Peter Pollay, co-owner and executive chef of downtown Asheville’s Posana Café, has long been established as a leader and groundbreaker in the Asheville restaurant scene. Posana, which is Asheville’s only 100-percent gluten-free restaurant, was also named North Carolina’s first Certified Green Restaurant by the Green Restaurant Association in 2011. In December 2013, Asheville Independent Restaurants tapped Pollay to head up its new executive board for 2014 as as president.
Pollay, an honors graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who has worked with restaurant-industry celebrities such as Wolfgang Puck, is a longtime supporter of the local gluten-free community and plans this year to continue his yearly tradition of having a booth at the annual Gluten-Free Expo, to be held 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, March 29, at UNCA’s Kimmel Arena.
Xpress recently talked to Pollay about the challenges of creating a palate-pleasing, gluten-free menu, his work with Asheville’s restaurant community and his excitement about bidding farewell to winter.
Xpress: What inspired you to open a gluten-free restaurant?
Peter Pollay: It was a labor of love for my wife. She was diagnosed nine years ago with celiac disease, and whenever we went out to eat, it was just so difficult — sometimes we would get a blank stare from a server or a manager, who didn’t realize what we needed — it just did not lend itself to a great or comfortable experience that you want to have when you go out to eat. So we decided when we opened up to just bring along some of the food that we do at the house into the restaurant.
Did you find it challenging at first to create delicious food without using gluten?
As far as developing a menu, the hardest thing is when you wan to use a pasta or ravioli or desserts or pastries – those were challenging. It took us a while, but we feel like we’ve figured it out now.
What are some of the tricks you discovered?
Well, it’s really kind of complicated. All the regular flour that you might use to make your final product … you have to mimic those properties with alternative flours – the amount of protein, the amount of moisture and the elasticity — and that is a process in itself. It’s pretty much a science experiment.
As we finally move out of a long winter, what are some of your favorite local springtime ingredients to work with?
Oh, we’re looking forward to spring. Fava beans, asparagus, onions and ramps will be coming soon — a lot of times we pickle [the ramps] in vinegar, many times we will julienne them and use them with other vegetables to give it all a nice oniony flavor and we often chop them and put them on top of pasta, which is great. Yeah, in springtime everything comes alive again, and we start getting all this great produce in and it’s invigorating in the kitchen; we get our creativity going again. We’ve had a hard winter and we’re excited for some new things to come along.
How are things going with AIR since you took the reins as president?
AIR is fantastic. It’s keeping me busy. … It’s amazing how many members we have – I think we have 95 or 96 right now, so we’re just about to reach 100, which is wonderful. We only had 20-25 three or four years ago, so we’ve grown quite a bit, and we’re growing because it’s a great organization and in this day and age it’s really hard for an independent restaurant to get all the information that’s out there. And AIR, as an organization, goes out and gets that information and gives it to [the restauranteurs] so they know what’s up and coming. Like with the new Health Department rules that they finally adopted … we knew that was coming almost a year ahead of time, so all the restaurants were able to put systems in place to abide by those rules. And we do a lot of educational trainings to better the staff of the restaurants in our organization.
Do you notice one type of restaurant or culinary style being predominate in your organization?
No, we’re really diverse. We have restaurants all over Buncombe County — everything from the fast-casual food all the way up to fine dining, completely across the board, which is wonderful. And I don’t think there’s any one particular style or genre of restaurant that is more abundant than any other, but we do notice a lot of people moving into town to open a restaurant, or people within town opening a second or third restaurant.