Elliott Moss (left) and Ivan Candido at The Admiral. Photo by Max Cooper
On a recent night at The Admiral, a rowdy group from Haywood County bantered across the dining room with a pair of Asheville diners. They didn’t know each other, but everyone was fired up and happy to be talking. A round of Miller Lites for the visitors and a bottle of wine for the locals had softened the mood. The topic of their conversation? Swordfish-belly crudo. Neither party had eaten it before, and they were both intrigued by the dish.
The curiosity of diners and cooks alike is what The Admiral is all about, says Ivan Candido, who has worked in the restaurant’s kitchen for the last 2 1/2 years.
On March 2, Candido will become head chef at the Haywood Road restaurant. Elliott Moss, who has been with The Admiral since it opened in 2007, will move on to focus on his new restaurant, Buxton Hill.
So what does Moss' departure mean for The Admiral?
“I don't think it's a big deal,” Candido says. He's not being cocky. For him, the restaurant's food program is a living, breathing thing that simply requires care. “The Admiral already has a name, so it's our job to keep it the same,” he says.
Jonathan Robinson, who co-owns The Admiral with bar wiz Drew Wallace, says he doesn't think diners will notice the change. “I think as long as you give them a good experience, it doesn't really matter what the chef's name is,” he says. “What Elliott started will always be a part of The Admiral.”
Robinson will continue to work with Moss at Buxton Hill, where they both own a portion of the restaurant. Their South Carolina upbringings will inspire the menu. Moss says barbecue and other Southern standards are part of the concept, but he's hesitant to reveal the details of the restaurant's ultimate design.
While he won't admit to it, Moss is one of Asheville's most well-known chefs. Since 2011, Xpress readers voted for him by name in the “top chef” category of the Best of WNC poll.
Moss doesn’t want to comment on the Admiral’s future without him in the kitchen, but he promises to return as a customer. “That's my baby, and I have to leave because I want to do my own thing,” Moss says.
The brand versus the face
Scott Adams remembers a time when chefs were not big names. They did not have lines of cookware. Their faces were not on soup cans. They did not blog. They stayed in their kitchens.
Among other things, Adams chairs the hospitality management department at A-B Tech. He tries to prepare his students for a culinary world in which television cameras and Twitter handles have become just as important as knives and whisks. “You have to point to these shows,” Adams says. “Instead of the restaurant itself being famous or the owner of the restaurant being famous, it was the chef being brought forward.”
Now, a chef’s personality get as much attention as the restaurant — and sometimes more. “It runs rampant in the industry, the brand versus the face,” Adams says.
In certain cases, he explains, a chef's name is the strength of a restaurant. The chef becomes the brand, and an eatery's marketing strategy becomes dependent on that personality. That strategy works well until a chef departs. “The greatest enemy of our industry is turnover,” he says.
But turnover doesn't mean failure. Adams points to The Market Place as a brand that has continued to evolve after a change in chef and ownership. “All we can do is hope for continued success,” he says, noting that the future of any restaurant is difficult to predict.
A new lease, a new life
William Dissen, chef/owner at The Market Place, bought the Wall Street eatery in 2009. The former owner and chef, Mark Rosenstein, founded the business 30 years earlier.
Rosenstein and Dissen explored different variations on a common theme. “The values of The Market Place have always been to be a part of the community and to try to work as locally as possible,” Dissen says. “But [Rosenstein's] Market Place is much different from my Market Place.”
The days of the white tablecloth are over, Dissen says. He's worked to make the restaurant more casual and accessible without alienating longtime customers. He's spent a lot of time introducing himself to diners and explaining that he's the new owner. “I think it's important for whoever is acquiring the business to really do a good job of spreading the word about the mission of the new company,” he says.
But not every restaurant needs rebranding when a new chef steps forward. Adam Bannasch took over the kitchen at Zambra in 2005, a few months after Hector Diaz departed. (Diaz currently heads up Salsa's, Modesto, Chorizo and Bomba.)
Bannasch still gets calls for the former chef, even though almost a decade has passed since he left the restaurant. But Bannasch says he isn't interested in eclipsing his predecessor and becoming a well-known figure.
At Zambra, the restaurant itself is the brand. Diners come for the expansive, low-lit dining room and the plates designed for sharing. The romantic atmosphere is more central to Zambra's identity than the chef behind the menu, Bannasch acknowledges.
His low profile offers advantageous flexibility; diners don't expect to see him in his kitchen every weekend. Like Moss, Bannasch is opening a new restaurant. He's starting Seven Sows Bourbon and Larder (with Mike Moore from Blind Pig Supper Club), set to open on Biltmore Avenue this spring.
Steve Goff at Zambra. Photo by Max Cooper
He doesn't plan to leave Zambra completely, but he will rely more on his sous chef, Steve Goff, who will focus on maintaining the atmosphere that defines the restaurant.
Goff says Zambra's concept is somewhat independent from its chef. “Elliott [Moss] is more of the soul of The Admiral, whereas Adam [Bannasch] has built Zambra to be a machine on its own,” he says.
The way Goff sees it, the success of any staffing transition, whether at The Admiral or at Zambra, depends on consistency. “In a perfect kitchen,” he says, “You don't want someone to notice the difference.”
Emily Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.