More than meatloaf

Put your hands in the air: Nate Allen pumps his fist after Knife & Fork defeated the Bistro at Biltmore in last year’s WNC Chef’s Challenge Finale. Photo by Jennifer Haynes
Put your hands in the air: Nate Allen pumps his fist after Knife & Fork defeated the Bistro at Biltmore in last year’s WNC Chef’s Challenge Finale. Photo by Jennifer Haynes

A train, laden with coal, pulls slowly past Knife & Fork restaurant in Spruce Pine, N.C., following the banks of the glistening Toe River. It’s early Sunday morning and, in the kitchen, Nate Allen is punching a biscuit cutter into the dimpled surface of a thick sheet of dough with one hand while answering the phone with another. The previous Saturday night's service was so busy that Allen spent the night in the restaurant on an army cot. Despite this, Allen declares Saturday dinner "triumphant. Balanced and nice. Crazy, but a joy to do."

His wife, Wendy Gardner, readies the front of the house, buzzing around the 35-seat dining room, her shock of red curls bouncing while she polishes the floor.

Allen playfully describes Spruce Pine as being "in the middle of nowhere." With a population of just over 2,000, it's still the largest town in Mitchell County. Hemmed in by the river and the mountains, Spruce Pine once relied chiefly on mineral resources and railways to bolster the local economy, mills and factories after that. As with many small towns, that sort of industry has mostly dried up. Spruce Pine now works to capitalize on a different area resource: the natural beauty of the region and the talents of its residents.

Up until recently, Mitchell county and neighboring Yancey were both dry. The changing of the liquor laws, locals like to point out, marks a slow thaw for Spruce Pine's economy. Taverns and wine shops are slowly emerging, along with a handful of restaurants — Dry County Brewery and Pizza, El Ranchero restaurant and the Tin Lizard Pub among them.

And, three years ago, Spruce Pine saw the opening of the devoutly local, reverently seasonal Knife & Fork. The area has also seen a slow blossoming of craft shops, art galleries and studios. "A few gems that make it worthwhile to visit here," Allen says. "That's what we wanted to help create and that's what I think is really happening."

The influx of restaurants in response to the relaxed laws makes sense; drink sales help to pad the bottom line. It helps enable Knife & Fork to offer quality proteins and the gorgeous flowers, shoots and other early-spring goods that Allen culls from the local farms and forests. Still, the wines on Knife & Fork's small-but-mighty list remain reasonably priced.

Allen leans on his own skills to keep the food affordable, too. "Some of those prices are damn near a giveaway," he says. "Some dishes I'm basically taking a hit on, and some dishes I'm trying to make up for it by doing things that I love, like charcuterie." The restaurant procures whole animals, like the rabbits whose various parts turn up in a dish of fried livers served with wild Indian cucumber root and hot-pepper butter, again as rillettes and yet again in a braised-leg dish.

Well done

Allen's route to Spruce Pine was a circuitous one. His father worked with the department of defense, moving his family from the D.C. area to Brevard, to Denver, Colo., then to Annapolis, Md. Allen attended Johnson & Wales culinary school in Providence, R.I., embarked on an internship in the Virgin Islands, worked under James Beard Award-nominated chef Suzanne Goin in Los Angeles, then moved back to North Carolina, landing in Spruce Pine. Allen's wife was raised in Burnsville, 14 miles due east. "And my parents, after all of their moving around, relocated to Tryon," he says. "We just thought it would be a good place for us to be around our parents and fill a hole that definitely needs to be filled."

The restaurant opened in July of 2009, and, by the winter, things looked bleak. "January and February of 2010 were very painful," Allen says. "There was a lot of setting up to feed whoever you had to be ready for — 30 or 40 people or something — and then feeding two. Sitting in the window with Wendy, reading and drinking wine, and wondering if we'd make it through the winter," he says. "We also opened up in the worst time financially to open a restaurant, so that was its own kind of stupid. But we just really wanted to do it."

Even when the weather warmed, the locals weren't necessarily convinced. The reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor were "funny," Allen says. Some found the restaurant's effort to serve local and seasonal foods in a casual fine-dining atmosphere pretentious, or the prices too high.

"It was a lot of people coming in, looking at the menu, looking around and walking out," he says. "There's certainly a local contingent that was not at all interested in embracing the weirdos from California who were probably serving a bunch of weird vegetarian food for too much money. We've won over a lot of those people. I've done a lot of hand-holding and a lot of well-done steaks to get to the point where people would trust me, and people would come here for the food and for the interesting things that are available through wild foraging."

