Behind the screens: What happens when the national media comes to town

Chef Katie Button of Cúrate Max Cooper
Chef Katie Button of Cúrate Max Cooper

Everyone thinks Owen McGlynn got shortchanged — except for Owen McGlynn.

In January, Food Network came to town to film Rebel Eats, a one-hour special featuring celebrity chef Justin Warner. McGlynn, chef at Storm, prepared four courses for 150 people and the cameras. He never appeared on TV, although his dishes did.

McGlynn is an instantly likable guy. He grins easily and talks quietly but meaningfully. He's intimidatingly tall, but still approachable. In a word, he's easy-going. So even though his girlfriend and his staff protested the omission, he's not bothered that the cameras overlooked him.

“It's kind of the way I was brought up, very low-key and mellow, just trying to do the work and get it done,'” he says. “I don't like talking about myself.”

When the nation's TV cameras point at Asheville, it seems they're drawn to certain people. Lately, they're visiting pretty often, along with their counterparts, journalists.

Since the beginning of 2013, Asheville food has attracted writers from Food & Wine, GQ and Lonely Planet, as well as videographers working for Food Network, ABC and Travel + Escape, a Canadian cable channel.

But what shows up on the TV screens and in the glossies isn't always true to life. Sometimes, writers forget the details. Producers cut people out, as in McGlynn's case. New narratives are born back in New York and L.A. The magazines don’t make anything up, but they do leave things out. So, it's worth asking: What really goes down when the media comes to town?

The whisper in the ear

Mike Moore doesn't go looking for attention, he explains, but in the two years since he started Blind Pig Supper Club, it's come to him. “I believe strongly in word of mouth,” he says. “If people have good experiences, they'll tell other people.”

His passive approach to marketing is effective. A production scout from Food Network learned about Blind Pig just by asking around. “She wrote me an email; she's like, 'I've talked to, literally, 47 people, and every single one of them has mentioned your name,'” says Moore, who also owns Seven Sows Bourbon & Larder.

Moore commanded the TV cameras for most of the show’s 10-minute Asheville segment. In other towns, host Justin Warner got most of the screen time. But here, Moore shares the spotlight. He makes jokes about bacon and vegans. He and Warner share a plate of food like old pals.

The Blind Pig crew labored for about 16 hours to earn those 10 minutes. Moore says it wasn’t easy to keep up appearances when nothing was scripted. “Quite a few fires happened,” he says. “It would have looked as if we didn't know what we were doing.”

For dramatic effect, Warner set off a smoke bomb in the parking lot of Pisgah Brewing, where the filming was taking place; the fire department showed up, sirens blaring. After the trucks departed, the pig they were roasting actually caught on fire, although it made it to the dinner table in the end.

Moore thinks it would have been entertaining to see these bloopers on the show, but in some ways, he's glad they were cut. Still, he wishes more of the Blind Pig crew got some screen time.

He's ready for round two of TV. A Canadian production crew visited Seven Sows last weekend to film a show called The Illegal Eater, starring Steven Page, the former frontman of the Barenaked Ladies. Moore was happy to see the cameras return.

Chatty Champion

Attracting big-name magazines and networks is a mixture of luck and skill, explains Margo Metzger, director of public relations for the N.C. Division of Tourism. She works with the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau to spread the word about local happenings, many of which relate to food and beer.

Every year, Metzger's office throws a big party in New York City to show the national press what North Carolina has to offer. “We're looking for any type of consumer publication that has a travel element of some kind,” she says. “Those are the kinds of people who come to see what's going on in North Carolina. They need story ideas, and we bring them.”

Dan and Jael Rattigan of French Broad Chocolates traveled with Metzger to New York to hand out samples and acquire contacts. A few weeks later, Good Morning America rang. The iconic ABC program reaches more than 5 million people.

The Rattigans jumped at the opportunity to show the nation how to make truffles. “A four-minute live segment sounded like forever,” Jael says. “But at the time, it felt like an instant.”

As the segment opens, the Rattigans stand in a studio kitchen with their supplies spread around them, smartly dressed in matching black chef coats.

