Fresh Dish: Trevor Payne on roasted chicken and neighborhood connection

TALL ORDER: Chef Trevor Payne opened his Montford restaurant, Tall John's, with the goal of creating a neighborhood dining spot with a menu of well-executed classic dishes. Photo by Tim Robison

Asheville native Trevor Payne, chef and owner of Tall John’s in Montford, spent much of the past 20 years living outside the city — first as a college student in Boone, then for 14 years as a working chef in Portland, Ore. Since returning to home turf four years ago, the chef has celebrated his local origins, focusing his talent and energy on nourishing connections and community at the neighborhood level.

As a teen in the early 2000s, the chef first learned his way around a kitchen with a part-time job at the Outback Steakhouse on Tunnel Road. “Back then, every single thing was done from scratch,” he says. “So I’d unwittingly walked into a highly functioning, very, very busy restaurant. They stuck a knife in my hand and, you know, I went for it.”

After majoring in food systems management at Appalachian State University, Payne moved to Portland for culinary school. He fell in love with the area and launched his career there, eventually settling in for the long haul with stints at lauded restaurants including Clyde Common, Olympia Provisions, Le Pigeon and Little Bird Bistro.

In 2020, seeking closer proximity to family, he and wife Lillian, also an Asheville native, moved back to their city of origin with their young son. (They now also have a daughter.) After a diner concept Payne had been working on in the River Arts District fell through, he shifted his focus to a location he’d had his eye on near his and his in-laws’ homes in Montford. 

In fall 2022, Payne opened Tall John’s in the historic wooden building at 152 Montford Ave. as a neighborhood tavern. Built in 1906, the space previously housed a Piggly Wiggly supermarket, a church and, most recently, Chiesa restaurant, which closed in late 2021.

Beyond Tall John’s comforting classic American-European cuisine — dishes such as Caesar salad, steak tartare and roasted chicken anchor the menu — the restaurant has a warm, familiar feel. The name Tall John’s is inspired by a nickname local metal artist Tina Councell had for her mentor, Payne’s father, the late metal sculptor John Payne, who is remembered for his giant kinetic dinosaur creations and role as a local arts advocate and originator of the modern River Arts District. 

Black-and-white photos of the elder Payne’s sculptures pepper the walls of Tall John’s spacious dining room, mixed with richly colored paintings by Payne’s father-in-law, Kevin Hogan. Fittingly, Councell and her wife, Kayla, did all the ironwork for the space. 

“I’m very proud to be from this town and to be able to integrate a lot of my experience into the concept here, from the name to the people that worked on the space,” says Payne.

As part of Xpress‘ ongoing “Fresh Dish” feature, we sat down with Payne to talk about the unexpected popularity of beets, Asheville’s need for more Japanese cuisine and the pressing importance of choosing just the right bathroom wallpaper.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Xpress: Can you talk a little bit about the benefits and challenges of running a neighborhood-focused restaurant?

Payne: That was always the whole concept. I was thinking of neighborhood restaurants in different markets, like Montreal or London or boroughs in New York [City], and how they’re utilized in a way that they can be, like, nationally recognized restaurants, but they really have a genuine feel and connection with the neighborhood and the people that live in it. 

The reception out of the gate from the immediate local community — meaning the neighborhood — was extremely flattering from the get-go. You know, we started with no reservations, and the strategy behind that was to make sure that access was maintained by the people that live in proximity. … We recently added a limited number of reservations, because there’s still this sector that needs the reservations, both people that live here and those who don’t. 

What’s your most popular dish, and is there a dish on the Tall John’s menu that you feel is not getting the attention it deserves? 

There are few items that get ordered more than others, but to be honest, the one that caught me by surprise from the beginning was our glazed beets with goat cheese and dill. If you told me that I’d open a restaurant and beets, dill and goat cheese was going to be something people would clamor for, I’d never have guessed it. But I think that dish is an example — along with a few others — of our goal, which was to do ubiquitous or, at least from a chef’s standpoint, very commonly known, classic dishes, things that are recognizable, and do them extremely well. 

