Leaders of the band: The people behind Asheville’s James Beard nominees

TEAM WORK: Andy Pahlka, left, and James Grogan, right, are part of the team of culinary experts that keeps Chai Pani at the top of its game. Photo by Matthew Spaulding

Just as Duke Ellington needed a band of skilled, talented musicians, good chefs need good support players. And Asheville’s three nominees for the James Beard Foundation‘s Best Chef Southeast tip their hats to several folks whose names you might not know.

This year, three Asheville chefs received nods from the foundation: Katie Button of Cúrate, John Fleer of Rhubarb and Meherwan Irani of Chai Pani. We asked them to name four people who are key to making their visions sing.

“When they asked me to what I would attribute this nomination, I said, ‘Well, God, it’s all the people whose shoulders you stand on. Without them nothing would get done!” says Irani, who was nominated for Best Chef in the Southeast in 2014 and 2015. “When you get to the point where a chef is being James Beard-nominated, it’s not just the food, but it’s sort of more the vision that is being recognized. And if you’ve got a vision, you need a team that’s tied to that vision and who can execute it.”

When Chai Pani opened five years ago, the team was Irani and a few young, aspiring cooks, James Grogan and Daniel Peach. Over the years, they have traveled to India, together and separately, to learn recipes, collect ingredients and absorb knowledge. Grogan and Peach both hold the positions of chef de cuisine — Grogan at Chai Pani in Asheville, Peach at the restaurant’s Decatur, Ga., location.

Another key position for Irani is his batch chef, who preps the sauces, curries, stocks and chutneys in enormous quantities. The task requires someone who is diligent and capable of multitasking a dozen time-sensitive and detail-oriented jobs, he explains. And there’s the prep chef — the skilled, knife-centric worker who is there long before anyone arrives, assembling the ingredients for each station. For Chai Pani, these positions are filled by such workhorses as Andy Pahlka in Asheville and Gustavo Baez in Decatur.

“Having someone who can pull that off, day in and day out, and who is willing to almost give up a part of their own personal creative vision in order to respect the chef’s vision is huge,” says Irani, “Without that person, then you are the one in the kitchen doing it, and there goes any ability to try to do anything new again.”

“There are four really key people for me, and the first one is Felix,” says Button of her husband and co-owner, Felix Meana. “There isn’t a single dish or idea that I’ve come up with that Felix and I haven’t developed together. He cooks through theory. He is not skilled in the kitchen, but the things he’s been exposed to, [while] working at El Bulli and for Jose Andres, and the food he’s experienced there — the ideas he comes up with are really special, and I couldn’t do what I do without him.”

On the lines and in the trenches, it’s Frank Muller and Chad Holmes, Button’s chef de cuisines at Curate and Nightbell, respectively, and Carmen Vaquera, the team’s pastry chef, who develops desserts for both restaurants. “They … run and operate the kitchens and creatively develop ideas and dishes,” says Button.

Duke Ellington put the right musicians in the right place, and within the framework of the pieces he wrote, they improvised pure brilliance. In the same way, a chef isn’t always single-handedly responsible for every dish in a kitchen. Rather, chefs direct the vision and tone of a menu and allow their staff to excel within those parameters.

“Sometimes I’ll go to Frank and say, ‘I’d really love to do some kind of fish dish with tomato,’ and reference some classic dish from Spain, and then Frank takes that idea and runs with it and has come up with really great stuff at Curaté,” says Button. “Some of the dishes that he and I have worked on are our most popular.”

“Everyone talks about ‘Katie the chef,’ but we wouldn’t be able to do what we’re doing without the people that work for us,” she continues. “I give [my staff] a lot of freedom, because I think that is important, but in the end, they are operating within Felix’s and my vision, so they end up adjusting their style to our style. It’s just humbling that they are willing to do that and then be OK with the fact that when the [result] comes out, they’ll call Chad’s mushroom dish mine. And yeah, I may have helped with it, but it was his dish. But in the end, we are all working for the same thing, which is the success of the restaurant and the restaurant’s name.”

For Fleer, meanwhile, it’s a little harder to name names. When asked for the four people in his kitchen that he couldn’t live without, he says, “I’m not sure that’s a fair question, because it is a total team effort. The thing about picking four would mean leaving out 35 of them.”

Nonetheless, he names his skilled pastry chef Ashley Capps, his workhorse sous chefs, Dave Caine and Travis Schultz, and the lead line cook Rachel Freihoff-Lewin. “But,” says Fleer, “I also think one of the really important things that gets overlooked in this whole process is that outside the restaurant, there are a lot of people who don’t get the recognition for what we do, and that’s the producers, the farmers and foragers.

“If you took that group of people away, that’s the point at which the restaurant might crumble, because we can’t do what we do without them.”

For Rhubarb,  it’s farmers like Anne and Aaron Greer of Gaining Ground Farm, the Cruze family of Cruze Farms dairy, and Alan Benton of the now nationally known Benton’s Bacon.

“I think that that’s what people forget when all of this glorification of ‘the chef,’ the single human being, happens,” Fleer laments, “It’s just the nature of culture now. Somebody’s got to be the hero, but it has to be a single person, and that just is not the way things work. I always refer to it as the restaurant triangle:  the guests, our producers and all of us at the restaurant. For me it doesn’t work if all three components aren’t there.”

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com Follow me @jonathanammons

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One thought on “Leaders of the band: The people behind Asheville’s James Beard nominees

  1. maricruz baez

    Mucha felicidades por sus logros todo es producto de su tesón y dedicación por lo que a mi se refiere estoy muy orgullosa de mi hijo Gustavo Baez … Gracias por ser Buenas Personas y Apreciarlo en lo que vale….Atte.Maricruz Baez Montes.

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