Back of House is a new monthly column from former Xpress Beer Scout writer Thom O’Hearn profiling local chefs and brewers.
When Gàn Shān Station opened almost exactly a year ago, it gave diners a lot to talk about: The menu couldn’t neatly be classified as any one style of Asian cuisine. The kitchen sent out dishes as they were fired instead of in courses. And the food was unapologetically full of flavor and spice.
“I guess you could say we came out guns blazing,” says Chris Hathcock, co-executive chef. “We were doing some adventurous things and some spicy food … but we hit up against some sensitive palates.”
Months later, the restaurant had made changes. Many who didn’t like Gàn Shān Station when it launched now raved about the food and the service. But those who loved the original concept weren’t as excited about the adjustments.
Listening and learning
“We had a lot of feedback right after we opened,” says Patrick O’Cain, co-executive chef and owner. “I mean, everyone gets feedback — eating is an incredibly personal experience — but it did seem like maybe some people weren’t ready for, or didn’t share our excitement for, [the more adventurous] food we were cooking.”
Both chefs say that matching their food to the Asheville palate was especially important for Gàn Shān Station, which is a local restaurant first. “We’re supported by our neighborhood, and we want to make sure we do the best we can to make our regulars happy,” says Hathcock. “It’s our duty from when they walk in the door to give them the best experience possible.
“Also, I want to add that when you talk about ‘catering to your clientele,’ it can sound like [you’re compromising], but that’s not necessarily the case,” he continues. “We’ve had some great things come out of listening to our diners.”
O’Cain says the whole fish, which Gàn Shān Station works hard to source and truck in superfresh, is a good example. “We never expected the level of enthusiasm we’ve seen. We now have an email list to let people know what fresh fish we’re getting in every week,” says O’Cain. “It’s become a big part of our menu, and I love that people are this excited about it.”
While Hathcock says the restaurant had to “tone it back a little bit” initially, now that Gàn Shān Station has been open a year, he’s noticing that even the more conservative diners are becoming a bit adventurous and trying more of the menu.
“We’ve been doing charcuterie since day one, but we’re just getting to the point where we’re increasing some of our meat offerings,” says Hathcock. “For example, we’re aging duck in-house and cooking sweet-and-sour sweetbreads. These are dishes getting diners out of their comfort zones, and we’re getting great feedback.”
“I think people who have dined with us regularly are developing that trust,” says O’Cain. “Hopefully that means we’ll be able to open their eyes to something new they’ll enjoy. It’s all about discovery.”
Growing with the city
While O’Cain grew up in Asheville, he was most recently sous chef at Xiao Bao Biscuit in Charleston. Hathcock was sous chef at Two Boroughs Larder, also in Charleston, and had spent time in Atlanta before that. Both relocated to Asheville to open Gàn Shān Station.
“Our food scene is being compared to cities that have 7 million people … and it’s exciting to be part of that, what’s happening here now. But we’re definitely not an ‘established’ food city yet the way the larger cities are,” says O’Cain. “But we’re doing very good for a city of less than 100,000 people.”
Hathcock says coming from larger cities, it’s easy to see both the positives and negatives of the Asheville restaurant scene. “I do miss the variety and quality that comes with the high level of competition you see in larger cities,” says Hathcock. “But we’re a good community [here in Asheville]. We all want to see each other succeed, and we work together as much as possible.”
To that end, O’Cain is a new member of the Asheville Independent Restaurants board of directors. He’s also spent the last year developing and nurturing relationships with local farmers and purveyors.
As far as the second year goes, the two say it’s all about continuing to build those relationships and improve in the kitchen. “Year one was about finding our rhythm,” says O’Cain. “Now it’s about building on that and refining everything.”
“We’re definitely looking to push ourselves,” adds Hathcock.