Editor’s note: On the Side is a new recurring series by Liisa Andreassen on Asheville chefs and restaurant owners who are helping grow the local food scene and improve the community with their work outside the kitchen.
Working chefs already have a pretty full plate, but that doesn’t stop many Asheville culinarians from making efforts on the side to promote and enhance the local food community and help others. Whether working with area nonprofit organizations or collaborating with other industry professionals and farmers, a number of Asheville chefs are making an impact in our community in more ways than one.
Hungry for food talk? A relatively new food podcast, “AVL Food Fans,” is a burgeoning series where food writer Stu Helm and chef Joe Scully of the Corner Kitchen and Chestnut banter with locals about what’s going on in the Asheville restaurant scene.
The discussions dish about anything food-related, both locally and farther afield. Since the series launched in June, topics have touched on tipping, front-of-house versus back-of-house work, cheesecake, coffee, microgreens — pretty much anything is fair game.
“It all started when Stu Helm had a complaint about one of my restaurants,” Scully says. “He wrote about it, and when I met him, I called him out on it. After we talked for a bit, he said, ‘You know, we should do a show.’ The rest is history.”
The podcast airs twice a month and has quickly developed a devoted fan base. To date, they’ve had nearly 6,000 listens.
“Our primary goal is to serve the whole community — farmers, servers, chefs, educators, food lovers and more,” Helm says. “Ultimately, we’d like to see the podcast spread outside of the area to promote different food scenes throughout the country. Asheville certainly has an amazing mix of food culture, and it’s a great place to kick off this project. I’m excited to see what happens next.”
To listen to AVL Food Fans, visit avlfoodfans.com.
Focusing on education
The Biltmore Co. sends its chefs out into the community as part of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project’s Growing Minds Farm to School Program. Several Biltmore chefs have led ASAP events called Taste Tests, which are essentially cooking workshops staged in local classrooms using seasonal ingredients as a way to positively impact children’s health and education.
“I’ve been in the classroom during past taste tests, and the kids really get excited to have chefs in their classrooms all dressed in their white coats and introducing new foods,” says Marissa Jamison, public relations manager at Biltmore.
As executive chef of Biltmore’s Lioncrest, Deerpark and Biltmore Catering, Kirk Fiore is participating in an upcoming scheduled Taste Test. Fiore has two young children and is passionate about passing on healthy eating habits and introducing local foods to the next generation.
“I’m excited about this opportunity,” Fiore says. “It’s important to educate children, who in turn, educate their parents.”
There’s also a spring garden series planned where chefs will conduct cooking demonstrations in some local school gardens. “While I understand and appreciate that schools have limited food budgets to work with, if we can help them to integrate some ingredients and strategies without up-costing the cost of a meal, we’ve made an impact,” says Fiore.
The mission of ASAP’s Growing Minds program aligns with Biltmore’s values — founders George and Edith Vanderbilt not only ran the estate as a sustainable farm, but they were very involved in educational efforts for workers on the estate and other Western North Carolina residents. To continue that legacy of commitment to agriculture and education, Biltmore recently became an official sponsor of the program.
Cathy Cleary, co-founder of the FEAST program (fast, easy, affordable, sustainable, tasty), is another chef who firmly believes that all children deserve to eat healthy food every day. FEAST facilitates that through hands-on cooking and gardening classes.
“Kids who don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables on a regular basis are less likely to want to eat them because they are not familiar,” says Cleary, who was an original owner of the West End Bakery and author of the West End Bakery Cookbook. “When a kid participates in the process, they are so much more likely to taste things and more likely to enjoy the food the next time they encounter it. As an organization, our biggest accomplishments happen every time a FEAST student eats a healthy snack that they made and says, ‘That’s good!’”
FEAST works closely with local chefs for its annual fundraising event Feasting for FEAST. Chefs and restaurateurs who have supported the organization year after year include: April Moon from Sunnypoint Café; Dan and Jael Rhattigan from the French Broad Chocolate Lounge; John and Julie Stehling from Early Girl Eatery and King Daddy’s Chicken and Waffles; and Katie and Elizabeth Button of Curate and Nightbell.
To learn more about Growing Minds, visit growing-minds.org. For details on the FEAST program and its classes, visit feastasheville.com.
Legislating for change
Although he’s known nationally both for his culinary work with the esteemed James Beard House in New York and his efforts to promote sustainable seafood practices through the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Blue Ribbon Task Force, chef William Dissen of The Market Place restaurant is also active on the political front. He’s traveled to Capitol Hill numerous times to fight for transparent labeling of genetically modified foods, funding and guidelines for the National School Lunch Program, and more.
Dissen says his quest to find the best local ingredients for his menu at The Market Place led him to an in-depth study of how the food chain works and eventually to his food policy outreach efforts. “We found that when we started down this path to learn more about food, that we’ve realized that we have a commitment to sustainable practices — both in how we operate our business and how we interact with our community and beyond,” he says.
“Every time I get the chance to go to D.C. and speak with our congressmen and women, it’s a great opportunity to share our voice from the people here in Asheville and let our legislators know what we believe in,” Dissen adds.
Currently, the chef is working on a major advocacy project scheduled for early February. He will host representatives from the James Beard House and its partner, the Chefs’ Action Network, along with 20 of the best chefs in the Southeast and national media outlets for a two-day culinary salon in Asheville that focuses on how the renaissance of Appalachian food, heritage and culture is playing a role in the national food conversation.
“We will … create a dialogue that will include how outreach, advocacy and sustainability issues are at the center of our regional food culture,” Dissen says, calling the gathering “one of the most exciting events that I have had the chance to be a part of.”