Asheville chefs craft success at home and away

STAR QUALITY: Pictured clockwise from top left, Michelle Bailey, Camille Cogswell, Patrick O'Cain and Caitlin McMillan all got their start as chefs in Asheville and found success at a young age, both at home and in other cities. Photos, clockwise from top left, by Jennifer Cole, Alexandra Hawkins, Andrew Thomas Lee and Michael Persico

Many chefs feel they rarely have time to even look up from their work, let alone look back at what’s led to their success. The hectic pace of any kitchen will do that. Goals are often so focused that when recognition is achieved, it can come as a surprise.

Xpress spoke with four young, successful chefs whose passions for cooking were first cultivated in Asheville. They ultimately went in different directions: One stayed in Western North Carolina to hone her skills and build her career; two found success and national acclaim in another city; and one dove into Charleston’s restaurant scene before eventually circling back home to Asheville. Yet in speaking with them, a common thread emerges.

They have not found success solely due to exceptional skill — that’s a prerequisite. It is not just luck, either. Instead, what comes to light in these chefs’ stories is a constant search for supportive and inspirational learning environments, both in and out of the kitchen.

Asheville beginnings

By her early 20s, Michelle Bailey was already a kitchen veteran but was starting to feel “a need for more structure.” She enrolled in A-B Tech’s culinary program. After two years, she was one of the most decorated graduates in the program’s history, having been on the school’s only national champion culinary team in 2007.

She did this while working at The Market Place, where she had landed a job at the end of a summer internship. Now 36 and co-owner and executive chef of Smoky Park Supper Club in the River Arts District, she describes A-B Tech’s program as “top-notch and well-respected in the industry both in and outside North Carolina. Plus, it was affordable,” she says.

Caitlin McMillan, 30, executive chef at Goldie in Philadephia and a 2018 Eater Young Guns winner, and Patrick O’Cain, the 35-year-old owner and executive chef of Asheville’s Gan Shan Station and Gan Shan West, also got their first industry experience as students at A-B Tech, though they took different paths getting there.

McMillan enrolled after graduating from Tuscola High School in Waynesville. She, like Bailey, turned the experience into a job at The Market Place, where she worked under Bailey herself. “She was cool as a cucumber on the line,” Bailey says of McMillan. McMillan returns the compliment, saying, “She taught me how to be quick, but slow enough to create finesse.”

O’Cain graduated from N.C. State University, then taught English at a culinary school in France for three years before returning home to Asheville. Being around French food culture reminded him of the joy he had growing up cooking Szechuan recipes with his family.

He enrolled at A-B Tech, but with an interest in gaining more direct kitchen experience, he says, he became “another culinary school dropout” when he turned a summer internship at McGrady’s in Charleston into a full-time job.

Camille Cogswellwho was just 27 when she won the 2018 James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef of the Year award in May— only the second pastry chef ever to claim the honor — nurtured her early passion for cooking in Asheville High School’s culinary arts program. At the time, the program was run by chef instructor Joe Lilly, whom she describes as her first mentor.

Lilly was, she says, “willing to give everything to students who showed real interest” and left a lasting impression on a program that still has high school students collaborating with A-B Tech’s culinary classes, area chefs and restaurants.

After completing all of Lilly’s courses, Cogswell still had a year left of high school, so she took the initiative to do some independent study as a way “of having another year in cooking,” she says. She ended up with an internship at West End Bakery, which led to her true passion — pastry.

Climbing to the top

After giving college a shot for a few semesters at UNC Chapel Hill, Cogswell dropped out to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America. In 2015, she did a stage at chef Michael Solomonov‘s celebrated Philadelphia Israeli restaurant, Zahav, where she met MacMillan, who was already working there as a sous chef.

At that point, Cogswell had not yet decided for sure where she would work after her move to Philadelphia, but their chance meeting sealed it. As the two exchanged introductions in Zahav’s kitchen, they did a double take when they found out they were both from Asheville. “It was a really exciting first sign that I was in the right place,” says Cogswell.

For the past four years, McMillan has acted as a Swiss army knife for Solomonov’s CookNSolo restaurant group, which includes Goldie, Zahav and several other eateries. Her ability to troubleshoot and solve problems is something Bailey saw signs of back in Asheville. “Nothing fazes her, and she takes everything in,” Bailey says. Now, able to focus singularly on her executive chef role at Goldie, McMillan says she is working most on refining her leadership skills.

In October, Cogswell and McMillan joined forces again to plan and execute a week of multicourse dinners at Seaport Food Lab in Manhattan as part of a six-week dinner series that featured other celebrity chefs, including Ashley Christensen, Rosio Sanchez and Nancy Silverton. “We both commit 100 percent to our work,” McMillan says of the collaboration. “It was a lot of fun doing those dinners, and I think it went well.”

Much like her protégé, Bailey has climbed the kitchen ladder at several restaurants in and around Asheville, including The Market Place and Highland Lake Inn. Bailey worked her way to executive chef at every stop.

She earned the ownership role at Smoky Park Supper Club, but she says the reason she jumped at the opportunity was the chance to work with the restaurant’s state-of-the-art open-fire grill and oven. “I worked with open fire before, but not on a restaurantwide level,” she says. “I really love what those techniques bring to the food and was interested in taking on the challenge of menu-building and logistics related to an entirely open-fire kitchen.”

O’Cain’s return to Asheville and rise to restaurateur were partially happenstance: During a visit home to see family in Asheville, he came across a dilapidated old gas station on Charlotte Street that, to him, screamed restaurant venue. Part of that inspiration, though, stemmed from an awareness honed as sous chef during the opening of Xiao Bao Biscuit, another gas station turned Asian eatery in Charleston.

Opening Gan Shan Station was a risky venture. “I had known I wanted to own a restaurant before knowing what that really meant,” says O’Cain. “I accelerated my career and made it happen, mainly out of good luck.” After just a couple of years in business, O’Cain opened a second Gan Shan location in West Asheville in 2017.

Growth curve

While all four chefs exhibit self-confidence, it’s unlikely that any of them expected success as quickly as it has come. “The industry can be brutal,” Bailey says. “I have seen really good cooks burn out.” Kitchens everywhere — even in Asheville — can have toxic cultures, she says.

Bailey, Cogswell, McMillan and O’Cain have all experienced the long hours and physical toll of working in kitchens. They have dealt with the stress and fatigue by establishing strong support systems. By relying on mentors, family and friends, they have gained inspiration and optimism instead of cynicism.

They are all committed to bringing a culture of positivity to their kitchens, including a focus on self-care, an ingredient the industry has often overlooked.

“When I opened up [Gan Shan Station], I did not like myself and had to work through that on my own,” says O’Cain. “I see men and women who are in similar situations when they begin to work for me. Supporting and watching their shift in behavior and accountability has to be one of the most rewarding aspects [of being a chef].”

All four note that it is a constant struggle to balance well-being with the demands of restaurant work. “If the health of your staff is not considered important at your restaurant, it will be the first thing to go because of how competitive this industry is,” Bailey says.

The visions they outline for their futures all draw from the backgrounds of support they received in Asheville and Philadelphia from families, teachers and mentors. They all envision kitchens where cooks are healthy — in mind and body — and excited for the achievements and camaraderie that come with the long hours and hard work. As McMillan succinctly says, “When my guests and team are happy, it all feels worth it.”

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About Brett Shaw
Brett Shaw is a poet and educator writing and working in Weaverville, NC. His recent creative work is forthcoming from BOAAT Journal and Reservoir. He holds an MFA from the University of Alabama.

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