Lot 12 chef takes local food to national competition
It seems that Lot 12 chef and owner Damian Heath was ahead of his time when he designed a restaurant around the simple idea of simple preparation of high-quality ingredients. Recently, his culinary skills and
commitment to local food has gained him national acclaim.
Heath, a Morgan County native, has been selected as a semi-finalist in the James Beard Foundation Awards. The national awards honor top chefs and restaurants for their culinary talents and their commitment to
preserving America’s food traditions. It is his fifth year to be added to
Heath was also selected as a member of the Founder’s Council for the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival – chosen as one of three West Virginia chefs to represent the state as a key presenter at the Southern food event in May.
And to round out his latest wave of acclaim, Heath was contacted this month by the Food Network, which is casting a new series called “Extreme Chefs.”
True to the food
Sitting in the quiet bar of Lot 12 before his day of cooking had begun, Heath said he wasn’t sure how he’d fit into the “extreme” part of such a series, but that was up to the network to decide.
Perhaps the only thing extreme about Heath’s culinary career is his commitment to something quite humble – fresh ingredients that come from farmers and other suppliers close to home.
“We started that out of necessity,” Heath said about Lot 12’s practice of patronizing local food producers.
The restaurant serves coffee roasted in Greencastle, Pa. -- just 50 miles away.
“It was cheaper and better than what I could get from the big suppliers,” he said.
For the last 12 years, he and wife Betsy Heath have kept to that ideal -- gathering ingredients from nearby sources. Some from as close as their own garden, grown mostly by Betsy Heath.
“You can pull up two rows of beets and that can be your special for the weekend,” Damian Heath said.
“I can’t wait until the asparagus pops out of the ground,” he said, thinking ahead to his new spring menu.
Other ingredients come from Glascock’s farm, and some local expert mushroom and ramp pickers Heath relies upon. Sometimes a neighbor’s abundance of berries becomes part of a Lot 12 dessert.
As with most fine chefs, Heath likes to build his menu around seasonal ingredients, so the food is at its most flavorful and evokes the season.
Coming home to cook
After graduating from Berkeley Springs High School and attending college in North Carolina, Heath turned toward a career in food that carried him to a variety of coastal locations. But when he was ready to open his own restaurant, Heath and his wife returned to West Virginia to launch Lot 12 in 1999.
“I thought this would be the easiest place to do it,” he said, citing the support of family and friends.
Now with two children of his own, Heath figures he’ll stay put for a while.
Over the last 12 years, Lot 12 has received a constant wave of positive reviews, becoming a dining destination for many in the Baltimore and Washington area.
Despite its accolades from food critics, Heath thinks of his menu simply as “upscale comfort food.”
“It’s nothing to be scared of,” he said.
Diners choose from lamb chops, NY strip, sea bass and crispy duck, and find side dishes like mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables, along with more adventurous selections like toasted gnocchi and panko crusted tofu.
The Heaths regularly hold Harvest Dinners, where every part of the meal comes from suppliers within 40 miles, all the way down to the butter from a Pennsylvania dairy.
The logistics of cooking that locally can be a challenge, and one Damian Heath likes.
Heath says he’s excited to be participating in the inaugural Atlanta Food & Wine Festival as one of 100 select chefs who will run of the festival’s “tasting tents.”
Mainly, he’s enthusiastic about the chance to learn from other chefs, pit masters and farmers.
“There will be so much knowledge and it’s all about Southern traditions. It’s not about new trends, but about trending back to tradition,” he said.
Meanwhile, Heath will wait to hear if he’s one of the finalists in the James Beard Foundation Awards. The announcement will come March 21. He said he’s just pleased to be in the running.
“I have a lot of cool customers. They’re the ones who nominated me. It’s just nice to know they think that well of you,” he said.
As for the Food Network, Heath will let the television folks work that out. Extreme or not, this local chef has more important things to think about -- like when his asparagus might be ready to harvest.