"Eat It!"—Eric "Ed" Heath's cheeky senior yearbook quote was a career harbinger. The 2000 Rowland Hall alumnus is a two-time semifinalist in the James Beard Foundation (JBF) Restaurant and Chef Awards—the Oscars of the culinary world.
To put Ed's accomplishment in perspective: the foundation receives over 20,000 entries for these awards every year. From there, JBF names 20 best-chef semifinalists for each of their 10 regions across the country. Ed made that list for the Great Lakes region in 2015 and 2016 for his work at Cleveland-Heath (CH), a restaurant he and longtime partner Jenny Cleveland opened in 2011 in Edwardsville, Illinois, 20 miles northeast of St. Louis.
"It was surreal," Ed said of his first semifinalist nod. "The second time was even more surprising. To this day, it feels like it was a mistake and they meant to nominate someone else."
Ed may be incredulous about his own achievements, but he doesn't hesitate to give his CH team credit for their role. "Our staff was so amazing," he said. Running a restaurant, he stressed, is no selfish undertaking: "It's about building relationships and being friends with people, and that's when the food's the best—when you have a happy kitchen."
After a decade away from home honing his skills at culinary school and picking up experience and accolades in kitchens around the country, Ed has brought his talents back to Salt Lake. He and Jenny are part owners of the Pub Group, which runs four familiar names in town—Martine, Stella Grill, Desert Edge Pub, and Red Butte Cafe—and the pair looks forward to putting their stamp on these local institutions.
Finding his path
As suggested by his senior quote, Ed has always been a bit of a revolutionary. He started at Rowland Hall his freshman year after bouncing around middle schools. His older brother, Cody Skarning '97, advised Ed that attending Rowland Hall might help. It did.
"This really turned me around," Ed said of his alma mater. "I learned more about life here than I've ever learned in a four-year period." Rowland Hall inspired him to be respectful, tolerant, patient, and accepting, he said. "Teachers let me be who I was without taking any bull from me," he said. "There was discipline, but not over discipline. They gave me a way to behave."
That atmosphere paralleled Ed's experience in school at the elite Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Greystone in California's Napa Valley—a food and wine mecca. At Greystone, Ed adhered to a demanding schedule and strict rules, including keeping up appearances with pristine fingernails, pressed jackets, and spotless toques. "It was almost militaristic," he reminisced, adding that he spent 40 hours a week in school and another 50 to 60 hours working—and he loved it. Like Rowland Hall, he said, "it was very detailed and disciplined, but they also accept people for who they are and help them find their path."
Prior to culinary school, Ed earned a BA from the University of Utah in natural resource management and cooked in restaurants to pay for college. He landed promising internships in that field, but sudden funding cuts and job shortages steered him elsewhere. Ed was working in Desert Edge Pub's kitchen alongside Jenny when he reevaluated his path. "We were having a conversation and she said, 'What would you do if you could change anything?'" Ed told Jenny he'd go to culinary school, and she said she'd do the same. "So we made the trip out to Napa," he said.
Drawn to the 'adrenaline rush' of cooking
Ed turned cooking into a career in part because it fit his personality. "It's creative, but there are still rules to follow, so you've got to walk these fine lines," he said. He compared it to being a stage performer, like an actor or dancer: there are time constraints and crowds to please, and the show must go on even if you're wounded or exhausted. "It's a really big adrenaline rush."
After working in renowned Napa restaurants, Ed and Jenny moved to Illinois, near Jenny's family, and opened CH. He credited his high school foundation for helping him through that entrepreneurial experience: "The fact that Rowland Hall teaches how to think independently and critically was the biggest thing: never accept anything at face value," he said. "When we were opening a business, we got all kinds of advice—some poor and some amazing—but you don't take it all at face value. You research it and take it one day at a time."
CH became a local favorite early on, credited for serving "some of the best comfort food in the metro region," according to St. Louis Magazine. Shortly after it opened, Ed recruited friend and Greystone classmate Rick Kazmer to help run the kitchen, and in 2017 Rick took over as CH head chef after Jenny and Ed returned to Utah. Rick described Ed's cooking style as off the cuff—a reflection of Ed's personality. "He likes to go in with a small idea or plan of what he's doing and see where it takes him," Rick said. Ed impressed Rick with one early CH dish in particular: crispy pork belly with watermelon, jalapeños, and mint, tossed in lime juice and Nước chấm, which is like a Vietnamese vinaigrette. "I'd never seen anything quite like it before," Rick said. "It just worked really well."
Ed's Rowland Hall classmate and friend David Sandberg '00 doesn't fancy himself a foodie, but in his pithy words: "I like good food." David visited CH twice while attending dental school in Omaha, and discovered firsthand that Ed was really good at his job. "I was blown away," David said of the food. "It was different and fun." David didn't know exactly what the James Beard awards were, but after he heard Ed was a semifinalist, he looked them up. "I was surprised, but in the same vein, I've always known Ed as a really hard worker," he said. David has also visited Ed at Martine since he's been revamping the kitchen there. After nearly 20 years, David said, Martine felt forgotten among locals, but that's changing: "Ed's breathed new life into it and it's exciting to have him there."
Circling back to Salt Lake
Ed and Jenny returned to Utah to be closer to Ed's family, and to suit their active, outdoorsy lifestyle—the pair enjoys skiing, mountain biking, and fishing, and Ed has been playing basketball at the Lincoln Street Campus with a group of fellow Rowland Hall alumni. "We feel like we're on a permanent vacation now," he said.
Though they have more leisure time, Ed and Jenny are still working hard to bring their creative edge to the Pub Group. "Salt Lake is growing like crazy, so we have to figure out how to stay relevant," Ed said, adding there's a positive side to that. "There's a million people in the bowl. Anybody has a chance here."
He and Jenny are reviving Martine by changing the food, bringing in effective leadership, and emphasizing hospitality. "It's a beautiful place—all you have to do is perform in that building and you can be successful there," he said. He's similarly working to revitalize the Desert Edge Pub, and expects an impending renovation at Trolley Square will help.
Ed fondly recalled the close-knit restaurant community back in St. Louis: chefs knew each other and bonded over their collective struggle. "Some of the famous chefs down there would come in our back door and be like, 'You need any help?'" Ed said. After over six months in Salt Lake, he's gradually getting ingrained in the scene here—including reconnecting with classmate Liam Connelly '00, co-founder of Proper Brewing Company: "Since we've been able to get to know people, it's become a community for us," Ed said.
Given their industry savvy, we suspect Ed and Jenny will help to push that community to the next level. As friend David explained, when he and Ed were growing up here, people didn't always see Salt Lake as "cool." But as friends have left for school or work and visited to find the city evolving, they've been choosing to move back. "With his restaurants, Ed's trying to be a big part of that fun energy that's coming to the city," David said. "It's cool to see. He's being himself and having a lot of success with it."