Eric Heath Destroys a Giant Vase and Bans Death Metal in His Kitchen: A Q&A with the Cleveland-Heath Chef

Mar 21, 2013 at 7:00 am

This is part two of Gut Check's Chef's Choice profile of Eric Heath of Cleveland-Heath. Read part one, a profile of Heath, here. Part three, a recipe from Heath, will be available on Friday.

Eric Heath in the kitchen | Jennifer Silverberg
Eric Heath in the kitchen | Jennifer Silverberg

For years Eric Heath and Jenny Cleveland planned to open a restaurant together. But when they found the perfect spot not far from her hometown of Bethalto, Illinois, to open Cleveland-Heath (106 North Main Street, Edwardsville, Illinois; 618-307-4830), they had to strike quickly. They gave two weeks' notice at their jobs in Calfornia. Three weeks later, they were in Edwardsville. Six weeks later, the restaurant was open.

The praise for Cleveland-Heath has been nearly universal. This newspaper alone named it the "Best New Restaurant" of 2012 and included its pork "porterhouse" on my list of the top ten dishes of last year. It's already scored two dishes on our list of the 100 St. Louis Dishes you must eat in 2013.

In spite of this success, Heath remains dedicated to the kind of relentless hard work that allowed Cleveland and himself to assemble an acclaimed restaurant in only three months. Only recently has he allowed himself to take Thursday evening services off.

See Also: - Chef's Choice: Eric Heath of Cleveland-Heath, Part 1 - "Best New Restaurant" 2012: Cleveland-Heath - Cleveland-Heath's Seared Beef Tongue: One of 100 St. Louis Dishes You Must Eat Right Now

We met after he'd finished working lunch on a recent weekday afternoon. Sitting in Township Grocer, the gourmet grocery and wine shop located next-door to Cleveland-Heath, we covered a wide range of topics, including the arc of his career from Salt Lake City to Napa Valley to Edwardsville (read part one for that); the time he destroyed a giant vase; what music he can't believe his cooks want to hear; why we need more awesome, laid-back restaurants; and the one -- and only one -- ingredient you'll never find on his menu.

What did your family eat when you were a kid? My mom was single, and she had to take care of three boys. A lot of it was spaghetti and meatballs.

What were your favorite foods then? I loved so much. I really loved comfort food a lot. I've always loved breakfast. That's such a generic thing to say, but I love eggs more than anything -- and bacon and hash browns. I've always loved pastas.

When did you become interested in cooking? I always had an interest in food in general, and as I started getting older, in high school, I realized I liked cooking a lot. I didn't know why. I didn't know at the time there was a career field for it. For me, it was about meeting people who were good, whole people that took care of each other and were into cooking. It's not that terrible reputation [the industry] used to have of drunks and assholes. It was such a good, welcoming atmosphere.

What's a typical meal at home for you? We don't eat at home right now. What we used to do, we'd put a big bowl of beans in a crock pot and then we'd go and play for the day and then come back and just do a whole roasted chicken and beans, eggs and beans or whatever. Right now, what we love to do when we get any time off, is hitting any new place we can hit, all the time.

Any guilty pleasures? Something we'd be surprised you like? I don't know if this is a guilty pleasure, but down the street here is Northside Dairy Haven, and they have little teeny burgers -- they're little flat burgers, almost like at Eat-Rite. She's only open eight months of the year, but when she's open, we'll call and order forty of those for the kitchen, and everybody just snacks on them.

What's on top of your pizza? I'm pretty plain. Maybe one of my favorites is cheeseburger: jalapeño, tomato, ground beef and onion. I even love pepperoni and cheese -- just simple. It's gotta have jalapeños, though.

What's your drink of choice? Lately I've been really into Campari and soda water with lime. You get a full belly, and that kind of tames it a little bit. [Laughs] And then Chartreuse I've really been getting into lately. Actually, Ted Kilgore [of Taste] was in last night, and we've been loving his "Industry Sour." It's equal parts Fernet Branca and lime juice, simple syrup and Chartreuse. It's really bright and forward.