What do you get when you combine Tennessee roots with New Mexican influences? Sam Etheridge’s Ambrozia Bar and Bistro in North Asheville.
Etheridge, Ambrozia’s executive chef and owner, grew up in East Tennessee with four brothers and a sister. While his mom did not really like to cook, she was very good at it.
“She’d make these classic Southern breakfasts with biscuits and all the fixin’s,” he says. “My dad loved to cook, so between the two, I guess something rubbed off.”
He started working at restaurants when he was 16 and went on to attend culinary school at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he graduated first in his class. He then spent time in South Beach in Miami, where he worked for such notable chefs as Allen Susser, Mark Militello, Norman Van Aken and Kevin McCarthy.
He became an executive chef at age 27, working for the Astor Hotel’s sister restaurant, Johnny V’s Kitchen. During all this, he met his wife, an aspiring doctor, who was going to do her residency in New Mexico. The couple moved to Albuquerque in 1999, and he became the executive chef of Portobello restaurant, which was later bought by Sandia Resort and Casino.
In 2008, the couple relocated to Asheville to be closer to family. “I wanted to be near Knoxville, Tenn., but not in it,” he says. “Asheville has a reputation for being a food town, so it was a good fit.”
While looking for a location in Asheville’s booming restaurant market, he first operated Ambrozia Catering Co. In 2013, he opened Ambrozia Bar and Bistro, featuring Southern fusion dishes.
Mountain Xpress: How’s business?
Sam Etheridge: It’s awesome. In fact, we’ve expanded into a new space right next door. We now have a distinct bar area on one side of the kitchen with a bistro-style dining room on the other. The bar and dining room are connected by a hallway at the rear of the restaurant. My brother handled the construction. We have a big bar following but also many regulars who want to sit down and eat. On the bar side, we’ve taken out the bench seating and moved it to the other side, added some high-top tables, turned the music up and turned the TVs on. On the other side, the atmosphere is more serene. And even though the square footage of the restaurant has increased, our main focus is to add more elbow room rather than seats. We’re only adding 25 more seats. There’s a bar menu for lighter fare and a more upscale menu for the bistro set. The bistro menu will change frequently — as often as daily. Our popular Burger Night will be exclusively for the bar side. We’ll also be selling a line of hot sauces that I’m pretty excited about.
What’s your favorite culinary tool?
My smoker. I love to smoke.
If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be?
My parents. I don’t get to see them enough. Outside of family, probably Michael Jordan.
What’s been your greatest challenge in running the restaurant?
It’s hard to staff. Asheville is kind of a transient place, and there’s lots of turnover.
What would you order as a last meal?
There’s a Chinese restaurant in Oak Ridge, Tenn., that makes authentic Sichuan cuisine. There’s a pork dish with lotus root, aged tofu and a Szechuan peppercorn sauce that’s outrageous.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to open a restaurant?
Work in one first. Many people just think, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to open a restaurant?’ Be prepared to do a lot of menial work.
Is there an ingredient that you’d love to get your hands on?
What’s one of Ambrozia’s top sellers?
Why the “Z” in Ambrozia?
It stands for zia — the sun symbol featured on the New Mexico flag. The Zia Indians of New Mexico regard the sun as a sacred symbol.
Ambrozia is at 1020 Merrimon Ave. in the Beaver Lake Shopping Center.