Cheeks and cracklins

The food traditions of Spruce Pine were always on Allen's side. The historic center of the town was an old inn and tavern — travelers were told to look for the old spruce pine near the English Inn to mark the place to rest, eat and drink.

Appalachian food history informs Knife & Fork’s menu as much as Allen's travels and frequent relocations. Picture biscuit crumbs in slow-cooked greens, lilac-mustard flowers on a dish of smoked trout cheek or cracklins served with crisp early-spring shoots. The local contingent of growers and gatherers influence his food more than any trend.

"We do so much work here sourcing — I'm more of a ‘sourcer’ than a chef," Allen says. "I just love developing relationships with growers, getting to know them like friends and then finding the best thing I can at the appropriate time and letting it be the star."

On his spring menu, shoots of Solomon's seal, a native-foraged medicinal plant, cradle slices of young-goat loin. An appetizer of sautéed local ramps (one of Allen's employees is a ramp-hunting expert) and crispy potatoes is splashed with malt vinegar, a nostalgic nod to the boardwalk fries Allen used to fish out of vinegar-soaked paper cups in Annapolis. Braised rabbit is served with red quinoa, garnished with cracklins and hosta shoots, another nod to the Appalachian history of enthusiastic spring foraging.

"What spring has been about in this area for so long is that people have eaten salt pork and some canned goods and nothing green throughout the entire winter, especially if it was a hard winter," Allen says. "Then things start coming out of the ground and people are just going to go pick some stuff and make a salad because their bodies are screaming for it."

In keeping with the season, Knife & Fork's current menu is bright and light. Though there are flashes of decadence — local cheese and butter here and there — for his part, Allen likes to avoid what he calls the "Emeril-ization" of the kitchen. "You know, 'I'm gonna put more fat in it — bam!'" he laughs. Much of the flavor in the food comes from manipulating ingredients — the char on vegetables added to a side of farro with spiced pumpkin seeds, roasted low to achieve a mild nutty flavor with no bitterness.

When Allen uses a well-worn cliché — that he's trying to let the ingredients speak for themselves — it's refreshingly sincere.

Eat, drink, be merry

Knife & Fork continues to find its rhythm, bolstered by recent press. Cooking Light Magazine named Allen the best small-town chef in America in 2011. Later that year, Garden & Gun praised a summery version of that braised rabbit leg with red quinoa as one of the top 50 Southern dishes in the country. And, in a culinary version of David and Goliath, 2011 also saw the tiny Knife & Fork beat out the Bistro on the Biltmore Estate in the finale of the WNC Chefs Challenges. After learning of his victory, Allen, grinning wildly, flipped a plastic table, jumped on it, and thrust his fists into the air. It was a display that was hard to ignore. "You have to figure out how to blow yourself up a bit," Allen says.

"The last half of last year, after we had made it to the finals of the Chefs Challenges, we started getting people in here to really eat, drink and be merry," Allen says.

"And he got the opportunity to start making stuff that we might not have gotten away with before," Gardner adds. "But he had to do a lot of meatloaf first."

"Meatloaf makes me so mad," Allen says.

Now the restaurant is breaking records before tourist season even arrives. A recent Saturday dinner service saw about 90 people served in just a handful of hours from Knife & Fork's postage-stamp sized kitchen. "It's been nuts," Allen says. "But I'm loving the momentum we've hit, the staff that we have right now and the purveyors that we've got. At almost three years in, I can feel the culmination of the work Wendy and I have put in. It's been crazy, nonstop, spend-the-night-here-on-a-cot kind of work, but it's really paying off."

Allen and Gardner are literally invested in the future of the town and they hope to continue growing with it, even if it means not making it home some nights.

"The most gratifying thing is being recognized for what we were hoping to instill in the area, which was a revitalization of a community that had been really faltering economically ever since they began shutting down plants in the area. Bringing back a new kind of tourism-based economy, where people are coming to this area for the craft culture, for the food, for the festivals and for the Blue Ridge Parkway and all of that kind of stuff, and kind of helping to lend to the vitality of that."

And though Allen may like to joke that Spruce Pine is the middle of nowhere, it's in some ways the very source of our local foodways.

"The agriculture here is supplying Asheville and the high country with the majority of its goods," Allen says. "Half of the people at the tailgate markets on Charlotte Street are from up in this area." Across the street, another train is pulling slowly up the riverbank. Allen is a train fanatic. "I've got everything I need right here," he says.

Knife & Fork is located at 61 Locust St., Spruce Pine. For more information, visit http://www.knifeandforknc.com. Call 765-1511 for reservations.

— Mackensy Lunsford can be reached at food@mountainx.com.

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