Tailgate markets seed bountiful relationships between farmers and chefs

JUST PEACHY: Sovereign Remedies executive chef Graham House, right, shops for produce at the Creasman Farms booth at the River Arts District Farmers Market. Local chefs depend on Asheville's robust tailgate market scene and the connections it facilitates with area farmers to keep their menus fresh, seasonal and inspired. Photo by Morgan Ford

“If I could go to a tailgate market every day, I would,” says Graham House, chef at Sovereign Remedies in downtown Asheville.

Thanks to the abundance of the weekly markets that cover multiple neighborhoods in and around Asheville, House can almost make that happen. Currently, he shops West Asheville Tailgate on Tuesdays, the River Arts District Farmers Market on Wednesdays, has his eye on Friday’s East Asheville Tailgate Market and makes a quick cruise through Saturday’s North Asheville Tailgate Market on his way into work if he has time.

His steadiest date, though, is the Asheville City Market — also on Saturday mornings — which closes several blocks of Market Street right outside the restaurant’s door. “I try to get there as early as possible. I’m that guy who pisses everyone off when I buy all the strawberries,” he admits with a laugh. “I try to spread the love with a lot of farmers.”

Whether chefs shop for their restaurant at a tailgate market or visit as a weekly family outing, the most enduring and committed relationships between chefs and farmers are frequently seeded at the markets.

Meeting place

“I’ve been going to the North Asheville market since I’ve lived in Asheville, a little over nine years now,” says Katie Button, executive chef and CEO of Cúrate and Button & Co. Bagels. “Back when we were first opening Cúrate [in 2011], it was by going to the North Asheville market that I made some of our initial contacts and relationships. When I was doing all the ordering myself, I was going around the market and meeting farmers.” She names Ivy Creek Family Farm, Gaining Ground Farm and Honey and the Hive as just a few of the market finds with which she’s forged long relationships.

“I don’t have time to do all the ordering anymore, and most of our local product is delivered, but I still go every Saturday with my kids and make a morning of it,” she adds. “We get crepes or empanadas from Cecilia’s, do our personal shopping and wander around. If I see something being grown or made locally we could use that we’re not, I tell our inventory controller Brittany Kroeyr, who builds our farm relationships, and she pursues it.”

John Fleer, chef/owner of Rhubarb, is also a regular on the UNC Asheville campus, where the tailgate market sets up under the trees. “I’ve been going to the north market since we moved here in 2011,” he says. “My first farmer relationship started before we moved here, when I did a Blind Pig dinner at Yesterday Spaces and used vegetables from Gaining Ground Farm across the road. They’re both owned by Anne and Aaron Grier. It has been my longest and most fruitful — and vegetable-ful — relationship ever since.”

When William Dissen moved to Asheville in 2009 to buy The Market Place Restaurant, he found many farmer relationships solidly in place thanks to founding chef/owner Mark Rosenstein, but he also developed his own. “I made a point of going to the local weekly markets and meeting the people who grow our food,” he says. “When I first moved here, a lot of the farmers did not deliver directly to chefs and markets. Most of them do now, but we still go to the tailgates to see new items and new farmers, talk about what’s coming into season and what they’re liking.”

One of Fleer’s favorite sources for produce is McConnell Farms — which still doesn’t deliver to restaurants but does make sure Fleer’s order is waiting for him at the market — and the pickup is part of his Saturday ritual. “I get my weekly [community-supported agriculture box] from Gaining Ground, walk the market to see what people are doing and then pick up the restaurant’s order from McConnell. One of my sous chefs picks up from them on Tuesdays in West Asheville.”

The closer, the better

For some restaurants, particularly small or developing ones, proximity is a factor in tailgate shopping. Chef Dan Silo, who opened Sawhorse restaurant on New Leicester Highway in West Asheville two months ago, was already familiar with the West Asheville Tailgate Market thanks to a previous post at the Admiral.

“I’ve spent a lot of time at that market the last few years, and I’ve done a couple of their market suppers,” he says. “We’re still brand new and figuring it out, and it’s hard to leave the restaurant on a Tuesday afternoon. But I like to see what’s available there and work backward to create a dish. We have some staples on our menu that won’t change a ton, but when we can get new and different vegetables, we filter them through on those.”

As a farmer, butcher and restaurateur, Casey McKissick has a unique affinity for tailgate markets. “In 2002, we had Crooked Creek Farms in Swannanoa and Old Fort, and ran a farm co-op called Foothills,” he explains. “We sold meat, produce and cut flowers at City Market, West Asheville and Black Mountain. When we opened our butcher shop in Black Mountain in 2013, we kept the Foothills name and supplied the store from our farms and farmers we met during our formative years at the tailgates.”

McKissick did the same when opening his Butcher Bar restaurants in Black Mountain and West Asheville and maintained relationships with the markets. “Our cooks and kitchen managers on Haywood have a weekly budget to go to the West Asheville market and get whatever is fresh and interesting to use on our Blue Plate and Butcher’s Cut daily specials. We’ll do that at Black Mountain, too.”

Chef Melissa Hsu came on board at District Wine Bar a month ago and has already made the nearby River Arts District market a weekly stop. “The kitchen is a cold kitchen — I have no burners — and very small, so it’s great to have RAD so close-by,” says Hsu. “I’m getting to know those farmers, and they always have little surprises for me. I love that, figuring out how to incorporate them into a dish.”

No one has less of a trek to the RAD market than Brendan Reusing, chef and co-founder of All Souls Pizza. The market is on a shaded plot next door to the restaurant, which makes it convenient for Reusing to pick up orders he has placed with Gaining Ground, Ten Mile Farm and Ivy Creek among others.

Even closer is the garden right outside his kitchen door. “The garden was there when we moved in, but it was pretty neglected, and we updated it,” he says. “I use it for nice lettuces and arugula, we use the cherry tomatoes. We do a green fermented chili that we put on sandwiches, and I used serrano peppers from the garden. We have lots of herbs out there, and I pick the Thai basil for our pho special.”

Reusing has Marianne Mooney to thank for his kitchen garden. She and her husband are part-owners of All Souls, and when the staff was too busy to manage the garden, she took over. “I was already doing ornamentals, some native plants and pollinators, so we built up the raised beds and put in things you would normally put in a home garden,” she says. “It’s pretty small-scale and not enough to supply the restaurant, but it contributes, and people love to see fresh things in our garden or the market next door. It’s just a good feeling.”

Chefs and restaurateurs agree. “Markets are not only a great resource, they’re a fun and welcoming place to be,” says Fleer. “Music, food, farmers, makers — they’re reflective of the community Asheville is.”

“Tailgates are how we got our start, and they are near and dear to us,” says McKissack. “Our boys were babies when we started doing them, and they have friends who were babies there with them. They’re 7 to 11 now and have never known a Saturday morning that didn’t start with a market. “

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About Kay West
Kay West was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, StyleBlueprint Nashville, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. To kick off 2019 she put Tennessee in her rear view mirror, drove into the mountains of WNC, settled in West Asheville and appreciates that writing offers the opportunity to explore and learn her new home. She looks forward to hiking trails, biking greenways, canoeing rivers, sampling local beer and cheering the Asheville Tourists.

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