Jeremiah Bowen carves out a celebrated culinary career
HUNTINGTON — When conversations shift — in declaration or defense — to the contributions that have recast Huntington as cool over the past decade, at least one, if not all, of three of the Tri-State’s trendiest, well-liked and well-reviewed restaurants are noted: Black Sheep Burrito & Brews, Bahnhof WVrsthaus and Biergarten, and Honey Bones.
Conceptually, the burrito joint, German-Appalachian fusion and the Southern comfort spot all have little in common.
But all three menus were deftly pieced together in the same head, and since returning to his hometown in 2010, executive chef Jeremiah Bowen has quickly carved out a still-young but celebrated culinary legacy in downtown Huntington.
“There’s a lot of negative talk about Huntington,” Bowen said in an interview Wednesday. “So being able to come back to this area and apply a lot of what I did earlier in my career elsewhere and do it to benefit Huntington — it felt good to come back and make some kind of impact, whether its minor or whatever.
“I’m just glad people enjoy it.”
In a snug office tucked into the kitchen of Black Sheep’s newish Pullman Square location, Bowen recounted his journey away from home and back over the clack of plates and kitchen chatter. Still at just 41, it’s been a haul so far.
Bowen grew up in Huntington. At 18 he headed north for the Columbus College of Art and Design and Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. After taking time off to hike the Appalachian Trial, Bowen relocated to his longtime home of Folly Beach, South Carolina, where he began his restaurant career in 2002.
His love of cooking started by learning from his grandmother, Mildred (there’s a biscuit named in her honor at Honey Bones), who taught the basic staples of satisfying Appalachian cuisine like fried chicken, mashed potatoes and pork chops.
Bowen, however, never went to culinary school, but he did receive what he considers a more valuable formal training by studying fine art in college. He still dabbles in printmaking and painting, and suggested aspiring chefs take at least a year to develop that portion of their brain as well.
“There’s a lot of that type of education that almost makes a better chef than one that went to culinary school,” Bowen said. “Your modes of thinking are a lot more analytical, and your visualization techniques are a lot more thorough.”
That analytical thinking is alive in even the details of what goes on people’s plates. The sausages at Bahnhof, he noted, are a complicated piece of food chemistry built roughly around the Fibonacci sequence. The amounts of avocado, tomato and onions in Black Sheep’s guacamole follow a Pythagorean golden ratio for the ideal dip.
None of it is an exact science, he added, but it’s a chef’s tool to visualize the end dish.
“You’ve got to know the finished product in your head and not stop until you get there,” Bowen said.
But designing a whole menu requires cohesion among everything on it. The burritos or sausages may be the stars, but what surrounds it demands the most creativity, he added — whether that’s the vibrancy or contrast of a meal’s colors, or simply how it looks on a plate.
“Each concept has its own mentality behind it,” Bowen said. “It’s hard to even verbalize, really.”
After operating a string of restaurants in Folly Beach, Bowen returned home for family reasons in 2010, with no real desire or need to work. He worked a bit for the first incarnation of Huntington Prime downtown, but left after a clash of personalities, as he called it.
A mutual friend introduced Bowen to local business owner Pat Guthrie Jr., who at the time was aspiring to open a burrito restaurant. One of Bowen’s successful Folly Beach ventures was a taco joint, and in September 2011 the partnership produced Black Sheep at the corner of 16th Street and 3rd Avenue.
The acclaim came seemingly overnight. By word-of-mouth, glowing reviews and a stream of press coverage, Blacksheep quickly became the trendiest spot in Huntington. With that success came more even more hard work, Bowen added, but also the energy to do it.
“It just felt normal to me,” he said. “I felt vibrant and healthy, and felt that’s why we were doing this.”
By 2014, Black Sheep had opened another successful location, in downtown Charleston, but Bowen’s next great challenge came when he began developing the German-influenced menu for what would become Bahnhof (German for “train station”), at the corner of 7th Avenue and 8th Street.
Bowen had no experience with German cuisine, so it was “full, hardcore immersion” into the culture and history. There’s a distinct Appalachian feel to Bahnhof — pork chops are not so different from schnitzel — and Bowen applied much of what he knew and grew up on to an totally new concept. Bahnhof opened in 2017 with the same hype and ravings Black Sheep first won.
Black Sheep’s move to a larger location in Pullman Square left the original spot vacant for months while Guthrie and Bowen planned their next venture: a solid fried chicken and Southern staple joint that would become Honey Bones, which opened in 2018.
That menu in particular is heavily influenced by his grandmother, and countless other Appalachian grandmothers, built on wholesome, tasty and filling food, Bowen said. Honey Bones is kept at lower key and intentionally simple, but also a calmer incubator for test concepts.
And if bouncing among three totally different cuisines seems like a challenge, that’s because it is, Bowen admitted as he laughed. But he’s gotten used to it.
“I don’t know how I handle that, to be honest,” he said. “The will to survive, maybe?”
But that’s not to rule out a fourth restaurant, built around any concept or fusion, with Bowen at the creative helm.
He grinned. “To be determined.”