Chef Paul Smith is West Virginia’s First James Beard Award Winner

As we spoke on the phone, Chef Paul Smith’s sous chef came up to him and told him he had burned some brussel sprouts. “Just burn them some more and make some ash, we’ll use it on a steak,” Smith said. In our nearly forty minutes of conversation, Smith had touched on the fact that he makes it a priority to use every part of the ingredient. Smith is the real deal, walking the walk as much as he talks the talk at 1010 Bridge and its corresponding sports bar The Pitch in Charleston, WV, and at both the James Beard Awards or in his own kitchen.

This June, Smith was named Best Chef for the Southeast Region at the James Beard Awards in Chicago. He’s the first West Virginia chef to receive a James Beard Award. A banner on 1010 Bridge’s website announces BY GOLLY, He Won!!!!!). The awards ceremony was the first time his sous had flown on a plane. When they returned to the state, a hundred cheering people met them at the airport. “I had a little bit of imposter syndrome,” Smith remembered. “Being small-town, being from West Virginia, I wanted to make sure I represented West Virginia well. Other chefs are representing cities, I feel like I was representing my whole state.”

“We’ve never met a stranger.”

Smith has a star-studded work history as the Valedictorian of the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus in Napa Valley and world-renowned hospitality venues like Biltmore Estates in Asheville, NC and the Windsor Club in Vero Beach, FL. But West Virginia is home to him, and after a whirlwind weekend he was right back in the kitchen. “I got back to town at 1:30, I was back in the restaurant by 1:35,” he said.

While in Chicago, he dined and his team dined at Alinea, where the chef gave them a personal welcome and one sommelier even noted that his father was a restauranteur in Morgantown. “He said ‘My dad’s from Morgantown and told me West Virginia loves Chef Paul, so you better treat him well,’” Smith recalled. “At 1010 Bridge, we want to emulate that level of hospitality. We want everyone who walks in to feel like the only person that matters in our restaurant. We’ve never met a stranger.”

“We’re at the starting line, not the finish.'”

The hospitality also extends inward to a close professional relationship among the restaurant’s team, a relationship Smith sees as of the utmost importance. “I’m conscious of how people treat my staff—we’re stewards of service, not servants,” he said. He’s only had to step into a situation like that once, though. Given the fanfare over his win, it’s clear how much guests appreciate his ability to go the extra mile. “One of my bartenders told me that ‘we’re at the starting line, not the finish, right now.’ And what comes next isn’t for the James Beard Awards, but for our guests.”

That attitude is built into his understanding of Appalachian culture, what he calls “innate Appalachian hospitality.” In his culinary training, Smith focused on Appalachian food history and the gatherings. Charleston was originally a salt mine town connected to Cincinnati’s meatpacking industry in the days when the Cincinnati was called “Porkopolis” for its dominance of the market. Though that industry eventually moved to Chicago, the J.Q. Dickinson Saltworks recently re-tapped its family well and is now offering excellent locally made salts again.

The coal boom, the next industry to take over Charleston, was the height of the pepperoni roll, which Smith’s grandfather brought with him as lunch to work in the coal mines. Though 1010 Bridge isn’t doing a fine-dining spin on a pepperoni roll, it carries with it the same spirit of ingenuity, grit, and gratitude for small things in life.

“People really needed to slow down.”

Smith poured over photos of towns like Thurmond, WV and Lost Creek at the height of that boom. The rail industry’s presence in the region meant access to new dishes. B&L Railroads shipped oysters in from the Chesapeake Bay. “Things became accessible because of the railroads,” Smith said. “In the photos I looked at i saw when the oysters would come in how excited people got. Everyone was eating fried oyster and oyster soup during the fall months.” He observed something in his research he wanted to bring into modern day dining: An appreciation for what you have that makes you slow down. “I saw around me that people really needed to slow down. Now, you can get oysters the next day if you want them. Some of the specialness of the meal is lost,” he noted.

The interest in oysters shows up on the menu in the form of Smith’s Fried “Nashville Hot” oysters with toasted brioche, horseradish bread & butter pickles, and ramp-buttermilk. “I like to create a dish’s texture and flavor, but more than anything, I want to create the experience.” The dishes that most allow him to do that are often the ones that come from local history.

“I’m interested in what the cooks and the farmers ate, because those can showcase your talents more.” When you’re doing what you have to do to get by, it forces you to think on your feet and be inventive with your cooking. He grew up understanding the importance of using what you had because you had to. That meant using shoulder, loin, or shank of a meat, or short ribs, and growing your own food. “I have the choice now not to do those things. I can make a filet. But I don’t want that on the menu.”

“I’m just so happy to be giving West Virginia something to cheer for.”

When Anthony Bourdain visited West Virginia for Parts Unknown, he remarked that people know the state best for what’s been taken from it. Steel, coal, natural resources. “Now, hopefully people can come to West Virginia and take back memories and experiences,” Paul said. “I always hear people say they’ve driven through West Virginia, and I’m hoping that in the future, they know they have a reason to stop. I’m just so happy to be giving West Virginia something to cheer for.” Instead of what you can take from it, maybe it’s time to focus on what West Virginia can give.

Story by Emma Riva / Photo courtesy of the James Beard Foundation

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