Running a restaurant is hard work. Long hours at inconvenient times; hot, cramped environments and low wages make it a rough haul for anyone — and for chefs with families, it’s even more challenging.
In Asheville, added to those trials and tribulations is an oversaturation of the restaurant market, which could be contributing to an ongoing kitchen labor shortage that leaves many workers in the industry stretched thin. As a result, restaurants in Asheville have been seeing a significant amount of turnover lately, mostly among line cooks, prep chefs, garde-mangers and dishwashers, but increasingly, it seems, among chefs as well.
Most recently, the abdication of West Asheville eatery Jargon by founding chef Matthew Miner and the silent and swift departure of Justin Burdett from The Admiral raised some interesting questions: What happens to a restaurant when the top dog leaves an established and reputable kitchen? How does that change impact the staff, the food and the regular customers? And what is it like for a chef to take the wheel of a ship that’s already moving ahead at full speed?
“Taking over a kitchen — and particularly one that is already structured, staffed and formed — it’s like taking over a gang,” says Richard Neal, who stepped in as executive chef of The Admiral in May. “It would be so much easier to just start a brand-new restaurant because you don’t have to battle those perceptions of what people expect to get.”
Neal says owner Drew Wallace understands this conundrum and is very supportive. “But coming to a place that already has a legacy and being able to push the things that are inspiring to you and your own philosophies, it’s extremely difficult.”
But this is nothing new for Neal. Having served as chef de cuisine at the Hermitage in Nashville and head chef at Hugh Acheson’s beloved Five & Ten in Athens, Ga., he’s gleaned a bit of experience at melding the visions of a restaurateur with his own.
He says that when he joined The Admiral, the question arose as to whether the restaurant should continue riding the same wave it’s been on for over a decade or chart a new course. Ultimately, Neal brought an evolution of the menu.
“My food is a lot different than what has been done at the Admiral before,” he says. “It’s always been very meat-focused, and I’ve kind of changed that. I’m much less masculine with my food; it’s much more vegetable-focused, cleaner.”
Fostering and growing
“It’s very strange taking over a restaurant when you didn’t conceive the idea in the first place,” says Marcus Day, who was recently hired by Jargon’s owner, Sean Piper, after founding chef Miner, a single father, left to dedicate more time to his child. Day, who hails from Louisiana, previously did a stint as chef at the Omni Grove Park Inn’s Vue 1913, where he took the reins from James Lumley, who had left for greener pastures.
“As Sean likes to say, [the restaurant] is a fat baby, and it can grow in any direction,” says Day. “But to a certain degree, at the moment, it is where it is, and you don’t want to alienate anybody that loves it. So I try to make sure that we are just fostering and growing the clientele that we already have.”
Often this means the hits stick around. The meatball sub at Sovereign Remedies lived on long past the exit of founding chef James Albee, and Steven Goff’s duck wings held on for a while after his exit from King James Public House (those delicious wings can now be found at Goff’s new project, Aux Bar).
At The Admiral, you’ll always be able to get the steak, the beef tartare and the arugula salad. For Jargon, it’s the deviled eggs with Lusty Monk aioli and trout roe, and the octopus with chorizo and fava beans that aren’t going anywhere.
“I think the most dangerous thing you could do as a new chef coming in is to just turn the soil completely over,” says Neal. “You have a brand, and people associate something with it. While plenty of people understand that a chef is going to come in and change it, there are plenty of people who don’t, and you have to be careful about how dramatic that change is.”
But while it can be easy to shut up and play the hits, and it’s important to maintain the heritage of a space, chefs always seek to put a little bit of themselves into their cuisine as well. For Day, that means more of a focus on local flavors, such as trout stuffed with fennel confit and carrot purée, and scratch-made pastas like agnolotti primavera. For Neal, his personal touch is reflected in the celtuce with pecorino, marigold and shallot, or a crudo made of lania cucumber, apricot and nigella.
But as the song says, it ain’t all roses. Yelp is never friendly for the first few days of a chef’s takeover. Neal notes that he has been getting the complaints common with any restaurant change — unhappiness over changes in portion sizes and price. “It’s funny, I’ve actually lowered a lot of the prices,” he muses. “When I came, the small plates averaged $13 to $16, and now they average $9 to $13. I want you to be able to come in here and have three to four plates and keep a guest average of $50 to $55.”
As the industry changes, so does the food it serves and, inevitably, its creators. Customers come and go, the names change, even the buildings. The food business will always be as fickle as the trends that drive it. As Steely Dan sang, “If you live in this world, you’re seeing the change of the guard.”