Shut up and play the hits: The chef’s curse of a popular dish

UP IN FLAMES: Brussels sprouts are a popular menu item at Seven Sows Bourbon & Larder — so much so that executive chef Mike Moore's romance with the veggie is waning. Photo by Cindy Kunst
UP IN FLAMES: Brussels sprouts are a popular menu item at Seven Sows Bourbon & Larder — so much so that executive chef Mike Moore's romance with the veggie is waning. Photo by Cindy Kunst

For Led Zeppelin, it’s “Stairway to Heaven,” for Outkast, it will forever be “Hey Ya!” And you know that Nick Cave will never be able to take the stage without playing another rendition of “Mercy Seat.” It’s the monster hit, the one you just can’t get away from. None of these artists are one-hit wonders, by any means, but despite the depth of their musical catalogs, they all have one song that, if left unplayed at a show, will leave fans outraged. So they do it for the masses, no matter how sick of playing it they are.

“The hits for me are hands down the fried chicken and crumpet with black pepper gravy, and the f**king burger,” says chef Steven Goff of King James Public House. “We joke about being a sh**ty fried chicken shack and or burger stand because of the exorbitant sums of those items we sell. Definitely the kitchen’s least favorite items to make.”

In a city like Asheville, it’s safe to say that just about every chef who sticks around will be stuck with one such hit. And it’s usually not the one they expected it to be.

“As a chef, sometimes you put hours of your time and your heart and soul into creating the ‘perfect dish,’ only for it to be too creative for the masses,” says chef William Dissen of the Market Place Restaurant, “but sometimes you find success in a dish that you throw together last minute for a special and guests love it. And sometimes it’s just a crapshoot.”

For Dissen, the hit is a handmade pappardelle pasta dish served with lamb shank ragout, roasted oyster mushrooms, and confit tomatoes with basil pesto and parmesan. After trying to remove it from the menu, he sensed a brewing mutiny. “I thought I had a revolt on my hands the next week from my guests and waitstaff,” he remembers. Needless to say, dish is back on the menu.

Meanwhile, over at Chai Pani, “Oh god! The kale pakoras and okra fries,” says chef Meherwan Irani. “Any time there is an article on Chai Pani, they don’t want to talk about this amazing 15th century recipe that I got from some grandma in India for pork vindaloo … they always want to cover the kale pakoras and the okra fries. You start to realize: We’re never going to get away from this, and in fact, we’re going to be defined by it. But I have only myself to blame. I mean, I made it.”

It’s hard to pinpoint where the actual root of the problem begins. So Mick Jagger is tired of singing “Satisfaction” every time he takes the stage, but it makes him millions. Sure, he could choose to never play his hits and stick to obscure deep cuts. But then, he too might die poverty-stricken and with no health care like Alex Chilton — the singer of the Box Tops and Big Star, who toiled in relative obscurity because he refused to play his only commercial hit, “The Letter.”

“F**king Brussels sprouts and fried chicken, dude,” complains Mike Moore of Seven Sows. “Who would have ever thought I’d get sick of my grandmother’s beautiful fried chicken?”

The great fear goes back to what Irani said, that the hit is what will ultimately define you. That all your work, creativity, knowledge, constant learning, self-criticism and growth will be reduced to a crispy fried snack or a burger. That what you will be remembered for is not what you set out to accomplish.

“I love burgers and fried chicken, I just don’t want to make it all day every day,” says Goff. He put a burger on his menu as an afterthought, when he had some extra trimmings from steaks, and much to his chagrin, it never left the menu. “People demanded it, so I sold my soul. I die a little inside each time we sell a fried chicken or burger.”

“Cruel to be Kind” wasn’t Nick Lowe’s best song or his only hit, but it will always be his calling card. In the same way, many diners will pop in and out of Asheville restaurants only tasting the top sellers and “best of,” often missing the truly inspired work of really great chefs. So why not take a chance, try something new, or even ask a server what’s special on the menu or what they’ve been working on? You might be surprised by a delectable deep cut.

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com

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2 thoughts on “Shut up and play the hits: The chef’s curse of a popular dish

  1. Big Al

    “As a chef, sometimes you put hours of your time and your heart and soul into creating the ‘perfect dish,’ only for it to be too creative for the masses”

    Spoken like a true snob.

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