an event held since 2006 in locations around the state and sponsored by the Collaborative for the 21st Century Appalachia.
She and her husband, Bob, began dining at Provence when it opened.
“That’s when I started becoming interested in food,” Workman added.
However, she is reluctant to use the term “foodie” because her motivation for co-founding the Bridgeport Farmers Market was to learn where her food was coming from and to be assured that it was grown safely.
“Everybody knows what that means,” she said. “But sometimes I think that means you are only interested in high-end restaurants when really what I’m interested in is the quality of the food.
“My philosophy is as long as you have quality ingredients prepared by someone who uses good technique and puts love into what they are doing, that’s what makes you a foodie.”
In fact, there has been a bit of a backlash against the word “foodie.”
Writing in the New York Times last summer, columnist Mark Bittman wrote that “foodie” made him cringe.
He proposed trying to imbue the word with more meaning, “to a place where it refers to someone who gets beyond fun to pay attention to how food is produced and the impact it has.”
As a member of the board of directors of the Bridgeport Farmers Market, Workman gets to do just that.
“I wanted to educate myself more on the benefits of local food,” she said. “To be honest, I don’t cook that much, but when I do, it’s kind of a production.”
However, she also does enjoy the fun part too.
Such as on a trip to New York City, when she and Bob, who does point-of-sale systems for restaurants, decided to splurge and dine at Le Bernardin, a three-star Michelin eatery that also won four stars from the New York Times — the maximum for both organizations — and also was the 2012 top pick by the respected restaurant guide Zagat.
Le Bernardin’s chef and co-owner Eric Ripert, a native of France, has become a familiar face from his appearances as a guest judge on “Top Chef.”
The couple enjoyed an eight-course meal and while they do not remember the names of their entrees, they did recall the experience.
“It was the quality of ingredients, just the respect shown to the food and technique the chef uses,” Deb Workman said.
“It was the atmosphere, the top-notch service from the moment you walked in. We did not want for anything. It was a truly life-changing culinary experience.”
Bob Workman recalled the time the couple also dined at Babbo, co-owned by “Iron Chef America” regular Mario Batali.
“One dish I had there that stood out was a rabbit dish,” he added. “It was springtime and they had rabbit on the menu and it was unbelievable.”
The couple also aims to be adventurous and try new restaurants, as well as frequent the familiar ones, such as Provence and the Wonder Bar Steakhouse. And they try to stay away from chains and instead patronize the eateries that have a farm-to-table philosophy.
“We like to go to restaurants that feature local products,” Bob Workman added. “That’s the way we like to eat. We feel this food is better for you, and we like supporting local farmers markets as well.”
Even though the foodie culture is just emerging in North Central West Virginia, diners have many options not only when it comes to eating out but also when looking for a fun event with a cuisine theme.
The events serve to remind diners of the importance of food not only just as a means of sustenance or a fun hobby, but also as a way to bring people together.
At Cafe Bacchus, a wine and food pairing is held the last Friday of every month.
Finnell and Spade also host special dinners, including one in which Finnell prepares dishes that were served on the Titanic passenger liner that sank after hitting an iceberg in the North Atlantic in 1912.
Spade and Finnell were inspired by this topic when they learned that Titanic victim Lucian P. Smith once lived in the circa 1895 Edwardian home on High Street that now houses Cafe Bacchus.
Another event that has been around for a few years is the Global Dinner Series, created by Ohlinger ( Earlier this year, Ohlinger resurrected the event with the idea of holding monthly meals at various locations.
His dinners have explored cuisine from countries all over the world and regions all over the United States.
Next up: “This Ain’t Your Grandma’s Ramp Dinner” at 7 p.m. May 2 at the Atomic Grill.
After that, he will hold a West Virginia Craft Beer and International Cheese Pairing at the Iron Horse Tavern on May 13.
Other upcoming themes include a Scottish and Japanese food and whiskey pairing and matching 12 dishes to 12 songs for “Edible Music.”
Ohlinger does not need to prove he can challenge himself but he will anyway in August, when he plans to create a pop-up kitchen on a farm and make a meal using only ingredients that can be found within a mile of the location.
As for challenges, Table 9 has been holding a “chef-off” event one Monday each month to allow members of the industry to compete against anyone. Tasker compared the contest more to the Esquire Network’s “Knife Fight” rather than “Iron Chef America” in spite of the use of a secret ingredient, a similar technique used on the latter show.
In the 18 months since opening, the architecturally distinctive restaurant — known for its glass exterior and tower on top — has become a bit of an oasis for foodies and chefs alike.
“It was a way to bring all the chefs together and people together,” Tasker said.
The event is open to the public, begins at 10 p.m. and goes into the wee hours. Tasker has been trying to come up with a good method to film the action in the kitchen and broadcast it to the diners and onlookers who have gathered in the restaurant.
Of the three judges, Ohlinger serves as a permanent one, and Tasker also tries to bring in someone not in the restaurant business at all.
Adventurous diner Yip enjoys attending the chef-off events and photographing the action.
“I get to try new foods they do, and it’s good social networking,” Yip said.
In fact, many of the foodies could not discuss dining without noting the importance of community and conviviality, the tradition and the sense of family and friendship that a good meal can impart.
In her blog, Nelson sums up her goals on her bio page when she discusses the experiences that come out of a good dining experience.
“Many important conversations, life decisions and valuable thoughts are shared around the dining table,” she wrote.
Brown, who has tried with a degree of success to recreate his grandmother’s meatloaf because no one in his family learned to make it, agrees.
“Food is at the heart of life,” he said. “It’s sense memory. A dish can take us back to our grandmother or a point in our lives. There are certain dishes that when I make them or eat them, I think about certain time periods in my life. It’s cool.”