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

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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.

What are your three favorite St. Louis and/or Edwardsville restaurants, not counting your own? We have a couple favorites. We love going to Taste and Pastaria. Up here, we always go to the Indian place, Taj Indian Cuisine. It's great. They've got a goat dish with curried basmati, which is maybe my favorite thing I've ever had.

Which St. Louis chef most impresses you? A lot of the guys that get mentioned a ton: Kevin Willmann [Farmhaus] and Ben Poremba [Elaia and Olio] and Kevin Nashan [Sidney Street Café].

I met Gerard Craft [Niche] and Kevin Nashan in Napa at the Cochon tour. We hosted it at Farmstead [where I worked then]. And what I liked about those guys was that of all the stuffy chefs who were there, those guys had the most fun, and they were just out to cook good food. They've both been super welcoming to us. And that's most impressive to us. Kevin Willmann's is one of those guys we really appreciate. He's just got a really warm spirit. Never says anything bad about other people.

What's your favorite restaurant elsewhere? There's a place in St. Helena, California, called Cook. It's tiny, 25 seats, but all the pasta is made in house. They're small plates, but so rich and delicious, you leave happy. The wine list is awesome. Also, lots of little spots, delis -- Moochie's in Salt Lake does one of the best Philly cheesesteaks I've had in my life.

With Cheez Whiz? American cheese. [laughs]

Next best thing. What's your favorite food city? I've never been to New York. I would kill to go. A lot of our influences have come from Philadelphia. JoLe [in California where I worked], the chef Matt Spector is from Philadelphia. A bunch of my friends have cooked there. It's hard to pick. San Francisco has everything from dim sum to Korean barbecue to little divey burger bars to all the Michelin-starred places you could want. And you go down and eat all day long and never really feel full.

Jenny Cleveland in the Cleveland-Heath kitchen | Jennifer Silverberg
Jenny Cleveland in the Cleveland-Heath kitchen | Jennifer Silverberg

The most essential ingredient in your restaurant? We use chimichurri a lot. We've adapted it into our own thing. We do mostly cilantro, but also parsley, basil and a ton of mint, sherry vingear, raw garlic, salt and olive oil. And we put it on everything. Sometimes you feel guilty, you're using it so much. But it's my favorite thing -- the most bright, acidic, herby thing.

And then we use nuoc cham. We've also adapted that to be our own. It's 50/50 fish sauce and lime juice, with a ton of ginger and garlic and brown sugar. And those two things on food, I don't know if anything as a condiment could taste better than they do.

An ingredient you'll never allow in your kitchen? That's a tough one. I love everything. [thinks for a moment; eyes narrow] I'll tell you: broccoli rabe. That is my nemesis. I can't stand it. I made it once for myself where I could tolerate it, but it was just smothered in hot sauce and garlic. It wasn't really what it should be. I'll never, ever run a broccoli rabe dish.

Favorite cookbook? There's a book that came out a year ago called Jerusalem. It's just the most beautiful book I've seen. I love color and food, but I'm on the fence about using a non-functional garnish to give [a dish] that pretty vibrancy. But this book...every bit of the food is supposed to be there, and it's bright and colorful and fresh.

What music's playing in your kitchen? A little bit of everything. The one thing I don't allow. I can't stand death metal or heavy metal.

That can be contentious considering all the cooks who love death metal. I'm astonished by that. To be honest with you, I never really encountered it as much until we got here, but we've had a thousand of cooks so into death metal.

We were playing Bob Dylan before you got here -- I think [whatever we play] has to meet the category of good quality music.

Where do you hang out after work? We just like to sit at the bar and hang out and talk about the service and have a beer before we leave, talk about our plan for the next day. It's nice and quiet. We can close the curtains and not feel obligated to be totally clean. It's like being in your living room almost.

Favorite kitchen tool? I love my knife. That's kind of a cop out, but it's the best tool. It's the twelve and a half inch MAC knife, the classic series. It's a simple knife, it's light, but it's always sharp. To be honest with you, I abuse the shit out of it. People look at me, but it takes the abuse.

Most useless kitchen tool? I hate kitschy things you can buy at Williams-Sonoma -- like garlic presses, stuff where it's totally unnecessary, [it does] one specific thing. We make a lot of jokes about the Slap Chop.

Keep Eric Heath away from this Ming vase. | image via
Keep Eric Heath away from this Ming vase. | image via

What's the strangest thing that's every happened to you at a restaurant?We were at a place in Salt Lake City called Forage. They have only a tasting menu. It's a nice little space. We were excited. A lot of the fine dining in Salt Lake is really old-school. So you walk up to the front door of this little house. If the front door's closed, [a sign] says, "Please use side door." But they had this giant four-and-a-half-foot tall glass vase holding the door open. So we were like, "This is the front door."

It had to be 100 degrees in there. We're like, "What the hell's going on?" So we walk in and the door closes behind me and slams, and the whole four-and-a-half-foot vase explodes all over the place, and makes the most awful racket. There's 30 people in the dining room, and everybody turns and looks at us. It's not an open kitchen, but you can see the chef and his cooks in there looking at me like they're going to kill me. I'm sure it was an expensive vase.

So I'm sitting there just as red as can be, and it's 100 degrees, and we're sweating on the table, and I can see the owner-chef looking at us like, "That asshole." Our server tells us the hood system went out, and the AC went out. We thought: fuck it, we're just going to eat, we're going to have a good time, and we actually ended up having a really good time.

What does St. Louis need more of? More awesome, easy-going foods. The big push right now here is for the fine dining -- the tasting menus, the use of Cvap [ovens] and sous vide, and all that. That's great, and I love it. But when we go out to eat dim sum or Korean barbecue or whatever, that's the kind of the experience we want. It's easy, it's simple, no one's expectations are through the roof, no one's sitting there criticizing it. It's just a fun time. We're out with each other.

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.

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