Food justice. Racial justice. Climate change. Three subjects that burned brightly under a national spotlight in 2020 — sparking discussion, debate, legislation and activism — are also informing the mission and programming of a festival that launched in September 2019 as Chow Chow: An Asheville Culinary Event and returns in June as Chow Chow: An Asheville Culinary Event Series.
By most accounts, Chow Chow 2019 made a spectacular debut: Thousands enjoyed a feast of food and drink from local, regional and national chefs, restaurateurs, makers, bakers, breweries, wineries and distillers under and around the Grand Tasting Tent in Pack Square. Attendees also watched cooking demonstrations, attended workshops and seminars, and indulged in themed multicourse meals. Furthermore, the gathering helped raise over $50,000 for its nonprofit partner MANNA FoodBank while fulfilling its mission of “celebrating and enriching the unique foodways of the Southern Appalachian region.”
But, as organizers discovered from feedback solicited after the event, not everyone felt celebrated or even seen as participants, and many whose labor supports Asheville’s food and beverage industry were vocal in pointing out that pricey tickets kept them from attending the party. Those criticisms were a significant part of the conversations in the early meetings for the sophomore Chow Chow; national and local issues of injustice and imparity laid bare in 2020 guided discussions that took on more urgency and demanded more relevancy in planning for a post-pandemic festival.
Not hidden away
Chef Silver Cousler, whose talents have been mined in some of Asheville’s highest-profile kitchens and is preparing to open Neng Jr. in West Asheville this summer, was not part of Chow Chow 2019. “From my perspective, it felt like a festival for people who don’t live here,” says Cousler, who is Filipino-American and uses gender-neutral pronouns. “Asheville looks so white on the surface, but we’re all here. It’s important to see more of us, to see the diversity and to be represented and not hidden away.”
Cousler will not be unseen this year. With chefs Michelle Bailey, J Chong and Ashleigh Shanti, Cousler will kick off the summerlong string of events that comprises Chow Chow 2021 with the Appalachian Pride Brunch on Sunday, June 27, at Bailey’s riverside restaurant, Smoky Park Supper Club. Cousler bookends the festival by cooking for the closing dinner, Food Stories, on Sept. 26 at the Funkatorium, alongside Shanti and Gypsy Queen Cuisine chef and owner Suzy Phillips.
“I think they are doing an incredible job this year of creating something far more inclusive,” Cousler says, pointing out that the upcoming festival features many broad collaborations and offers more approachable price points than the inaugural event. “This last year demanded more critical thinking about how to represent others, which is very important in food and community.”
Chow Chow Executive Director Rebecca Lynch and board president Jess Reiser — founder and CEO of Burial Beer and Forestry Camp Bar and Restaurant — could not agree more. They point to 2020 and the pandemic-forced pause as a catalyst for positive changes affecting everything from programming to production.
Reiser, a Chow Chow charter board member, says the success of the 2019 festival initially showed the nonprofit that it needed a permanent executive director to not only manage logistics but also to maintain the board’s vision and guide its evolution over time. Applying the feedback from 2019 to Chow Chow’s future became another task for a director. “We heard a lot about community participation — or rather the lack of that,” Reiser says. “We needed to examine how to ensure that the network of relationships in Chow Chow is not limited and is a true representation of the Asheville community as a whole.”
Lynch — with the experience and deep connections formed through 15 years in development at the Asheville Art Museum — was hired in December 2019 (Shay Brown, owner of Shay Brown Events, was named festival director). By the time Lynch stepped into her new role in January 2020, the board had begun planning for the second Chow Chow to take place that September.
“I plunged in, and we were moving right along until mid-March, when the whole world changed,” she recalls. “Fairly soon, it became obvious we would have to cancel; we announced that at the end of April .”
Setting the table
While the event was called off, the work was not; the board continued to meet virtually, having hard and frank discussions about mission and vision and how the events of 2020 were affecting the festival. “We had time for intentional thinking about Chow Chow and its relevancy, and that offered us an opportunity to explore a new model,” Lynch says.
In November, the board convened — masked and distanced — for a daylong retreat to discuss what a return of Chow Chow might look like. “We studied the feedback we received from folks who deeply care about Asheville as a whole and their neighborhoods, families, communities and businesses,” Reiser recalls. “We created a community event, but who did we not include in 2019? How could we do it differently and respond more inclusively? “
What emerged was an articulation of guiding principles: food justice, racial justice and climate change. “We examined what our role as an organization and an event could be in those initiatives,” Reiser says. “We want to provide a platform for conversation surrounding those issues that impact not just restaurants and agriculture but our community as a whole.”
In such uncertain times and with no crystal ball to the future, another question that loomed large was what was feasible and possible. “We made the decision to build a festival structure that could be held under the health and safety mandates at that time,” says Lynch. “We hoped and knew things could get better, but we couldn’t plan for conditions we were not sure of.”
The board constructed an outline of a three-month-long series of events that would include limited-capacity, in-person and immersive educational programs, signature events such as meals and tastings, and virtual presentations. The board also committed to providing honorariums to all participants, as well as stipends toward food costs for chefs.
As they got down to the nitty-gritty of fleshing out programming from a base of concepts, the board members continued reaching out to local thought leaders, industry workers and community members, and sought venues that could engage a wider geographic swath.
Summer of Chow Chow
Twenty-nine events are scheduled for the Summer of Chow Chow. Nourishing Community at Southside Kitchen is planned to address efforts to achieve food security in the community and highlight the work of local initiatives such as We Give a Share, Asheville Strong and Southside Kitchen. Chocolate & Climate Change is an online event, as is Racial Equity & The Wine Industry, a virtual conversation moderated by Asian Wine Professionals founder Icy Liu.
Recipes from Rabbit’s Motel will be a tapas-and-drinks graze featuring food, beverage and music inspired by Asheville’s Black-owned Rabbit’s Motel, which opened in 1948 to serve Black travelers. Diaspora will explore the origins and fusion of cuisines, examining what is lost and what is gained when food and people migrate, changing traditional ethnic dishes to suit American palates.
Meanwhile, for the Appalachian Pride Brunch, Cousler, Bailey, Chong and Shanti will each create an appetizer then pair up — Cousler with Shanti and Chong with Bailey — to cook two main courses. Food Stories will partner Cousler with BeLoved Asheville co-director Ponkho Bermejo. “He will tell a story, and I’ll create a dish to interpret his story,” Cousler explains. “I’m excited to see where that goes.”
Reiser points out that while the programming is informed by mindfulness, food centers the conversation. “We are a culinary-based organization, so from our lane, how can we raise awareness about these really important issues through what we know and do?” she asks. “We believe we can do that through food and drink. We know that no matter your culture, your status, your origin, people come together at a table.”
Lynch says Chow Chow 2021 is committed to a crowded table. “We intend to showcase the many and diverse creative hands that set Asheville’s table, welcome the community to gather around that table in whatever way they can and broaden our understanding of one another.”
The full schedule for Chow Chow 2021 and tickets to each event can be found at avl.mx/65t.