Deeply rooted in traditional Appalachian foodways and cross-pollinated by a robust strain of locavore ideology, the Asheville food scene has blossomed in the past decade. With only 83,000 residents (but buoyed by some three million–plus visitors annually), Asheville supports some ten farmers’ markets and a dozen notable restaurants, including two that have been recognized by the James Beard Foundation. The area’s biggest draw, Biltmore Estate—the grand country manor built in 1895 by George Vanderbilt—has also joined the farm-to-table movement, and there’s even a craft-beer boom that has won Asheville the designation “Beer City U.S.A.” Foragers roam the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains for ramps, wild greens and medicinal herbs, while closer to town, food-centric start-ups produce artisanal cheese, bread, chocolate, kombucha, charcuterie, preserves and Troy & Sons moonshine (12 Old Charlotte Hwy.; 828-575-2000; troyandsons.com), which is made from a unique heirloom corn grown locally for more than 150 years. There are food trucks and underground supper clubs, a whole-carcass butchery, high-minded wine shops, at least two olive-oil tasting rooms, independent bookstores with extensive culinary sections, an all-beer retail boutique, food festivals, CSAs, community gardens, a local homesteading hero (cookbook author Ashley English), savvy food reporters and buzzy Twitter feeds. All in all, Asheville is a near-perfect food town.
“We looked all over, and when we came to Asheville, we said, ‘This is it,’” recalls chef Katie Button, whose year-old restaurant, Cúrate (11 Biltmore Ave.; 828-239-2946; curatetapasbar.com), was a James Beard award semifinalist this year. “The vibe, the economic direction. Our concept was using the best ingredients, and the best produce is always local.”
Cúrate (“cure yourself” in Spanish) is an authentic tapas bar whose ingredients are supplied by North Carolina farms. Almost overnight, Button has become a celebrity chef in a town that takes such things seriously. Other standouts include 2010 James Beard semifinalist Jacob Sessoms at Table (48 College St.; 828-254-8980; tableasheville.com), Brian Canipelli at Cucina24 (24 Wall St.; 828-254-6170; cucina24restaurant.com), Bill Klein at Biltmore’s Bistro (1 Lodge St.; 828-225-6230; biltmore.com)and Elliott Moss at The Admiral (400 Haywood Rd.; 828-252-2541; theadmiralnc.com).
Twenty-nine-year-old Button was born in South Carolina and raised in New Jersey, where she learned to cook at her mother’s catering business. She graduated from Cornell with a degree in chemical engineering, but instead of continuing toward a PhD, she wrangled a job with José Andrés in Washington, D.C. Her quick aptitude with restaurant life (and foreign language) earned her a spot at El Bullí, and in 2010 she set out to open Cúrate with her husband, Félix Meana, another El Bullí alum. Its tapas, like gambas al ajillo (shrimp sautéed with garlic), wouldn’t be out of place in New York—or, for that matter, Madrid—and the menu also features modernist touches such as ajo blanco (cold almond soup with green grape ice). Earlier this year, Button polished her skills at Copenhagen’s Noma: the chef’s equivalent of postdoctoral research.
For Button and other chefs, Asheville’s local harvest is a principal reason for being there, and the city’s consumers expect them to know precisely where their ingredients come from. “You source local, and you eat local,” explains baker David Bauer, a Milwaukee native who now runs Farm & Sparrow (828-633-0584; farmandsparrow.com). “It’s part of the politics of the town.”
Bauer’s bread-making shows a level of care and ideological purity nearly unimaginable in other parts of the county. He starts with local heirloom grain and grinds it on a custom-made stone mill. The dough is made with wild yeast, and the fermentation process takes 22 hours. He then bakes the loaves in a massive wood-fired oven built by a friend. “We don’t have tricks; we just do every step carefully,” says Bauer, although he does single out his working relationship with farmer John McEntire as a strong link in the chain.
McEntire, whose Peaceful Valley farm has been in his family since the 1800s, is mentioned a lot around Asheville. The sixtysomething farmer and his wife live on a rich piece of bottomland 25 miles “down the mountain” in Old Fort. Before retiring to the farm, McEntire taught school and worked in human resources. Today he has the leisure to farm by choice and does it with conviction. “I could make a business out of it if I wanted to, but it’s not about making a dollar,” he says. “It’s about enjoying it. None of us is here long. We pass through.”
Peaceful Valley is essentially a working museum, with two antique grist mills, a lumber mill, a sorghum press, a functional blacksmith shop and a dozen vintage tractors, all maintained by their owner’s tinkering. “I’m kindly interested in preserving old traditions,” says McEntire with an accent that retains the memory of Elizabethan speech. “We grow an heirloom white corn that’s been in the community for 150 years. Seventy years ago everybody had it—called it bread corn. My granddaddy and daddy grew it because they liked corn bread.”
Collaboration between a newcomer and a heritage farm is not unique here. At Hickory Nut Gap (57 Sugar Hollow Rd.; 828-628-1027; hickorynutgapfarm.com), charismatic 34-year-old fourth-generation farmer Jamie Ager caught the sustainability bug after visiting Joel Salatin, the visionary Virginia farmer whose practices are detailed in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and now supplies HNG meat to The Admiral and Table, among others. “Growing up on the farm, we had some cows and sheep, but we were just patching it together,” says Ager as he leads a tour around the bucolic 300-acre spread, where he grass-finishes beef and pastures chickens and hogs. “My family loved me, so I wasn’t encouraged to come back to the farm.”
