By LEIGH C. MERRIFIELD
News & Journal Editor
Provence Market owner and executive chef Anne Hart was in Charleston last weekend as one of three judges assessing the talents of culinary contestants in the Battle of the Virginias, in which notable chefs from West Virginia opposed their counterparts from Virginia. This was part of the 10th anniversary celebration of the “Cast-Iron Cook-Off”, hosted by the Collaborative of the 21st Century Appalachia.
Anne explained that the Cast Iron Cook-Off is a competition among West Virginia chefs during which all dishes must be prepared utilizing cast iron cookware.
“This competition focuses on our heritage,” she noted. “West Virginia is the only state entirely located in Appalachia, and the cast iron cooking is reminiscent of our frontier days. It is interesting to see what chefs come up with. It is also a great opportunity for networking among chefs – to learn new techniques, recipes and sources for their products.”
Anne’s Team Provence has won the Cast Iron Cook-Off numerous times in the past, taking top honors the first time she competed! After garnering so many awards through the years, a throw-down competition was hosted, pitting consistent winners against one another.
“It was kind of like the Super Bowl of culinary teams – the best of the best,” she continued. “Team Provence even bested The Greenbrier, which is quite a feat!”
Now, Anne has returned to the friendly competition the past three years as a judge.
A Clarksburg native, Anne says it was not an Easy-Bake Oven that she played with, but rather a chemistry set! She earned a degree in Biology from West Virginia University. She was led to Atlanta years ago, setting her goals to work for the Center for Disease Control. However, finding the job market very tough to get into, she started working in restaurants to earn a living.
“I started by bussing tables and graduated to serving, then a server trainer, then to the bar and ultimately to bar trainer. Working my way up through the ranks, I decided I wanted to get into management. It was very practical training that I received just working in the industry,” she noted.
In time, she managed a fine dining restaurant in Atlanta, then moved to New York where there was further hands-on learning … followed by a move to Boston and later to Washington, D.C. Always picking up skills with each move, she has opened 13 restaurants – establishments from casual to fine dining.
Returning to the Mountain State to be near her family, little did she know that opening her own restaurant would become her future!
“Opening something like Provence Market Café was always something in the back of my mind, and the right location just presented itself at the Shoppes of Averil Place in Bridgeport,” she added. “I opened Provence Market Café in 2002, hoping to offer something different to the area.”
The rest is history, as they say. The menu at Provence has evolved from the influence of the cuisine, ingredients and local flavors of Provence and the Mediterranean, and public response has been appreciative of its distinct and unique offerings.
Speaking of “local flavors”, Anne has long been a proponent of buying fresh and local foods. She was one of the founders of the Bridgeport Farmers Market and was a panelist at the Farm to Table International Symposium.
In addition, Anne was an invited chef at the “4-14 Festival” in Dijon, France. She has also been among the notables included in the inaugural edition of Best Chefs of America in 2013, Best Chefs of the South, Corridor Magazine’s Top Chefs, and West Virginia Executive Magazine’s Young Guns, to name a few.
It is also worthy of noting that at this year’s Cast Iron Cook-Off, Mia Margherita in Bridgeport was a competitor, taking home the “People’s Choice Award” as well as the “Best Single Course 21st Century Interpretation of Traditional Appalachian Cuisine”. Obviously, you don’t have to leave Harrison County to experience the best in eateries! They are right in your back yard.