Quick dish: A Q+A with chef Brian Sonoskus of Star Diner

STAR QUALITY: Brian Sonoskus, former executive chef for the Tupelo Honey chain, now commands the kitchen at Marshall's recently opened Star Diner.
STAR QUALITY: Brian Sonoskus, former executive chef for the Tupelo Honey chain, now commands the kitchen at Marshall's recently opened Star Diner. Photo by Liisa Andreassen

You may have heard of Brian Sonoskus. He ran the show at the Asheville-based restaurant chain Tupelo Honey for about 15 years before accepting the role of executive chef at the recently opened Star Diner in Marshall.

The cozy eatery is housed in the old Gulf gas station at the end of Main Street in downtown Marshall. The space was vacant for more than 20 years until Bud Nachman, the Star Diner’s owner, decided it was time to change that. Now the space has been reimagined into a nine-table, white tablecloth restaurant that has the feeling of stepping back in time. The décor is speckled with memorabilia, and music from days gone by flows from vintage 1930s speakers. It’s magic.

Mountain Xpress: Tell me a little about the owner.
Brian Sonoskus: Bud is a friend of my wife’s father. He lives in Charlotte and has a club down there, but Marshall is his getaway. He’s a collector of quirky and cool stuff, and preserving things from the past is his passion. He started the road to renovation on this place about 10 years ago.

Did you go to culinary school?
Yes. I went to Johnson & Wales in Providence, R.I.

When did you move to Asheville?
In 1995. Prior to that, I was in Charlotte and did the ski bum thing for a while in Park City, Utah. A friend was in Asheville, and when I came to visit, I knew this was the place I wanted to be.

What inspired you to transition from Tupelo Honey to this startup?
I was on a little hiatus. I left Tupelo Honey because I was doing more travel than I wanted to and was helping to open other locations. I left to spend some time with my two kids and wife. I was off for about six to seven months and I wasn’t really thinking about going back to work just yet, but my wife, Kate, knew that Bud was working on this project, so we reached out to him to see how things were going. As fate would have it, he said he had just started looking around for a chef. I wrote some menus, he liked them, and that’s pretty much it — we started working together. We started off slow in late November last year, did some dry runs and hit the ground running.

What’s your greatest challenge?
The space is a challenge. We try to convince people to make reservations because once we fill up our nine tables, that’s pretty much it. It’s the kind of meal that makes you linger. We’re not turning over tables, and we can’t really accommodate walk-ins. The cooking space is also limited, but we’re making it work. We stagger orders and the flow.

What are some of your top-selling items?
Our shrimp and grits with sea scallops and filet mignon with béarnaise sauce are popular. We also run specials and typically sell out — items like pork belly and salmon Oscar. All desserts are also made in-house. We do things like pot de crème and buttermilk cheese pie. Most of our food is already gluten-free, and we do vegetarian options all the time. For example, instead of red meat, we’ll offer something like a roasted cauliflower steak.

What are your three must-have ingredients?
Hot peppers, shrimp and White Lily flour for my biscuits.

Where do you get your menu inspirations?
It’s a real hodgepodge. I have a Polish and Welsh background, so my grandmothers taught me how to do things like canning and pierogis. Also, my travel experiences. It’s everywhere, pieces of information. I work with a lot of classics like saltimbocca and like making them my own.

What’s the buzz around Marshall?
For the last 10 years, people have been saying Marshall is going to be the next big thing. It’s happening slowly. We have a new brewery [Madison County Brewing]. What I really like is that the community is very tight. We all try to plan events that will get people walking around downtown.

Do you have a favorite piece of memorabilia in the restaurant?
Every time a train goes by, I spin an old pinwheel, and if your table number comes up, you’ll get a special treat. So far no one has won. We’ll keep trying.

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