Even so, Ager and his wife started selling grass-fed beef ten years ago. Almost immediately demand outstripped supply, so they expanded by working with other farmers under the HNG brand. The Agers have since diversified with pick-your-own berry crops, a farm shop and agrotourism, all of which are drawing nationwide interest from aspiring farmers.“Young people want to be in agriculture now,” says Ager, who seems amused to find himself, a country boy, singled out as a role model on the forward edge of contemporary farm practice. “We’ve got Ivy League kids e-mailing for internships all the time.”
The mountains of western North Carolina have long been a destination for wealthy visitors seeking escape from the South’s miasmic summer heat. (The Grove Park Inn, where President Obama has stayed, celebrates its centenary next year, and scenery along the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway is a perennial attraction.) The current foodie influx, however, amounts to “the opposite of a brain drain,” says Brooklyn transplant Michael Files, brand director of Chai Pani ($ 22 Battery Park Ave.; 828-254-4003; chaipani.net), a laid-back joint serving authentic “Indian-for-Indians” street food, such as crisp puri mixed with fresh corn and cucumber. “Tons of people move here from Brooklyn.”
Files mentions a local who said that on your third visit you start looking for a house, and any number of Asheville’s food producers testify to the area’s magnetic pull. Chocolatiers Jael and Dan Rattigan were running a café and sweet shop in Costa Rica when the word-of-mouth reports inspired them to move in 2006. “We got a loan and opened this space, which we thought was too big,” recalls Jael in the front room of French Broad Chocolates (10 S. Lexington Ave.; 828-252-4181; frenchbroadchocolates.com). “Soon there was a line to the door and the fire marshal was giving us a hard time about capacity.” Another pair of transplants, Vanessa Campbell and Alex Brown, first met in Santa Cruz, California, and opened Full Sun Farm (90 Bald Creek Rd.; 828-683-1607; fullsunfarm.com) in the Big Sandy Mush Valley a decade ago. As the couple’s daughters chase each other through a pasture of waist-high clover, Brown speaks to the community’s growth since then: “We used to know everybody. Now there are so many new farmers, we can’t keep up.”
The pace of agricultural development has been bolstered by the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, which promotes public awareness of local food and steers farmers to grants from various organizations, including the Golden LEAF Foundation, a government-run program funded by the tobacco industry, and a small-business incubator called Blue Ridge Food Ventures, which has launched dozens of food businesses. “We’re not just foodies growing organic lettuce,” says executive director of Blue Ridge Food Ventures Mary Lou Surgi. “We speak the language of economic development.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, a large segment of the population also speaks the language of the political left. Openly gay couples are commonplace—one resident calls Asheville “the rhinestone buckle of the Bible Belt”—and when a conservative state politician fulminated against the town as “a cesspool of sin,” locals appropriated the line as a selling point. Such progressive politics may be, in part, a legacy of Black Mountain College, the South’s de facto outpost of the avant-garde during its existence from 1933 to 1957. Black Mountain instructors included Josef Albers, Walter Gropius and Buckminster Fuller, and their arty influence lingers in the River Arts District. The formerly derelict neighborhood along the French Broad River houses dozens of art studios and restaurants, including the White Duck Taco Shop (1 Roberts St.; 828-258-1660; whiteducktacoshop.com), with its fusion bánh mì tacos, and everyone’s favorite barbecue shack, 12 Bones ($ 5 Riverside Dr.; 828-253-4499; 12bones.com).
What’s perhaps most intriguing about Asheville’s history is that the current locavore-progressive spirit connects with ideas first imported by Vanderbilt more than a century ago. The artistic heir of a Gilded Age railroad fortune fell in love with the area as a young man and bought 125,000 acres to build a self-sustaining country retreat. Although most of the land was later sold to the U.S. government to establish Pisgah National Forest, Vanderbilt’s grandson and current Biltmore owner, William A. V. Cecil, took steps toward reviving the farm 28 years ago, when he hired agricultural director Ted Katsigianis. Since then, Katsigianis has developed vineyards, established purebred sheep and cattle herds, planted sizable production gardens and initiated an experimental program to breed Kobe beef—all served in Biltmore’s various restaurants. The estate’s ambitious new executive chef, Damien Cavicchi, caused a stir when he poached rising star Bill Klein from the kitchen at Fig (18 Brook St.; 828-277-0889; figbistro.com), considered one of the town’s best restaurants, and installed him at Biltmore’s Bistro. “He brings a lot of street cred among local foodies,” says Cavicchi bluntly.
Others in Asheville share Cavicchi’s crackling ambition to earn a place on the national stage—a favorite local blog is called Ashvegas (ashvegas.com), after all—but that drive for broader recognition can also diminish the town’s original charm, which owes more to the timeless mountains and the outlying farm communities that maintain their antique traditions. One morning not far from Biltmore, but in the drabber setting of the Western North Carolina Farmers Market, farmer Kim Coates is explaining the traditional foodstuffs of her native Madison County. The Coates farm stand sells stone-ground grits, “greasy back” beans, wild ramps, aged country ham and pale sourwood honey, which she calls the “Cadillac of honey.”
“All the young people want to get back to a simpler way of life and the old way of doing things,” says Coates, who’s been selling at the WNC Farmers Market for 35 years and has family roots in the region that go much deeper. “Here we don’t have to get back to it.”
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