Before they had even tasted the food at The Blackbird in downtown Asheville, Cristina Gil said, “Let’s buy this.” It was love at first sight. In late May, she and her husband, Jesson Gil, bought the farm-to-table bistro from previous owner Roz Taubman because the couple had decided it was time for a change. They relocated from The Woodlands, Texas, and settled into the Asheville food scene.
Xpress recently chatted with Jesson Gil about where they’ve been and where they’re going.
Mountain Xpress: What sparked your move to Asheville from The Woodlands?
Jesson Gil: Texas is superhot and humid. We Googled places to retire with nice weather, figuring we would buy a house and visit. Asheville came up. We came to visit many times over the past four years. We fell in love with the food scene, people and weather. One day we said, ‘Why not live where you vacation?’ So, we sold everything, and now we live in Fairview.
What did you do in Texas? What kind of restaurant experience do you have?
We owned two restaurants in Texas for almost 10 years. We were part of a small franchise group for a hot concept — Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers. Our restaurant experience totals more than 27 years in a variety of food concepts, large and small.
How do you divide the duties at the Blackbird? Are you hands-on owners?
We are absolutely hands-on owners. I work on most of the day-to-day stuff, and you’ll find me at the restaurant most days. Cristina has a great palate and guides the menu along with our executive chef, Mike Reppert. Mike has been here for four years. He graduated from Le Cordon Bleu and worked in Boston for many, many years.
What is your vision for The Blackbird? What will stay the same? Have there been changes?
Well, we really fell in love with the place, so we’re not planning on making too many changes. Casual and elegant farm-to-table concepts are in our soul. One thing we are doing is diligently working toward making the financial lives of our crew better. Within three years, we plan to be living-wage-certified. We also believe there is a synergy between doing things in the community and the sustainability of a business, so we are working on doing more in that arena.
What’s your overall take on the Asheville food scene compared to your previous home?
The food scenes are so different. The Woodlands is a master-planned community that is a suburb of a massive city, Houston. It’s a hustle-and-bustle type of living. Most of the food businesses there are chain types. There is some great food, but you have to look for it. Asheville, in my opinion, is a second-cup-of-coffee place when you meet people. You have to give yourself a little more time to talk. The food is also driven by the small-business owners here. While there are chains, they don’t dictate the food scene. There is just great food everywhere. The restaurant owners also work well together here. For example, the folks at Chestnut, across the street from us, have been superwelcoming.
In a few words, how would you describe The Blackbird?
Modern Southern with a nod to tradition. Seasonally changing.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?
I enjoy playing guitar and hiking. I bought my first pair of Chacos a couple of weeks ago at Diamond Brands — they were so helpful. Cristina works with our two dogs a bunch — we have an English golden and a Shih Tzu. We do walks and hikes as a family. Cristina is the glue in our lives. We have six kids. Five of them live in Texas, and some are in undergraduate and graduate programs, and others are working. We also have a 4-year-old at home. He really loves to hike and started school this year.
The Blackbird Restaurant is at 47 Biltmore Ave. in the Aloft hotel. It’s open seven days a week serving lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; dinner 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 5-10 p.m. Sunday; and brunch 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The Crow Bar is open noon-10:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and noon-11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The bar serves snacks 2:30-5 p.m. and 10 p.m.-close daily.