New Asheville hotels tap local talent to raise the bar for on-site dining

AROUND THE BLOCK: Rather than bringing in a celebrity chef from another city, The Foundry Hotel started with local chef John Fleer to create a concept for its restaurant, Benne on Eagle, which celebrates the African American history and culinary heritage of its surrounding neighborhood, known as The Block. Photo by Johnny Autry

The 100 words touting Benne on Eagle as No. 5 on Esquire magazine’s annual list of “22 Best New Restaurants in America 2019” do not include The Foundry Hotel, from which Benne leases its space and where the seeds for the now nationally famous restaurant were planted.

While it was The Foundry, says general manager James Poole, that decided independent and local was the direction it wanted for on-site dining, within the Esquire write-up, it’s “rising star Ashleigh Shanti working side by side in the kitchen with Asheville luminary John Fleer,” who receive the kudos.

In the competitive luxury-level hospitality industry, there is a vast difference between a hotel restaurant and a unique restaurant that happens to be on hotel property. The former, says Poole, has long had a stigma. “[The thought was that] they just fill a need; it was something hotels had to offer,” he says. “That has evolved into hotel operators realizing the dining experience can impact your guests’ perception and experience overall.”

Current thinking, he adds, is that “having a great restaurant partner and something interesting within the hotel can drive revenue to the hotel in terms of more frequent stays but also brings in nonguests and locals, which provides exposure for the hotel.”

An Asheville approach

That is what both The Foundry and Kimpton Hotel Arras sought as the properties were developed, yet not quite in the same way that larger, more cosmopolitan tourist-rich destinations play the name game.

Las Vegas is famous for many things, but high on the list are celebrity-chef-owned and/or branded restaurants in hotels, including Jaleo by Jose Andres in The Cosmopolitan, Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in The Venetian, two from Joel Robuchon at the MGM Grand and Giada de Laurentis’ Giada at The Cromwell.

Closer to Asheville, the booming hotel business in Nashville, Tenn., has lured a number of name-recognized chefs from around the county to work their high-profile magic, if not exactly to set up personal residence in Music City. The Thompson Nashville made the first splash when it opened in late 2016 with three concepts by New Orleans chef John Besh (who a year later was pushed out following sexual assault allegations); the 33-story, 533-room luxury JW Marriott snagged San Francisco celebrity chef Michael Mina to open Bourbon Steak, and The Westin lured Charleston’s Oak Steakhouse to its property.

But Asheville hotels, while pushing the parameters of standard hotel dining, are taking a different approach. “We have a pretty darned good reputation already as a culinary destination,” says Marla Tambellini, vice president of marketing/deputy director of the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“Asheville is not recruiting or pulling in chefs from outside like other cities have,” adds Dodie Stephens, director of communications for CVB. “John McKibbon (McKibbon Hospitality, developer of Arras) has hotels all over the country. But he is passionate about Asheville and our food scene, and he wanted his hotel here to reflect that.”

To accomplish that, McKibbon looked no farther than one block from where he spent almost four years overseeing the transformation of the BB&T Building into luxury lodging and condominiums. “Downtown Asheville is so unique, all local and regional, and our goal from the beginning was to be consistent with that ethos,” he says. “It was so important to get a local chef/owner to operate the restaurants which would be in the hotel, but not part of the hotel.”

McKibbon met with Peter Pollay, chef and co-owner with Martha Pollay, of Posana restaurant and Mandara Hospitality. The couple had been exploring opening a restaurant in another city, but when the opportunity to stay close to home presented itself, they grabbed it, bringing in Posana chef de cuisine Jordan Arace. “We knew John was looking for local,” says Peter Pollay. “He was familiar with Posana, and we had a good relationship and aligned in how we see food and hospitality.”

McKibbon didn’t initially see what the Pollays and Arace envisioned for the Broadway expanse of the lobby, which was originally going to be leased as a restaurant on one side and retail on the other, with walls separating two individual businesses. “Martha and Peter wanted both sides,” says Arace.

