David Van Tassel had eaten at The Junction twice before he landed a job there three years ago. He was interested in working at the River Arts District eatery, plus he had the goal of securing his first position as an executive chef before he turned 30. As luck would have it, both things worked out for him.
After serving as sous chef at The Junction for a year, Van Tassel took on the role of executive chef two years ago. He says he works to keep the menu both playful and nostalgic, unpretentious and approachable. And owners Charles and Tanya Triber give him plenty of room to unleash his creativity.
Mountain Xpress: The Junction was one of the first dining spots to open in the River Arts District. How have you seen business evolve? Do you like what’s happening in the neighborhood?
David Van Tassel: We’re growing at a more sustainable pace than downtown. This area is going to be the jewel of the town. It’s like a little sanctuary down here.
Tell me about the chef’s table experience at The Junction.
We do five to six courses, and it’s typically designed for four people. We have fun, and guests interact closely with the kitchen — it’s not like they’re just sitting there being served. They get to ask questions, taste things as they’re being prepared, etc. It’s a whole behind-the scenes experience.
What makes The Junction different from other Southern-inspired eateries?
I like to think we’re a studio restaurant. We incorporate artistic elements into the food, drinks and the décor. We’re a boutique.
What are some of your favorite things to eat?
Ranch dressing and cereal — I like them a lot. I like putting together unexpected ingredients, things that make me giggle. For example, the Junction pop tart consists of butter tart dough, a seasonal filling, buttermilk citrus icing and genuine Fruity Pebbles. And our corndog has foie gras and is served with one of two sauces — saffron honey mustard or cherry sauternes ketchup. It’s all topped with Corn Pops [cereal] dust.
Overall, what’s your culinary philosophy?
First know the rules and then break them.
Who is your clientele?
We have a great clientele. I typically come out to talk with guests, and we just have fun. We are mainly a dining destination — people come here on purpose. I love it when I look at the reservation list for the night and recognize names. I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember those guys.’
Where do you get your menu ideas/inspirations?
Daily life. I’m not going to tell you I read lots of books and watch cooking shows, because I don’t. I get my ideas from everyday food. I’ll eat a Subway sandwich and think, ‘Wow, I like these flavors. How can I deconstruct it and turn it into something else?’
What’s your favorite culinary tool?
Giant meat grinder. I love making sausage; you can really get creative and silly. I just made a smoked mushroom and pork rind sausage.
What’s been your greatest challenge in running the restaurant?
Logistics. You need to know how much the equipment and your stations can handle.
What would you order as a last meal?
Every Thanksgiving my mom makes this crazy pretzel, Jell-O salad — it’s awesome! If we’re going highbrow, I’d say an awesome meat and cheese board with tomatoes I just picked and maybe a little foie gras.
What’s your must-have ingredient?
Time. Many dishes require advance preparation. Brining, smoking — these things take time. But it’s worth it in the long run.
What are some of your more popular menu items?
We change the menu weekly, but our pot pie, sweet-tea brined fried chicken and the 14-hour smoked lamb crepinette are house staples.
What’s a crepinette?
It’s a small, flattened sausage, sometimes referred to as a sausage parcel. It’s usually cooked with an outer coating or bread.
When you’re not working, what do you enjoy doing?
I like being home. I’ve been married for nearly seven years, have two dogs and a record collection of about 500. I like playing around and having fun. We also have about two acres for gardening — I love that.