Jason Sellers is the chef and co-owner (with Alan Berger and Leslie Armstrong) of Plant, Asheville's newest vegan restaurant, located on Merrimon Avenue. Sellers first made waves in the vegetarian community as the head chef at the Laughing Seed. He’s credited with ramping up some aspects of the menu during his tenure there. Trained at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York, he specializes in creative vegetarian fare that doesn't go out of its way to strut its meatless stuff. And that may be an extension of Sellers' own personality; the affable chef is far from pushy with his philosophies. Sellers quietly does his thing, and if you like it, fantastic. Chances are, you're going to like it.
Without too closely mimicking meat, Sellers’ food is rich with umami. That's partly because he employs cooking techniques that impart the flavors of smoke, grill and fire. That's also because this is part of the mission statement of Plant: "To offer flavor-sophisticated, scratch-made food using only carefully chosen ingredients that come from the earth. Each dish will reflect a multicultural influence of the best vegetables, spices and techniques that inspire us to eat."
Xpress spoke to Sellers after the first two weeks of business, in a rare calm moment for the chef. "I'm only able to call you right now because we're closed on Mondays," said Sellers, as soon as I answered his phone call. "But I called you as soon as I could.”
Xpress: How is everything going?
JS: It's going well. We're really happy. We were happy enough with the concept — but now that we're open, there's enough happiness to cut through the exhaustion that's inevitable when you open a restaurant.
Is the business strong?
Yes, we did 165 covers on Friday. We're getting a great response from people.
And how is the customer response after tasting the food?
The feedback on the food is overwhelmingly good. People are coming in and eating stuff that they understand slightly, and leave feeling like they have an even better understanding of the concept. We've had meat eaters come in and leave really satisfied. We've had all kinds of people walk in the door. We've also had a great response from the neighborhood, which is the best thing that we could ask for.
What's your favorite dish you're putting out right now?
My favorite dish on the menu right now is a smoked portobello steak I'm doing, because it's kind of a reclamation of the “ubiquitous portobello.” It's just nice. I'm smoking it over applewood in this nice marinade, and we're grilling it to order. I'm a fan of A-1 steak sauce, so I made a “V-1.” We're serving that with it and crisp polenta, spinach and garlic and fresh summer tomatoes. It's cool and it looks great on the plate. I've seen some really big guys come in and order it and lick the plate — that's a good sign.
What's in store for the near future?
The near future is going to bring a seasonal change. The thing about starting a new restaurant is that you have all of these ideas, but you have to just go with a few of them. So I'm looking into taking the ones that had to take a backseat to the ones that we started with and making them seasonally appropriate and getting them out there. But right now it's kind of survival mode. I don't have much time to experiment, but that's going to happen soon. That's my biggest plan, to develop. We've had return customers that have come back several times, so I want to make sure that they're getting variety.
I'm pretty intrigued by your vegan desserts; you make your ice cream with a coconut-milk base, for example. What's on the dessert menu right now?
We have a chocolate peanut butter pie that we're serving with a walnut ice cream — right now I'm making three or four flavors of ice cream and a sorbet. I'm also doing a “conolo” — a vegan cannoli — and making all of the shells in-house. We're making, basically, a pizzelle for the shell and filling it with a candied-orange 'ricotta' and serving it with the mocha ice cream. Then I'm doing a “live” dessert, a live key lime parfait. I've even put a local root-beer float on there. Desserts are really blowing people away — that's been really fun.
Do you envision this place becoming a vegan destination for people even beyond Asheville?
Yeah! I would say bring it! I would love that. We did have a young couple in from Atlanta on Saturday night who had heard separately from two people that they knew that they should come check it out. They loved it. They said it was right up there with anything they've tried. If we can become a national destination, awesome. That's what we're shooting for.
For more information about Plant, visit plantisfood.com.
— Mackensy Lunsford can be reached at email@example.com