One of the hosts, Sam Champion, assumes they're from New York, but Dan politely sets him straight. “Wow!” coos Lara Spencer, as if Asheville were the moon. Then she mistakes cream for butter. Jael doesn't correct her, but begins to explain the recipe, even as Spencer and Champion do their darndest to interrupt.

Dan cleverly distracts the hosts with chocolate samples. While their mouths are full, he takes an opportunity to explain the recipe. Spencer says something about inhaling a spoon.

Jael says she wasn't disappointed by the hosts' frenetic commentary because the publicity was so powerful. “They were very chatty,” she says. “I think part of the reason it went so fast is because we didn't get to convey as much information as we wanted.”

If she had her pick of media outlets, she would choose something a little brainier. “I really would love to have an in-depth story about chocolate-making and cocoa harvesting and processing in Saveur, which is a food-nerd magazine,” she says. “That seems like it would be the perfect medium to tell our story.”

Wining and dining Food & Wine

After the filming, the Rattigans got lucky again. Walking down the street, they passed a familiar figure, Gideon Lewis-Kraus, a writer who had visited Asheville a few weeks earlier while writing a piece for Food & Wine. They gave him a box of chocolate and chatted like old friends.

Lewis-Kraus had gotten to know Asheville as an insider. Chef Katie Button and Felix Meana, part-owners of Cúrate, had taken him out and introduced him to everyone they could think of. Lewis-Kraus clearly had a good time, as the first paragraph of his piece implies that he had consumed quite a bit of local beer.

“He was really, really nice,” Button says. “We got to know everybody's story who we went and visited.”

He must have had some genuine conversations with his hosts because he picked up details about spice mixes and accountants. Still, he doesn't exactly shelter them from scrutiny. He describes Button as “raspy-voiced,” to her slight embarrassment. “I was exhausted the day he was here, and I'd been working all weekend,” she says with a laugh.

While she would have preferred a different adjective, Button thinks Lewis-Kraus' article was remarkable in its detail. She's thrilled that he picked up on the spirit of community. “The goal is to create a dynamic dining scene in Asheville,” she says. “Everyone who lives here wants that.”

Hype currency

For the most part, big-city reviewers keep to their metros, with two notable exceptions. Alan Richman, the food critic for Esquire, dined at Cúrate (avoiding anyone's notice) and praised the restaurant in a March article, “The Perfect Night Out: The 12 Best Restaurants of 2013.”

Last summer, famed Southern food writer and director of Southern Foodways Alliance John T. Edge wrote of his visit to The Admiral. In his characteristically zany style, he praised then-chef Elliott Moss' cooking for its “troika out the wazoo.” (Moss says he's still not sure exactly what that means.)

To find the food critics, Asheville chefs have to travel to larger cities — and take their restaurants with them. Chai Pani opened its second location in Atlanta in March to major hype. Meherwan Irani, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Molly, says he never imagined it would draw so many, between 500 and 800 diners daily.

The crowds attract the critics, for better or for worse. “With hype, people's expectations are really, really high, sometimes irrationally so,” he says. “It feels like there's an intense pressure for us to never make a mistake because when we do, under the microscope, it's amplified.”

Irani gave his staff pictures of Atlanta Journal-Constitution restaurant reviewer, John Kessler, who eats at the restaurant often, but has yet to publish a review. However, AJC did call Chai Pani “one of the hottest restaurants around.”

Esquire
's reviewer, John Mariani, has also dined at the Atlanta Chai Pani. He's a controversial figure, one of those people who's revered and reviled. Still, his words make an impact. “I don't think he was there for an official review, but he was definitely there to check out the scene,” Irani says. “On the back of [his business card], he has his own personal recipe for his favorite daiquiri. So I told him if he ever comes to Asheville, we'll make the daiquiri in his honor.”

Irani is enjoying the perks of popularity, but riding out the buzz requires strong principals. “We constantly are vigilant to stick to the core,” he says. “The hype has to die down. No restaurant can sustain it. For us, what it will do is help us get off to a good start.”

Back in Asheville after a trip south, Irani looks relieved, like he's breathing for the first time in several days. “Asheville feels like the mother ship,” he says. “Everyone who walks in is a friend.”

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