This is part one of Gut Check's Chef's Choice profile of Eric Heath of Cleveland-Heath. Part two, a Q & A with Heath, will appear Thursday. Part three, a recipe from Heath, will be available on Friday.
"Sometimes, we'll get cooks in here who are like, 'You don't sous-vide? You don't do this? You don't do that?'"
Eric Heath shakes his head. No, in fact, he does not use an immersion circulator in the kitchen of Cleveland-Heath (106 North Main Street, Edwardsville, Illinois; 618-307-4830), the restaurant that he owns with his partner -- in both business and life -- Jenny Cleveland. He'd rather his cooks know what a perfect braise is, what it truly means to poach a piece of fish.
Now, please understand: The man is no culinary Luddite. "The more tools you have," he says, "the more you challenge yourself, the higher we push the bar, the better off we're going to be."
At Cleveland-Heath, however, "We work on basics."
Still, to call the food at Cleveland-Heath "basic" is -- perhaps to overstate the matter -- like calling the Mona Lisa a "portrait." Since opening in November 2011, the restaurant's eclectic menu of upscale comfort food with influences that range from Vietnam to the American South to Latin America has won fans on both sides of the river. (Heath estimates that about 40 percent of his clientele makes the drive from St. Louis.) Last year Riverfront Times honored it as the "Best New Restaurant."
See Also: - Ian Froeb's RFT Review of Cleveland-Heath - Jennifer Silverberg's RFT Slideshow of Cleveland-Heath - "Best New Restaurant" 2012: Cleveland-Heath - Cleveland-Heath's Seared Beef Tongue: One of 100 St. Louis Dishes You Must Eat Right Now
Heath and Cleveland, both 31, dreamed of opening a restaurant together almost from the moment they became a couple. Or, rather, not dreamed, but planned. The two have put in the hard work and long hours essential to success that is more than a temporary.
"We looked to open a place before we went to culinary school," Heath says. The duo, who at the time lived in Salt Lake City, Utah, even had their eyes on a specific spot. They didn't pull the trigger, though.
"We just knew we were too young. We had the work ethic, but it wasn't going to work."
A Salt Lake City native, Heath hadn't planned on a culinary career. He studied natural-resources management at the University of Utah. While he'd worked at restaurants as a bar back and busser, he found himself in the kitchen essentially by accident.
"I got an interview for a cooking job I wasn't even planning for," he explains. "I'd never been in the kitchen."
His potential employer, whom Heath today counts as one of his best friends, called him back and said, "Why don't you check it out?"
"I did," Heath says. "And from there it just started rolling. I graduated and actually left cooking to go into natural-resources management and hated it. Hated it. And so I went back to cooking."