An adventurous spirit is in the DNA of chefs who open their own restaurant, a risky business to say the least. And for some of these thrill-seekers, when they’re not playing with fire, they take to nearby rivers and streams, playing hide-and-seek with the elusive mountain trout.
Xpress recently asked a few of these local chefs and fishing experts to share their angle on angling.
Somewhere in a box is chef William Dissen’s first catch, his gateway to an enduring passion for fishing.
“My dad took me fishing on the Kanawha River in Charleston, W. Va., where I grew up,” he recalls. “We went for catfish, which was the standard first for a kid, and he actually had it mounted.”
And while Dissen says he continued the sport throughout his early youth, he later lost sight of it. “I started working in restaurants when I was 15 and got away from fishing,” he explains.
But his break wasn’t absolute. One of the things that lured Dissen to buy The Market Place restaurant in downtown Asheville in 2009 was the undeniable pull of his Appalachian roots, including the city’s nearby access to creeks, rivers and streams.
“Some of the best fly-fishing on the East Coast and the country is right here,” he says. “I had done a little before, but I was not proficient at it. Being here, I wanted to learn. I’m not a guy who spends hours on a golf course to decompress. I want to get out to hike or into a river or stream. Fly-fishing combines the two.”
Catch your own
Catching your own, particularly when it comes to fly-fishing, can be a complicated and potentially expensive endeavor. But the rewards — even when no fish are caught — are immeasurable, notes chef Silver Cousler, who uses gender-neutral pronouns.
“There’s nothing bad about standing in a river all day,” they say.
Like Dissen, Cousler was first exposed to fishing as a child, joining their father and uncle on deep-sea adventures off the coast of eastern North Carolina, as well as during trips to their mother’s native country, the Philippines.
“When we went to the Philippines, we would go to Batangas, a very rural area with saltwater tributaries about three hours south of Manila,” they remember. “It was all about eating fresh fish, like a whole tuna or milkfish, right off the boat and cooking it right away on fire. Being exposed to that kind of freshness was very significant to me, as well as the ways they air-dry, preserve and ferment it.”
In Asheville, Cousler previously worked as chef de cuisine at Gan Shan West, which frequently features whole-fish dishes. They left their position in late 2019, bound for a live-fire cooking residency at Palm Heights resort in the Cayman Islands — a venture sunk by COVID.
In spring 2020, Cousler returned to Asheville and went to work on developing Neng Jr.’s, a casual eatery slated to open in West Asheville in October. Neng Jr.’s — Cousler’s Filipinx nickname — will serve Filipinx cuisine, sharing the building that previously housed music venue Mothlight with Different Wrld, a collaborative creative space.
On the fly
During the COVID downtime and inevitable delays in construction, Cousler waded into fly-fishing, guided by friend Alex Matisse, co-founder of East Fork Pottery.
“I was so sick of being cooped up during quarantine,” the chef explains. “I needed to get outdoors, and Alex offered me his place in Flat Rock on the Hungry River while he [was] out of town. He had a lot of fly-fishing gear there, and I wanted to fish right away, but you really need someone to teach you.”
Dissen agrees. “Fly-fishing is a real learning curve,” he says. “When I decided to get serious about it, I went to Hunter Banks in Montford to learn the basics and get my gear together so I was knowledgeable enough to be able to go to the river whenever I can.”
Miller Watson, marketing and communications chair for Hunter Banks Fly Fishing, says the company’s staff is there to help new fishing enthusiasts navigate the waters. “Fly-fishing and all the equipment and terminology can be overwhelming, so we have tried to create an atmosphere here that welcomes beginners who don’t speak the language and want to ask questions.”
The starting point, he continues, is understanding the rigs, how to set up a rod and where to go. Beginners in particular benefit from a half or full day of schooling; more experienced fly-fishers who are new to the area or brushing up on their skills will benefit from guided fly-fishing trips as well.
“Whether you’re a first-timer or have some skills, you don’t want to go out there shooting in the dark, not knowing where to stand, where the trout are, why they’re there and what they’re eating,” says Watson. “It seems like a big investment up front, and it can be, but in the long run it’s worth it. If you find you like it, you can get what you actually need to not waste money.”
According to Watson, a beginner can get on the bank of a stream with an entry-level rod, reel, line and flies for $250; getting into the water requires additional gear such as waders, and the starting point there is about $600. Customers with deep pockets, he says, have been known to sink several thousand dollars into equipment. And don’t forget the fishing license — an annual pass for in-state residents is $25.
Casting is another skill to master, one Cousler says isn’t necessarily costly, but it does take practice. “I had a really ugly cast for a while,” they admit. “I’m not a big TikTok person, but I started watching a lot of fishing TikToks to see how people do it and what they reel in. Casting is really choreography, and you have to figure out the flow. I feel confident in my cast now.”
Dissen believes the hard part of fly-fishing is learning how to use the gear, what flies to use for conditions and how to tie knots. “I have a real appreciation for people who know how to tie their flies from scratch,” he says. “It is really laborious.”
Hooked on a feeling
What is not laborious, the chefs maintain, are the mental and emotional benefits derived from a day in the water. “I’m not really a person who knows how to sit still,” Cousler says. “Fly-fishing is an active way of fishing that is also peaceful and puts me in a place of meditation, which is really good for me.”
Dissen notes a similar experience. “It’s taking the time to calm down and forget everything else going on, especially this past year. It’s listening to the sounds of the water, being in touch with nature, being at peace for a bit. There are times I haven’t caught a single fish, but it’s still the best day ever.”
Typically, when the fish are biting and they reel in a trout — either wild or stocked — Dissen and Cousler practice catch and release. Watson says all the Hunter Banks excursions do the same. His staff members joke that it ensures job security, but Watson notes clients end sessions with the skill set and knowledge to catch and keep fish on their own future independent outings.
When it comes to cooking the catch, both Cousler and Dissen subscribe to the K.I.S.S. principle: Keep It Simple Stupid. (See accompanying recipe for more.)
Dissen laughs describing a complex spin on trout that didn’t go exactly as he envisioned.
“When we opened Haymaker in Charlotte, I did a pan-roasted Sunburst [Trout Farms] trout with a butter bean and boiled peanut succotash and some Benton’s Country ham, a fermented green tomato chow chow and a green ramps broth,” he explains. “To me it represented modern Appalachian cooking and epitomized what I love and who I am as a chef. Nobody bought it. It was the most delicious fail.”