Flavor: Honest comfort food
Where: Exxon, 203 N.C. Highway 9, Black Mountain (breakfast and lunch) and The White Horse, 105C Montreat Road, Black Mountain (late night)
Hours: Mon.-Sat., 7 a.m.-3 p.m.; Tues., Fri.-Sat., 6-11 p.m. Hours are subject to change if the chefs are hired for a catering gig or the food sells out.
Curious eaters who stumbled upon Scott Schronce and David Rowland’s food trailer in the Black Mountain Exxon lot could be forgiven for assuming that its name, crudely stenciled alongside the pickup window, referred to the rolling café‘s working wheels. But “Chefs on the Go” clearly means just as much in the metaphorical sense.
Schronce and Rowland, former head chefs at the Grove Park Inn, are too busy embracing the hustle of short-order cooking to stop for much musing, but the guys are obviously pleased to be on the go from the employee politics, antiseptic environments and culinary conservatism of corporate kitchens.
“We’ve been locked away in that 50,000-square-foot meeting space,” Schronce says, his bitterness slightly leavened by his recent transition. “It seems like there, you’re working for something other than just passion. Here, we’re able to do our food without having some pencil pusher telling us what it should taste like.”
Since debuting their cart in the final weeks of 2008, Schronce and Rowland have carved out a niche that’s especially well-suited to the current recession. The pair hasn’t forsaken the principles of good cookery—“People freak out when you do chicken cordon bleu and send it out of a roach coach,” Rowland laughs—but the duo are comfortably working in an idiom that’s considerably more down-home and affordable than the most populist dining room at the Grove Park Inn.
“We’re not doing flambéed bananas,” Rowland says. “We’re making pot roast. We’ll smoke a pork butt. People say, ‘Why don’t you have a steak sandwich?’ If we had to charge you $7, that’s not in our game plan.”
Instead, Schronce and Rowland are serving up $2 platters of buttermilk biscuits and ridiculously rich sawmill gravy, larded with butter and pepper. They sell $3 hand-patted burgers, bestowing each one with the care they once showered on puff pastry and foie gras.
“It depresses me to see our burger on a small bun,” Schronce confides. “It honestly makes me sad.”
“And then he’s hell on me,” Rowland says.
Schronce and Rowland met when Rowland was the Grove Park’s executive chef, and Schronce was working as his second. Rowland was becoming increasingly aggravated by the nature of high-end resort cooking—a skill for which, it turned out, he had a knack.
“I got promoted up, which was the worst thing in the world,” Rowland recalls. “To be executive chef, you can’t do anything. You can’t cook. You’re doing payroll and budgets. I could have been an accountant.”
Rowland briefly returned to the kitchen at Horizons, but then, after a decade at Grove Park, he decided to partner with Schronce on a mobile catering unit.
“I had this guy build me a crazy trailer,” Schronce says. “We could fit three pigs and 20 chickens in it and still have a crab boil.”
The health department put the kibosh on the contraption, which wasn’t entirely enclosed and thus did not meet code. So Schronce and Rowland decided to invest in a hot-dog cart they found in Spindale.
“We ripped it apart and put it back together,” says Schronce.
Although the chefs kept the distinctive—and inexplicable—pink-and-white checkerboard floor tiles, they replaced the plumbing and installed commercial-quality kitchen equipment, including a six-burner stove. They made few improvements to the tiny white trailer’s exterior, limiting their gussying up to a plastic awning and a fistful of artificial flowers.
“The idea was we’d cater weddings and things, but why would we let it sit empty during the week?” Rowland says of the enterprise’s speedy evolution to a weekday café.
Chefs on the Go first showed up across the street from Ingles headquarters in Black Mountain. “We thought we were going to be in the money,” Schronce recalls. “They’ve got 700 employees any given shift. We were like, man, it’s going to be great. And then the second week was Christmas, the third week was New Year’s and the fourth week was 6 degrees. We couldn’t even get water to run through the hose.”
Schronce and Rowland relocated their operation after the Exxon station’s owner invited them to park in his lot, rent-free.
“We don’t have any property tax, he pays our water,” Schronce says, ticking off the pluses of the deal. “We have to buy unlimited super-gas to run the generator, but we don’t have any chairs, we don’t have any electricity, we don’t have any workers compensation.”
“We have no overhead but the food we serve,” Rowland adds. “Our food is homemade and cooked to order. Today we’ll make fresh pasta, put it in the oven and sell it for $5. You wouldn’t believe how people just smile.”
Bryan Smith had never before stopped at Chefs on the Go when he pulled into the lot to order a sausage biscuit. Smith, who lives two blocks behind a Wendy’s, typically eats a fast-food breakfast.
“I’m tired of going to McDonald’s, so I thought I’d try something new,” he says while waiting for his order. “Usually these places cook better than anywhere else.”
“Here you go, man,” Schronce calls from the trailer.
Smith nods at the biscuit Schronce hands him: “That’s a pretty big sandwich.”
Every hospitality expert has declared only customer-oriented restaurants will survive the recession, and the two chefs seem intent on proving them right. Schronce and Rowland don’t just know their patrons’ names—they know where they work and which of their co-workers fell prey to a practical joke the previous day. When the guys aren’t cooking, they’re laughing and slapping backs.
“We’ve got nice people,” Schronce says. “Like, we’ve got this guy from Napa Auto Parts who’s here every day at 7:10 a.m. He doesn’t want to go to McDonald’s. He can pay 50 cents more and get something that’s not out of a box. He sees us crack the eggs out of their shells.”
Rowland would eventually like to open a restaurant that can’t be driven away, perhaps an intimate 40-seater in Black Mountain. But for now, the chefs are still thrilled by the prospect of preparing one blue plate special at a time.
“I’m a firm believer that if you’re stressed, it shows up on the plate,” Rowland says. “In 10 years at Grove Park, I never had a sound night’s sleep.”
Schronce agrees. “We don’t think we’re going to get rich—we’re just excited,” he says, pointing toward a flurry of feathers on the Exxon station’s roof. “Just because I get to watch pigeons making out, it’s worth it. It works, and people are digging it, even if it’s not beautiful.”
To which Rowland shakes his head: “I think it’s beautiful,” he says.