Things have been changing at Asheville’s beloved Seven Sows Bourbon & Larder. Hosting Blind Pig Supper Club events both regionally and on the road, chef and owner Michael Moore has found himself drawn from the kitchen more and more lately, leading him last fall to hire Todd Woods as chef de cuisine for the busy restaurant.
There have been rumors of Moore closing the restaurant or selling to Justin Burdett of Highlands’ Ruka’s Table, which closed suddenly after New Year’s. But Moore assures that while Burdett did make an offer, he has no intention of shutting down or selling his restaurant, which is just now beginning to crank out some of the best food it’s made in the nearly two years it’s been open.
Woods, a recent transplant from Hickory where he had been working with his friend chef Kyle McKnight at the eatery Highland Avenue, says he experienced a brief moment of culture shock when he first came onboard at Seven Sows. “”Asheville is pretty laid back,” he says. “I came in here my first night wearing my chef’s coat, and I felt superweird. I ended up just taking it off. I just felt a little too dressed-up.”
Woods invited me to test out his menu recently, and it didn’t disappoint.
The first course delivered to the table was a sprawling charcuterie board. The drizzles and smudges of sauces, aioli and kumquat mostarda painted a backdrop across the board like a late-era Kandinsky piece. Towers of Farm & Sparrow bread flanked the corners, while boulders of chicken-liver mousse and house-pickled radishes and cauliflower dotted the landscape beside plateaus of house-cured duck ham and pork terrine. A serene pond of decadent whipped lardo filled the valleys of the edible landscape.
Originally from the Lenoir area, Woods and his then-girlfriend moved to Washington D.C. so the she could finish a degree in International Relations. There, he worked his way up the ranks to executive chef at Restaurant Nora, the first restaurant to ever be certified organic in the United States. Then he and his wife had their first child, “and we decided to move back here, to be close to our family,” he says, “so Asheville was the obvious spot for culinary reasons.”
Woods connected with Moore through McKnight’s affiliation with Blind Pig Supper Club. “He was an obvious choice [for chef de cuisine],” says Moore, “and I don’t think I could trust anyone with my kitchen more than him.”
Woods’ connection to Southern food isn’t just playing into the rising trend of country cuisine; his roots go a little deeper than most. “I did my first cooking with my grandmother in her kitchen when I was a little boy,” he recalls. “I spent a lot of time with her when I was younger. She was actually a high school lunch lady, back when they actually cooked. She would actually go in at four every morning to make scratch-made biscuits. I got a lot of inspiration from my grandmother and my great-grandmother. I grew up around a lot of canning. She actually had a cave in the side of a mountain that she kept all of her cans in.”
But Woods has also taken those Southern roots and expanded that culinary horizon, incorporating many Asian techniques into his fare. The second course to arrive was a grilled flat iron steak. A dish that, more often than not, is presented so plainly and generically that I usually try to avoid it. Woods’ delivery is a whole other animal. A quick pickled salad of daikon, carrot, scallion and mung bean sprouts sits atop thinly sliced steak, Hokkaido adzuki beans and toasted rice, all drizzled with a lightly spicy chile-lime vinaigrette.
After attending Appalachian State University to study music, Woods tried his hand in aviation school, earning his license to fly, but something about the kitchen kept drawing him back in. “I’ve always cooked in kitchens, and I’ve done it since I was 16. But I just like this so much more than anything else.”
In the kitchen, he has found a place where he never stops learning. “I tend to get excited on a weekly basis. We change the menu here and there about once a week.”
“That’s what I love about this,” he says. “You just get to come in and do something you’ve never done on a regular basis. You get to learn and be inspired.”
Next came a rare and wonderful delicacy, porchetta di testa. A pig’s head has been deboned and marinated in spices and then braised or sous vide. The result was a rich layer of slightly crispy, fatty pig skin surrounding a delicate and seasoned mouthful of offal — the kind of dish that makes you feel like Victorian royalty, or in the case of Seven Sows, like an Antebellum aristocrat.
The chef still cooks a lot of his grandmother’s old recipes. “I’m a sucker for her biscuits and gravy,” he says. “I eat that all the time still! I grew up on tomato and cucumber sandwiches, and I still eat that a lot. Simple food with fresh produce. They always had a garden, and they always ate fresh.”
Woods’s story exemplifies the open market in Asheville for high-end chefs. With the rapid expansion of the restaurant industry here, many restauranteurs are struggling to find chefs and cooks who can keep up with the growing demand for quality and for culinary experience and training.
But Woods, like most of Asheville’s incoming chefs seem keen on getting actively involved in Asheville’s cooking community. “There’s a great comeraderie among the chefs here in Asheville, and I really dig that.” He says, “DC can be a little cutthroat at times, so it’s refreshing to see chefs that work together and enjoy the competition, because it makes all of the restaurants here a little more relevant.”