Hunting for Easter eggs in the forgotten places where houses once stood among the rugged West Virginia terrain made an everlasting impression on Michael Jensen.
Road trips as a child to visit family in the Eastern Panhandle left a mark in Jensen’s heart and mind, so much that he now calls West Virginia home, and will soon call Fayetteville home to his first business venture — New River Curry House.
A passion for cooking and baking came early for Jensen, time spent in the kitchen with his father making breads and bagels.
“Those are my fondest memories,” Jensen said. “It was so mind boggling to make something with your own hands.”
Jensen found himself fascinated by the chemistry behind the food, the smell of the yeast that stimulated his senses.
“I would play with play dough, but now I was making actual dough that’s edible and tasty. I was hooked from there.”
Cooking continued to infiltrate his thoughts — he realized if he could buy it at a store, he could make it himself. Creating dishes kept evolving for Jensen.
“I realized then I could start painting my plates with different sauces, and create visually stimulating dishes, like art you can enjoy on several different dimensions.”
Jensen spent time in culinary school, but while paying for his own schooling, he discovered he could learn more by immersing himself in the field.
That discovery led him to work for three years in the kitchens at southern West Virginia rafting outfitter Adventures on the Gorge. After that, he moved to back to his home state of Virginia to continue expanding his horizons, working in Washington, D.C., at fine dining establishments like BlackSalt and Siren and Restaurant Eve.
His experience at Restaurant Eve proved to be the most formative. Under the guidance of Chef Cathal Armstrong, a rising star in the D.C. area, that Jensen’s food philosophy began to take shape.
“He was a great instructor,” Jensen said. “He is the person who taught me that there is no part of an ingredient or vegetable that should go to waste. He taught me my discipline. He was a major influence, I daresay my idol.”
It was during this time of culinary exploration that Jensen began to take his learning abroad. The roots for New River Curry House began to take shape in his mind during his time in Southeast Asia.
“Touring and eating my way through this part of the world fueled me with knowledge,” Jensen said. “I learned why ingredients were incorporated together. And it was usually more than just for taste.”
Families created dishes here not just for their tastiness but for their nutritional value, for boosting their immune systems.
“These are areas with some of the healthiest people in the world because they are ingesting food that is beneficial to their bodies,” he said. “Some of their dishes were their version of grandma’s honey spoon with a lemon when you would have a sore throat.”
• • •
Jensen’s time abroad taught him the true meaning behind some of the world’s classic dishes, and that’s what he hopes to bring to New River Curry House.
His menu will feature relatively popular dishes from the Punjab region of India, near the border with Pakistan.
“Their dishes feature a lot of dry spices and have pleasant aromatics and great color,” Jensen said. “These are dishes that captivated my soul. I look forward to helping expose my customers to this part of the world.”
When he’s cooking, the smells of his dishes create a unique mosaic for the senses, from the beet vinaigrette on the root salad, the Indian butter chicken in the Chicken Korma, or the stewed lentils in the Dahl dish.
Jensen wants flavors that compliment each other, not just for looks, but that serve a purpose in his dishes. It’s all about balance and experimenting to find out what works and what doesn’t, he says.
He is even including a favorite Philippine-inspired dish, a Sisig that incorporates pork, garlic, ginger and Thai chili and a sunny side up egg.
Jensen will call on his other culinary skills to make his own naan bread, butchering his own chickens and making stocks in house.
After his time in D.C., Jensen said he drove cross country to decide his next steps. He took on small stage cooking or apprenticeships cooking with different chefs across the nation.
“Even with all the beauty I saw across the United States, none of it had what West Virginia has,” Jensen said. “It took driving cross country to realize that West Virginia was home.”
And after that, Jensen and his fiancée, Chasta Ramsey, settled in Fayetteville to begin New River Curry House.
• • •
The furniture is in place. Paint is on the walls. And the menu is displayed prominently for future customers to consider.
“Our aesthetic is rustic and rugged,” Jensen said. “We used barn wood from the 1930s for a lot of the furniture.”
Aiming for a comfortable and organic atmosphere, Jensen wanted the visual part of the restaurant to reflect the food he’s serving.
“Expect to see fresh herbs, raw wood, warm vibes and a welcoming staff,” Jensen said.
One of those staff members is sous chef Joe Bohn, originally from Virginia Beach, Va. Bohn has worked in the area at Tamarack and Secret Sandwich Society and is excited to be learning from Jensen.
“It’s great to help implement his visions and learn from him,” Bohn said. “He really is an artist and it’s fascinating to see how his dishes come together.”
As Jensen and Ramsey face the additional challenge of welcoming their first child to the world, Pryor Bradley, the young chef is as anxious to open the restaurant’s doors as the community around him is anxious to try his creations.
New River Curry House, located at 105 W. Maple Ave. in Fayetteville, is set to open May 15, Jensen said.
Hours will be 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, closed Wednesdays, and noon to 11 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
“This has been one of the most exciting, humbling and enjoyable adventures I’ve ever been on,” Jensen said. “Establishing this business has had ups and downs, but I, with the help of my family, just continue to persevere, to rise above the challenges. Just keep on driving.”
For more information about New River Curry House, call 304-574-3111 or visit them on Facebook.