Atop the “it’s a tough job but somebody has to do it” list must surely be the menu tastings Chestnut executive chef Brian Crow holds for front-of-house staff the last Tuesday of every month. In late October, the people who field the questions from diners about dishes had the chance to taste and offer feedback as Crow and his sous chefs introduced medium plates and entrées that debuted Nov. 1, replacing or reinterpreting items from October’s dinner menu.
Among the smaller plates, Chestnut bid adieu to oysters Rockefeller and pumpkin gnocchi, which were replaced by braised short rib pappardelle and rabbit pot pie. Cauliflower bites morphed into Cauliflower Three Ways — brown-butter fried, pickled and puréed — and the Cajun mussels fell into fall via a red curry pumpkin broth with spiced pepitas and toasted naan bread for sopping.
On the entrée side, Asian marinated tuna steak’s spot was taken by fennel dusted Verlasso salmon, and smoked turkey roulade with prosciutto-sage-gouda filling, bone marrow bread pudding, walnut green beans and cranberry butter ushers in the holiday feasting season. Along with the cauliflower, vegans will find a plate-sized tempura maitake mushroom with ginger carrot purée.
Like other locally sourced restaurants in Asheville, Chestnut takes menu prompts as each season rolls out its particular bounty. Crow’s method makes major changes across all menus — dinner, lunch and brunch — in January, April, July and October. And within those quarters, he turns over about 60% of the dinner menu monthly.
“When I came on board three years ago, the menus were being changed daily,” he says. “The challenge in that is the front of house didn’t know what they’d get day to day and didn’t have a chance to offer feedback on dishes that would be gone the next night. The back of house didn’t know what they would prep day to day. I welcome the feedback I get from the monthly tastings and what they share from their customers.”
As he looks ahead to the next month or quarter, Crow’s sous chefs send him ideas, and then they all collaborate on recipe development and sourcing. “I’m excited about the rabbit from Sospiro Ranch,” he says. “Braising is a technique we love to do now, and pot pies are all about cold weather.”
Steve Goff, chef/owner of Aux Bar, is also a fan of chilly weather warmups. “I really like the different techniques common to certain seasons. In colder months, you see soup, stews and braising,” he says. “Menu changes happen when I’m in the mood, depending on what’s available in the season. Spring and summer are my favorite seasons for vegetables, especially spring. But I’m a big meat man, and I love meat for fall and winter — beef shanks, lamb shanks, and I’m putting some veal necks on the menu.”
No matter the season, the burger is always the thing at Smoky Park Supper Club, says executive chef and co-owner Michelle Bailey. “Matt Logan, one of our co-owners, was always excited about wood-fired cooking, local produce, but the most important thing to him was to have a killer burger. I spent many weeks researching it, developing the grind recipe. That burger has a cult following.”
She doesn’t mess with success. “It’s always the same bun, charred herb mayo, smoked cheddar and house-made pickles. But we got the end of the tomatoes the last week of October, so we’re replacing the tomato with grilled onions. In late fall, winter and spring you won’t find a tomato anywhere on our menu. We love tomatoes, but we don’t love bad tomatoes.”
Although Bailey bid a wistful farewell to tomatoes and grilled okra, she is enjoying the autumn harvest and looking forward to winter. “We are hyperseasonal here,” she says. “I work with a lot of local farmers, and they all start texting me Sundays to let me know what they’ll have that week. We get deliveries on Wednesdays from our main farms like Gaining Ground, Ten Mile and Green Toe Ground, and go to the tailgate market Saturday morning.”
Chef and restaurateur Jacob Sessoms of Table, Imperial Life, All Day Darling and Cultura says he’s been at it so long (he and Matt Dawes opened Table in 2005) and has been working with the same farmers for so many years, he knows what to expect. “I know what’s coming every microseason,” he explains. “What we do at Table and the way I’ve structured Cultura is the chefs and I will write menus for each month based on what is coming in. If Table has 25 items on its menu, we’ll write maybe 50 items for the month and plan according to what will be in its prime for two weeks, and then something else another two weeks.”
His team cooks every item to capitalize on its peak ripeness. “The first butternuts are different than the ones later in the season when it’s gotten colder and they have a little age,” he says.
No matter the structure or protocol, chefs agree that the start of each season brings something to look forward to. “I love the first couple weeks of every season the most,” says Sessoms.
“One of the things I love about Asheville is it’s so seasonal,” says Crow. “I kind of gravitate to fall because I really enjoy those great root vegetables and cooking in the fall.”
For Bailey, every season has ingredients to get excited about, from ramps and radishes in spring to corn and okra in the summer. “Fall and winter is the collard greens, cabbage, winter squash, carrots and sweet potatoes,” she says. “They last through March, so you have to mix up the recipes to avoid sweet potato fatigue.”
That’s not an issue for Goff. “Sweet potatoes are pretty much a constant on my menu, all the different kinds. We make our duck wing sauce with them, we roast them, quick-pickle them, make kimchi with them, roast them, purée them. We’ll be doing a purple sweet potato pot de crème that will have a really rosy flavor. If North Carolina had a spirit vegetable, it would be sweet potatoes.”