Nestled in a valley within Pisgah National Forest, the Cradle of Forestry is a destination with a rich diversity of experiential opportunities. About a 45-minute drive southwest of Asheville, the site, which is known as the birthplace of modern forestry, now also showcases Café at the Cradle, a sustainable eatery headed by Asheville chef Zika Singogo.
Singogo, who grew up in Kansas, says that although he attended culinary school for a time, he is largely self-taught. Having been raised on a farm, he learned many of the local food movement’s basic tenets organically. “We butchered our animals; we grew our own food,” he says.
He cites his father, who was an agricultural engineer, as a major source of inspiration for his lifelong culinary passion and his dedication to using local ingredients — a focus he sees as a self-evident mission of Café at the Cradle.
Devin Gentry, the Cradle of Forestry’s director of operations, notes that through its sustainability efforts, the café rounds out the site’s education mission, which aims to allow “people to connect with personal heritage and Blue Ridge heritage and culture.” He says that his and Singogo’s “shared vision” was critical to the formation of their partnership. Singogo’s commitment to using sustainably raised, locally derived food complemented Gentry’s desire to see the Cradle’s eatery transition away from concession-stand offerings and vending machine items to a real food experience that reflects the history and culture of the region.
For example, the café’s veggie melt vegetarian sandwich features melted provolone with roasted red peppers, tomato and spring mix highlighted by a ramps pesto. Ramps, which are a regional wild edible, have long-standing significance in Cherokee and Appalachian culture. And although some folks are deterred by the vegetable’s pungent reputation, Singogo notes that because most people know what pesto is, they are willing to try ramps in this form.
The menu also features other sandwiches, all in the $9-$10 range, including chips and a drink plus a variety of soups, salads and children’s meal, all priced between $4-$8. And, although the café isn’t open until 11 a.m., a breakfast sandwich is available for $5.
Drinks include local bottled water and sodas from the Waynesville Soda Jerks — sorghum cola, blueberry basil and lavender lemon are just a few of the bubbly flavors on the grab-and-go shelf. “That’s the concept of my retail spaces,” he says: “localcentric grocery.”
The café also offers reasonably priced picnic baskets by preorder. A charcuterie basket that feeds two to three people costs $25; a barbecue basket that can feed four to six people is $40, and a build-your-own option is available for up to $12 per person. As Gentry remarks, “People make memories over food.”
Sustainability is a fashionable and highly marketable catchphrase in the food service industry today. But Singogo reaches for a sincere interpretation of the term. The vast majority of his products, including the meat and produce, are sourced from Buncombe County-based Whispersholler Farms, a local food supplier and network of small farms owned and operated by Kendall Huntley. Huntley also operates a food market at Asheville Food Park, and his business serves numerous other Asheville-area restaurants, including HomeGrown, TacoBilly and Tiger Bay Café, to name a few.
“I’m just not interested in using a major food purveyor,” Singogo says. He doesn’t even use a freezer at the café. “It’s limiting in some ways, but [it means that] everything is fresh and made from scratch. It’s about simplicity, I guess, for me, being able to choose which products I want and incorporate them into the menu.”
Although a modest statement, Singogo’s candor underpins the significance of his efforts. “If it’s not sustainable, this isn’t going to be here in 50 years for everyone to enjoy,” he says, motioning to the expanse of forest beyond the café’s patio.
Despite the heavily trafficked trails surrounding the site, Gentry says the Cradle and its restaurant are lesser-known destinations. “I still consider it a hidden gem,” he says. He notes that since there are no other restaurants in Pisgah National Forest besides the Pisgah Inn, the café not only serves visitors at the Cradle of Forestry but also provides an accessible option for famished hikers and campers. The café also offers a catering component that is available to locals and tourists alike, either at the Cradle or for external events.
“We’re excited about the partnership,” Gentry says. “We like the fact that he’s emphasizing heritage through the menu.” Gentry also emphasizes Singogo’s passion for the work, noting, “He has a strong commitment to quality. Zika wants things to be done right; he wants people to be happy.”
Singogo and Gentry would both like to see more folks come to check out the Cradle of Forestry. “I just hope we can help bring more traffic. I’d love to see more people just come out here and look around. It’s a great place to come hang out on the porch and listen to the birds,” says Singogo.
Café at the Cradle is at 11250 Pisgah Highway, Pisgah Forest. Hours are 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. It will be open daily following Memorial Day.