The Grove Park Inn did not always seem inaccessible to locals — and the staff is working hard to prove that it still isn’t. But back when my friends and I were in our early 20s (about a decade ago) and not yet struggling with property taxes and child-care expenses, we would regularly hit the Sunday brunch buffet at the Blue Ridge Dining Room.
For $25, we would gorge ourselves on shrimp cocktail and chilled soups, presided over by swan ice sculptures. The buffet was a spectacle of omelet stations, rows of breads, piles of desserts, platters of cheeses and smoked meats. Especially for those of us who spent most of our week trudging through dinner service in a hot restaurant kitchen, or bending over backwards for tourists in dining rooms, the crazy spread of food and gorgeous sweeping views made for much-needed pampering.
Perhaps it's because the economy tanked. Maybe we just all grew up and decided that our money was better spent on practical things like electricity, rather than shoved down our gullets in the form of double-cream brie and chilled seafood.
At any rate, we gave those Sunday rituals over to the tourists. And we certainly never journeyed to the other side of the Inn to Horizons, where old-school food met rather off-the-wall prices and a staunch dress code. It was enough of a frightening matter that the price of the Sunday brunch buffet rose to $32. That was surely tourist territory.
But the Inn's marketing team seems to have decided — and rightly so — that the Grove Park Inn is in need of re-branding, and has begun to reach out more to the locals. To that end, the food-and-beverage powers that be have jumped on the local-food bandwagon to a rather impressive degree, hosting indoor farmers markets and revamping the menus at all three of the inn's restaurants to make way for an ever-growing list of products from regional purveyors. The markets seemed a touch gimmicky, but the intention was good, and the introduction of tourists to Asheville's food scene (tourists like Barack and Michelle Obama) is immeasurable.
By Duane Fernandes' count, there are at least 10 local food producers currently on the GPI's payroll. Fernandes, the young chef de cuisine of Horizons, has been working to turn over a new leaf for the restaurant for the past two years. Fernandes has made it his mission to steer Horizons in a direction that may well be more accommodating to Asheville’s year-round population. What's more, Fernandes may be one of the most talented under-the-radar chefs in Asheville.
Fernandes, trained at Johnson and Wales in Charleston, moved to Asheville in 2008 to run the kitchen at Gabrielle's, the Richmond Hill Inn restaurant destroyed by a fire almost two years ago. At Gabrielle's, Fernandes ramped up the menu offerings to an impressive level. I learned the span of Fernandes' tenure after mentioning that the last meal I'd had of the caliber he served me at Horizons was at Gabrielle's. After some sleuth-work, Fernandes and I determined that he had cooked that meal as well.
For Fernandes, rebuilding the image of Horizons has been an uphill affair. Walking into the restaurant two years ago, the chef found the same horseradish potato on the side of all of the meat dishes, the same vegetable of the day. "And you weren't walking out for under $100 a person, which is ridiculous," he says. "The past two years, the entire restaurant has changed, from the price point to the service."
That service remains as on point as ever, but in the past two years, the menu has been updated and the formality reigned in. Foodies owe it to themselves to take note of what's been going on in that kitchen. Fernandes has hosted a number of visiting chefs in the back of the house, including the talented Sean Brock of McCrady's and Husk (and Fernandes' former roomie), who joined the Horizon’s kitchen staff to turn out a ridiculously good — and fun — meal last summer.
Fernandes is used to rubbing elbows with high-caliber talent behind the line; he worked with vaunted chef Thomas Keller at the highly respected Per Se in New York City for a number of years. Was that in any way similar to working with old buddy Brock?
Doubtful. Fernandes describes Keller as "tall, intimidating and one to only rarely crack a joke or a smile — and never in the kitchen." Fernandes also describes a kitchen environment where line cooks arrive early in order to shake hands with each one of their superiors — every day. "I've never been to the military, but I would describe it as militant," he says. "It's just head down, chop, chop, chop. Your station has to be absolutely immaculate, constantly."
At Per Se, that attention to detail extended through setup, service and, "oddly enough, it even multiplied after service during cleaning,” says Fernandes. “That's what I thought was the most intense — on your hands and knees polishing the copper drain pipes that go into the floor, for example," he laughs. "We had to stay focused until the very last moment."
Was working with Keller the culinary dream come true that some chefs might hope? "It was tough. You had to be into what you were doing, truly appreciate food and truly have a respect for all it takes to go into one dish," says Fernandes. "You had to have a passion and a drive. I learned an immeasurable amount." The most important thing? "Just the day in, day out discipline and focus that it takes to run a kitchen at that level," he says.
Is the Horizons kitchen anything like working with Thomas Keller? "We smile, we crack jokes," says Fernandes with a laugh. "But we try to keep it quiet. We have a great balance of focus, seriousness and fun." And that seems to come through on the menu offerings, which strike a balance in many regards.
Fernandes, for example, does not limit himself to the über-local route, supplementing seasonal goods he sources from this area with some rather interesting gems foraged elsewhere. Next to a piece of Theros olive oil-poached salmon, Fernandes nestles miner's lettuce and fiddleheads from the Northwest, for example. The clean-tasting and tender miner's lettuce is a wild green that grows abundantly on the West Coast. It gets its name from the Gold Rush miners that use to snack on it to stave off scurvy.
He accompanies local Sunburst Farms trout salad with Benton's bacon fritters and wild-caught North Carolina dayboat seafood with broth made from black, fermented garlic, also imported from the West Coast. And he pairs spring lamb with minted local baby vegetables to echo a classic flavor in a very clean, updated manner.
The balance doesn't end with the food; it also extends to the service. "We're trying to find that balance between class and upscale," says Fernandes. "We're walking the edge of fine dining, but we don't want people to feel like they have to put on a suit. Are we ever going completely casual? No. But we are evolving slowly."
Part of that evolution includes nixing the expensive prix fixe menu and adding relatively affordable entrees — $16 for the vegetarian maitake mushroom plate with oak-aged fig vinegar and toasted pine nut quinoa, for example.
That's not to say you can't put on a three-piece suit and blow it up if you wanted to.
"A lot of times when truffles are in season, we offer them as a supplement to any dish," says Fernandes. So, if you have the funds to pull a $3,000 bottle of wine from the extensive wine cellar, get the $90 kobe steak dish and throw some truffles on it while you're at it.
There's also a chef's table in the kitchen for those who want to be served a tasting menu from Fernandes himself in a decidedly civil atmosphere. "A lot of the people who come watch the Food Network and ask us why we aren't throwing pans around and cursing," says Fernades, laughing. Perhaps it's the Thomas Keller influence.
If neither of those options are on the horizon for you, there's the 20 percent off for locals evenings on Wednesdays and Thursdays. And the sunset view of downtown Asheville is free.
For more information, visit groveparkinn.com.
— Mackensy Lunsford can be reached at email@example.com