It has always come down to one thing for chef Mark Rosenstein — flavor.
Whether he was walking area farms for the freshest greens or gutting trout fished from a local pond, the goal for Rosenstein remained the same: serve the tastiest fare possible. What followed simply followed.
“I’m not out to save the world,” Rosenstein says. But if flavorful food can lead to other positive implications — eating seasonal foods, building local networks of providers, nurturing the environment and bringing people together to sit down and eat togther — then so be it.
“Food is, in reality, at the core of the human community,” says Rosenstein.
Rosenstein on Tuesday finalized the sale of his business to new owner William Dissen, a 30-year-old chef and restaurant owner with an impressive resume who moved to Asheville from South Carolina. Rosenstein was tackling a dozen little details of the transition when Xpress called, but took time out to talk about his decision.
On a cool September morning outside his restaurant, Rosenstein explains that the business will go on, and that he will continue to be involved. But he says he also knew it was time for a change.
“Thirty years in the restaurant business is like 50 years in any other business,” says Rosenstein, 57, swiping back wispy gray waves beneath his straw hat. “It’s intense. You’re working in 120-degree heat,” and when things go bad in a kitchen, well, they really go bad.
Another factor also played into Rosenstein’s decision — he suffered a stroke in May.
“The fact of the matter is, I’ve lost a step or two,” he says. “I love what I do, but I’ve started to hit burn-out a couple of times. I’ve reinvented myself a couple of times. It was time.”
“It wasn’t a wake-up call, because I was already thinking, ‘Mark, you’ve got to make a change.’ It was an exclamation point,” he says, pointing to the long, rosy scar on the right side of his neck — carotid surgery to remove a plaque blockage. “It gave me permission to let go.”
Food has been the core of Rosenstein’s reality for 38 years as a restaurant owner, with 30 of those years devoted to The Market Place. The restaurant ranks as a true Asheville institution. There may not be an older eatery in town and over the years, it has built a reputation for providing consistent, quality fine dining. Along the way, Rosenstein built the foundation for many of the farm-to-table connections in place today.
Rosenstein came to that philosophy out of simple necessity. At his first restaurant, the Frog and Owl Cafe outside of Highlands, the 19-year-old tromped the local farms with his pocket knife and basket in search of the freshest ingredients. There were no suppliers in 1971 willing to travel the dizzy mountain roads to deliver $50 worth of produce to an upstart, Rosenstein says.
His culinary school was reading French cookbooks, walking in the woods to learn plant identification and connecting with area growers who could provide a seasonal menu’s building blocks.
“It was a very personable experience to dine at the Frog and Owl, as I think it has been here at the Market Place,” Rosenstein says. “I would talk to people in the restaurant and they would ask me to cook something, and I would go back into the kitchen, look it up and cook it. I was learning.”
Rosenstein came to Asheville in 1979, opening up on Market Street. He moved to his Wall Street location in 1990. Thinking back, he marvels at how much the local food infrastructure has changed, improved. He’s happy for that, although he says he’s worried that the “pristine pool” of creative, entrepreneurial Asheville may fall victim to its own success.
What’s next? In terms of the restaurant, Rosenstein hopes to see it focus on “accessibility to the next generation of diners, but with absolutely no compromise on the artistry, craftsmanship and level of service” that’s offered. Personally, he foresees a deeper involvement with Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and its respected culinary program, and continued dedication to the non-profit Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Program and its focus on promoting local food.
No matter what, food will be front and center for Rosenstein.
“What I hope for local food, and this restaurant, is that we don’t lose sight of how valuable a shared meal is for family, for business, for everyone.”
— Jason Sandford, multimedia editor