And I’ll say this: The original concept was an ice-cold martini and roasted chicken. That was, in a distilled way, the idea of a neighborhood restaurant to me. … I’ve always felt like [the chicken] could be ordered more. Some people don’t like ordering chicken in a restaurant for some reason, but it’s something that’s always appealed to me. And that’s kind of the heart of the concept. But we’ll always have roasted chicken on the menu. 

What’s a dish you’ve had recently at a restaurant in Asheville that impressed you?

I don’t get out to eat that much lately, but the last thing I had out that I was really excited about was the lengua tacos at Tortilliera Molina next to the tamaleria on Patton Avenue. Just excellent. And I’m a big fan of Taqueria Munoz as well. We also have a good relationship with Neng Jr.’s — I haven’t been there to eat in a while, but they cooked our staff party last year, and I think their seasonal fruit dish, as simple as it is with just the dressing, it’s just classic and amazing.

Is there a seasonal ingredient that you love and think home cooks should be using more?

With regard to seasonal home cooking, we’re in spring, so asparagus. I think a lot of people see asparagus as this thing that’s always around, and you can get it now all the time. But when it is at its height, to really focus on it and buy more of it. There’s the tomato analogy as well. So when I think of seasonal cooking at home, I just hope people take more advantage of things when they are truly awesome. 

OFF THE WALL: In developing the interior design for Tall John’s, Trevor Payne worked with Alchemy Design Studios to find wallpaper for the restaurant’s bathrooms that gives a nod to the Montford neighborhood’s beautiful gardens but with a humorous twist. Photo by Gina Smith

What’s a good way to prepare asparagus?

I like blanching it just to make it bright green then serving it chilled with gribiche, which is like a French tartar sauce basically, with whole [boiled] eggs cut into it. So it’s chopped whole eggs, capers, cornichons, a punch of herbs and Dijon [mustard]. It’s an aioli- or mayonnaise-based sauce with a bunch of chunky, delicious things in it. 

What type of cuisine do you wish there was more of in Asheville?

Spending the bulk of my career on the West Coast, for me, it’s sushi — sushi and izakaya, yakitori —  just very specific Japanese cuisine. If there was an 18-seat, really well-done sushi restaurant in Asheville, I would die and go to heaven.

Do you have a favorite food destination within driving distance of Asheville?

Not recently. And that’s mainly because of this season of life, and that I have an infant restaurant. But, you know, I think as time goes on, I’m going to make more weekend trips to Atlanta and Charleston and Savannah, and I’ve never been up to Richmond either to eat, so those are kind of like the striking distance food destinations for me. And then Durham’s coming along really well. In the past four years, I’ve had some great experiences there. And I did get to Atlanta last fall and got to eat out a little bit. Yeah, I’m just looking for opportunities.  

Here’s a bonus question: Your bathrooms have the most entertaining wallpaper. (For uninitiated readers, a teaser: It has a colorful, animated gardening theme with a twist.) Is there a story behind it?

So I worked with Traci Kearns, who is the owner and a lead designer for Alchemy Design, a long-standing interior design business here in Asheville. … I wanted a wallpaper in there that was kind of a nod to the neighborhood, to Montford itself, visually, or something along those lines. She presented this one along with a handful of other things, and for me, it was an obvious choice. I was like, yes, it’s perfect. You know, there’s some levity here, it’s lush and green. She was nervous about how it might be received, and I was like, no, let’s do this. It just made us happy. And that was the absolute best decision.

What local chef would you like to tag for next month’s “Fresh Dish” interview?

I would like to tag Matt Brown, who’s opening Paperhouse Pizza with his wife, Brittany. Matt was previously the chef de cuisine for La Bodega by Cúrate for many years and left recently to pursue their project. Matt’s a great person and experienced chef; he would be a great interview.


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One thought on “Fresh Dish: Trevor Payne on roasted chicken and neighborhood connection

  1. Mary Hobart

    My son works here. Chef Payne is very professional and it’s a wonderful place to work. The food here is amazing! Montford is one area in Asheville that is clean and friendly.

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