As a teenager at Mountain Heritage High School in Burnsville, Amber Whitt had a solid plan for her life: a prelaw degree from N.C. State University, then law school and a career in business law. But a school cooking class changed everything.
“We had a little competition,” Whitt explains. “Each group planned an event and executed it for the whole class. I told my group to sit down and shut up, and we did a fine dessert tasting.”
Under Whitt’s leadership, her team created “a chocolate mousse thing with seven layers,” key lime cheesecake and nonalcoholic sparkling wine gelatin dessert for the panel of judges who were chefs from Mountain Air Country Club. A couple of days later, she was called into the school office. “I originally thought I was in trouble,” she says with a grin. But, in fact, the chefs from the country club had returned to offer her a summer job in their kitchen.
From there, Whitt went on to work and stage at other area restaurants, including the Maggie Valley Country Club and Sovereign Remedies. Just a few years later, with law school plans effectively derailed and a culinary degree from A-B Tech under her belt, Whitt, 23, gets to play with fancy desserts as much as she wants as the executive chef at the Princess Anne Hotel on East Chestnut Street.
Xpress: You got your start in the culinary world working in kitchens, but you also later graduated from the culinary arts program at A-B Tech. How was your experience in culinary school after having worked back of house at several restaurants?
Amber Whitt: I loved it. I would recommend it to absolutely everyone who is interested. But I would also recommend definitely working for a couple of years before going to school because it really gives you not only an upper hand but an idea of what you’re getting into. I think a lot of people who just go directly to culinary school end up dropping out because they’re not aware of what they’re getting into.
I enjoy your colorful and whimsical pastry creations. Tell me a little about your flair for pastry.
My inspiration behind a lot of pastry is making myself feel childlike because, you know, life is crazy. There’s a lot going on for all of us, so I think anytime you can have those moments of wonder and bliss and not be thinking about anything else is a really special moment. So I try to bring that feeling into the desserts we do here. I like for people to have an interactive experience with their dessert. I like the childlike sense of ooh and ah and wonder. It’s one of my favorite things to watch — I sort of peek out from the kitchen.
As a historic hotel that’s located outside the downtown area, how do you view the Princess Anne’s place in the Asheville dining scene?
We say we’re just far enough away from town to be convenient, but we make it clear we’re not downtown. This is not a place where you’re going to have to fight to get through the door, and we don’t want it to be that. We want it to be so that you can come here and have an experience that you’ll be talking about for years. This is where I want you to come for your birthday and your anniversary. I want it to be that special that people say, “That’s where I want to go on those special days.”
Before coming to the Princess Anne Hotel, you spent more than a year working as a chef instructor at Green Opportunities Kitchen Ready nonprofit program teaching culinary skills to the unemployed. How did that experience as an instructor impact you as a chef?
I don’t tell a ton of people this story, but I grew up hungry. I grew up in a situation where I didn’t always know when I was going to have my next meal, so it was a really personal mission for me to be able to feed people. And then, I wouldn’t necessarily be in this industry if it hadn’t been for that one chef who sort of took me under his wing and told me, “This is how we do things.” And I really wanted to be that person for other people.
When you were with Green Opportunities, you also headed up the opening of its GO Café at Givens Gerber Park. What was it like opening your first restaurant?
We had a lot of fun, and it was really a challenging experience for me to really to build it from the ground up. I was there when the equipment was being moved in, the whole nine yards. It was an enlightening experience for sure. I’d been a sous chef at a couple of other places, but that was my first real management experience, from every angle, dealing with the finances and scheduling, labor costs, everything down to the food cost and product — then also cooking and instructing. It was a really hectic schedule. I think it helped me have an understanding from every angle of what it takes to be successful in this business.
What is a cause that’s particularly close to your heart?
I want to be a mentor to young people who haven’t necessarily been given a chance. You know, a lot of people we worked with at Green Opportunities are 25-30 years old, and what I observed was that rather than having been given multiple chances and failing, a lot of the people had never been given a chance to begin with. I really am not a fan of the phrase “second chance” because a lot of those people never even had one.
Why do you love being a chef?
I like the pace. I like the adrenaline rush, for sure. I like the camaraderie. We have a really small team here — for the whole hotel there are just 10 of us — so to know and have a really close relationship with the 10 people who make it happen on a daily basis is a really nice feeling.
Now that you’ve worked in kitchens for a few years, do you ever look back at your original plans for law school and wish you’d taken that path?
Sometimes. And then I get a new challenge thrown at me here, and I get totally occupied with what I’m doing. You know, they say people in my generation will change careers two or three times in their lives. We’ll see. Right now, I’m totally content with what I’m doing.