When the team members stood in the gutted lobby, they felt the floor-to-ceiling walls defining the sides were breaking up the space, so under Martha’s direction, down they came. “It was the best move we could have made,” says McKibbon. “Martha came in and took on the restaurant and our original design, reworked it, stepped it up, and it is so much better. It just feels more local, more Asheville, less of a hotel and more of a restaurant.”

District 42, the all-day restaurant/lounge, and Bargello, the breakfast/dinner restaurant, are distinct from one another and from the hotel — the check-in desk is at the drive-up entrance off Patton Avenue — yet the overall flow is seamless.

Not quite so seamless was a dispute between District Wine Bar, which opened in the River Arts District in early 2018, and Mandara Hospitality Group, which under LLC McKibbon-Pollay trademarked the name District 42 in November 2016. The controversy publicly erupted on Dec. 10 when wine bar owners Lauri and Barrett Nichols posted a message on the bar’s Facebook page announcing plans to concede and change the name of the popular RAD establishment. Two days later, Peter Pollay published an explanation of Mandara’s position on the District 42 Facebook page, which generated nearly 90 comments, the majority of them negative. (See “Small Bites: The Business Formerly Known as District Wine Bar” in the Dec. 25, 2019, issue of Mountain Xpress.)

Food and culture

Fleer was not actively looking to open another restaurant when he was approached at the end of 2016 by Four 17 Partners, the owners and developers of what would become The Foundry. “They had spoken with Jane Anderson at [Asheville Independent Restaurants] about potential restaurant partners in Asheville,” he says. “They gave me a call, and over the course of a few months we talked about the project.”

Fleer recalls that when he moved to Asheville in 2011, there were still a few vestiges remaining of The Block’s once flourishing black-owned businesses. “But when we started talking, there were just empty shell buildings,” he says. “I saw the opportunity to do something that was, in a way, mission-based and a tribute to the community. That it would be an independent restaurant was key. If you have a unique property and also want a unique vision for dining, it makes sense to go with someone outside the hotel.”

Fleer says he was always clear with the developers about how he envisioned the restaurant. “I was not pitching restaurant concepts,” he says. “I don’t think at the time they knew the importance of that neighborhood culturally, though they understood the historic significance of the buildings and were committed to taking great care in preserving that. When I raised the issue of food and culture, it took them a minute to understand this was a crucial component. But once they wrapped their head around it, there was no hesitation. I would not have done it otherwise.”

He brought in Sarah Kowalski, the designer who did the interiors for Rhubarb and The Rhu, to take over the design of the space. And he found Shanti through Rhubarb’s chef de cuisine, Derek Herre. “Derek met her when they both worked for Vivian Howard,” says Fleer. “When this project was in the pipeline, he recommended Ashleigh. At the time, she had been traveling the country doing stages and figuring out her next step.”

That next step turned out to be Asheville and a job at Benne on Eagle after a meeting with Fleer and a short stage at Rhubarb. “I had written the base of the first opening menu, but not much of the recipe development was done, so we worked on that first,” says Fleer. “Since the restaurant has opened, Ashleigh has done the lion’s share of subsequent menu development.”

The menu, wrote Esquire, “celebrates the debt Appalachian food owes to African cuisine,” and writer Ronni Lundy describes it as “rooted in specific place and culture.”

Pollay and Arace say it was the grand sense of space and materials that first inspired Bargello’s Mediterranean menu. “I worked in a Mediterranean restaurant in Malibu that was superfresh, as local as possible, with bright flavors, nice acids, great oils, lots of herbs and citrus,” Pollay explains.

“It might also have been influenced by my passion for pasta,” admits Arace, now executive chef at Bargello, with a laugh. “It is all just a means for me to indulge in making fresh pasta.”

Whether it is The Foundry’s deep, rich history and cultural homage or Arras’ transformation from dreary to stunning, both offer what the CVB’s Stephens calls “the experiential piece.” Expectations are higher now than ever before for Asheville, she explains. “It drives creativity in the arts, food, craft beer and spirits, and recently, hotels and hospitality.”

“Asheville is a unique bird,” says Fleer. “I think these hoteliers have been very perceptive in the way they have situated their restaurants, understanding they need a unique vision, not just for their guests, but locals as well. Regardless of how things go in the rest of the world, they’re different here in Asheville.”

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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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