Sous chef John Mann prepares the tenth course of the 3rd
annual, 15-course Appalachian Deconstruction & Gastronomy Dinner.
“This is Hen-of-the-Wood mushrooms,” Mann says, leaning over
a tray of breaded mushrooms, “that are crusted and seasoned to taste like fried
chicken. They are going to look like little chicken legs, and they should taste
a lot like chicken legs.”
Appalachian deconstruction and molecular gastronomy? It’s deconstructing
classic regional dishes and using contemporary cooking methods to revise them. In
other words, it’s a modernist chef’s approach to traditional foods utilizing
science and art.
dinner is the brainchild of executive chef and co-owner of the Richwood Grill—also
the lead cook, and head snow-shoveler and floor mopper—Marion Ohlinger. He’s
sort of like a punk-rock West Virginia Willy Wonka. Ohlinger explains how this
course of Shake-N-Bake hen o’ the woods fritters, with white pepper foam and
potato gravy is an example of traditional soul-food, gastronomically deconstructed.
“It’s a take on southern fried chicken,” Ohlinger says. “What
we’ve done is we have hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, and we’re making friend
chicken out of those. And then we’ve turned everything else upside-down and
we’ve made a white gravy-flavored foam that looks like a little pile of mashed
"And to top this all off, in stead of a traditional gravy, we’re
making a gravy out of very thin, runny mashed potatoes. So the gravy is
actually the potatoes and the potatoes are actually the gravy.”
About forty have reserved seats for the 3-hour-long meal.
The food ideas are sometimes harder to swallow than the actual courses. That’s
why Ohlinger doesn’t provide a menu for his customers until after dessert. It
takes a culinary leap of faith, and those who pay for the privilege are often
in it as much for the adventure as the high-art, fine-cuisine dining
“It’s so rare that you have an experience like this and
especially in West Virginia and
in Morgantown,” says Erin Clemens.
This is her second Appalachian Deconstruction dining experience.
“This is like
the kind of experience you have to travel to a bigger city to get. And this is
local vendors, local workers, local farmers. It’s just a very regional
Appalachian take on this whole molecular gastronomy idea, and I really like
year’s menu included items like coxcombs in duck consommé with venison pemmican
served in a shot glass. Venison pemmican is essentially deer jerky as invented
by Native Americans of North America. And if you don’t know what coxcomb is, I’ll
give you a hint: it’s part of a chicken.
Ohlinger also prepared items like
honeysuckle-horseradish parfait and chocolate-covered candied onion bon-bon (all
of these items were very well received). He says he likes to work his sense of
humor into the meal, to keep it fun and provocative.
“If you’re sincere, whether you play music or build
furniture or cook food,” Ohlinger says, “you’re projecting all the joy of life.
The people who have no joy in them never get it.”
Ohlinger’s West Virginia
roots stretch back some two hundred years, so when he and his wife Alegria moved
to Morgantown about ten years ago to
be closer to kin, they decided to set down roots of their own, figuratively and
literally. They set to work deconstructing an abandoned garage.
“This place was completely empty and condemned when we
leased the building,” Ohlinger says. “Where you’re sitting right now was just a
concrete slab. There were no windows, no door, no view, nothing. This was piled
with tires. The middle of the dining room had an old 70s blazer that had burnt
up and was a rusted, burnt, hulk sitting in the middle of the floor where there
are dining room tables right now.”
Today large windows look out onto the small restaurant’s
terrace, which overlooks the hollows of Morgantown.
The balcony is lined with colorful herbs, peppers, and flowers used daily in
meals. Ohlinger says the tiny greenhouse off of the kitchen saves the
restaurant $50 a week in herbs and spices all year long.
his restaurant as globally influenced farm-to-table cuisine. He says the
Appalachian Deconstruction Dinner is a perfect example of his restaurant’s
“It’s our goal to show not just how agriculturally diverse
but culturally diverse Appalachia really is. And so we
manage to pull off dishes from six continents with local ingredients here.”
Ohlinger says he wants to be part of redesigning the modern
Appalachian stereotype to reveal the culturally diverse people who have always
Co-owner Alegria Ohlinger says one way they do that at the
Richwood Grill is through farm-to-table food policies:
“We try to get everything as fresh as possible, and we try
to purchase everything within 150-mile radius of us. That’s for different
reasons. One, it keeps our money within our community here, so we think we help
our own community by keeping our money local. It also helps us control what kind
of quality we get.”
“We’ve built up relationships with farmers,” Alegria
Ohlinger continues, “and through the years we’ve been able to say, ‘Well I’m
specifically looking for this kind of pepper, or this kind of cut.’
"If you go
through a commercial source you’re kind of left to get whatever they have and
you don’t always know where it’s coming from or how it was grown. Since we’re
building these personal relationships we feel better about what we’re eating.
We feel better about what we’re selling.”
Alegria says their farm-to-table approach is also more
environmentally friendly; they’ve been able to keep prices reasonable while
still managing to make a living; and they serve all-around healthier meals to
“There’s no high-fructose corn syrup in this restaurant.
You also won’t find any complicated machinery, which makes
pulling off a molecular gastronomy dinner especially challenging.
that “molecular gastronomy” dining is very much a science-based approach to
food and eating—thus the foams and airs that are par-for-the-course menu
items—and that in larger markets, a gastronomy dinner usually implies
highly-processed, chemically treated course items; but from deep fryers to
walk-in freezers, Marion recoils from any machine larger than a food processor.
you inquire as to whether or not there’s a dishwasher in the back, the answer
is, “yes,” they just hired Matt Godwin to do the job.
“We do what we call progressive modern Appalachian cuisine,
like it would have been done a hundred years ago. We’ve got nothing against
useful technology, but I think what can be done with the human hand and the
human mind is being forgotten. So we do this all by hand here, with innovation,”
Marion Ohlinger says with a wink, a smile, and a chuckle—almost like Gene