Dale Hawkins is used to the litany of questions that accompany the presentation of his signature appetizer: an egg roll with peanut sauce. The dish, which would raise nary an eyebrow at the neighborhood Thai restaurant, always causes a buzz here at Stonewall Resort in Roanoke, West Virginia.
It’s just one of many culinary creations Executive Chef Hawkins has concocted at the resort’s Stillwaters Restaurant in a mission to introduce diners to what he calls New Appalachian Cuisine –– a “cool and kicky way” to fuse global foods with local ingredients, thereby giving them regional interpretation. (With the egg roll, Hawkins uses traditional Southern barbecued pork.)
It’s a message that’s resounding loud and clear. Hawkins is chairman of The Collaborative for the 21st Century Appalachia, a grassroots organization dedicated to preserving the small farm, the environment and a more traditional way of life by spreading the word to gourmet chefs and restaurants to buy locally grown food. One of the most popular ways the group does that is by sponsoring a Cast Iron Cook-Off every winter, a culinary extravaganza that spotlights regional cuisine and emphasizes local ingredients made with traditional cast-iron cookware.
That adherence-to-tradition philosophy is evident every day on Stillwaters’ dinner menu. For instance, a walk through the West Virginia woods to gather morels was Hawkins’ inspiration for Moxies and Butterflies: a dish comprised of wild mushrooms, bowtie pasta, olive oil, fresh herbs and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
“In the summer,” Hawkins says, “approximately 80 percent of our produce comes from local sources. I’m really intothe earth-to-the-table movement, using local foods.”
Food has always been a big part of Hawkins’ life; his parents farmed 60 acres in nearby Rock Creek, and the future chef spent summers tending a small vegetable garden on the property.
Area growers have embraced the concept and, Hawkins says, diners are coming around, too. All it takes, he explains, is a different way of thinking.
Take the tomato, for instance.
“People have this misconception that a tomato is red and round and perfect. But that’s certainly not the case with a lot of them,” Hawkins says, rhapsodizing about the flavorful –– and colorful –– attributes of a dozen varieties of the fruit, including the Green Zebra, known for its refreshing lemon-lime flavor, and the plum-like sweetness for which the Brandywine is known. They’re just several of the dozen varieties taking front and center in his tomato salad, also made with fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil, fresh mozzarella, sea salt and freshly ground pepper.
“People eat with their eyes first,” he says. “So, their reaction to these tomatoes from the get-go is, ‘This is amazing.’ ”
It’s also, Hawkins believes, the prelude to a healthier way of eating.
“Our society has changed so much in the last 30 or 40 years,” he says. “Mom and dad are both working and don’t have time to cook. America has come to rely more on convenience food, on fast food and a faster pace of living.
“Fortunately, what’s old is becoming new again,” he adds, “as people look to their own gardens for fresh ingredients.”
The chef has taken his commitment to healthy cuisine to heart. He’s constantly on the lookout for new ways of enriching flavor without adding calories or fat.
“West Virginia,” Hawkins explains, “is a melting pot. The immigrants who came here –– the African-Americans, the Italians, the Irish, the Anglo-Saxons ––brought their stews, meatloaf, country cured ham, fried potatoes, beans and corn bread with them.”
Hawkins puts a new twist on these culinary traditions by tweaking them –– using chicken rather than lamb in shepherd’s pie, for instance, or reducing the amount of heavy cream in a meat sauce recipe from three cups to a half-cup, relying instead on stock flavoring with herbs and spices.
“Good, fresh, ingredients,” he says, “make the best food.”
For more information on Stonewall Resort, call 888/278-8150 or visit www.stonewallresort.com
. Additional details about The Collaborative for the 21st Century Appalachia are available at www.wvfarm2u.org