What’s new in food

ON BOARD: Gwendolyn Hageman, founder and owner of Darë Vegan Cheese, poses with some of products featured at Dobra Tea West Asheville. Photo by Scott Anderson

Chef Gwendolyn Hageman introduced Darë Vegan Cheese at area tailgate markets in September 2019 with Game Changer Gouda — a melty, smoky cheese — and cultured cream cheeses. As Darë’s reputation grew, she added more cheeses and accounts, including West Village Market, Mother Earth Food, South Slope Cheese Co. and Dobra Tea West, which features her cheeses on two sandwiches and its cheeseboard.

This spring, thanks to a nudge early this year from the Elevate mentorship program at Venture Asheville — an entrepreneurship initiative of the Economic Development Coalition for Asheville-Buncombe County and the Asheville Chamber of Commerce — Hageman was named one of eight recipients of a NC IDEA SEED grant that will allow her business to continue expanding.

Hageman was not a vegan when she began a nine-month experimentation and development process in the kitchen of Chestnut restaurant, where she was a server. “I just couldn’t give up cheese,” she says. “Because I’m a chef, I took a chef approach rather than a vegan approach. Texture and taste were what I was going for, and I think I hit the nail on the head.”

She believes many vegan cheeses on the market simply shove starches and oils together and call it cheese. “I’m old school, and don’t think you can call something cheese unless you do the process of cheesemaking, which is a matter of time,” she explains.

The application process for the SEED grant took place in three rounds over three months, with the final round a 10-minute pitch presentation (via Zoom in April) to NC IDEA, followed by 10 minutes of questions and answers. “Then I disappeared from the screen,” she says with a laugh. On May 11, Hageman got the business-changing call that she would be awarded a $50,000 grant, which she describes as “the most money I’ve ever seen!”

She intends to use it for a branded van to deliver the cheeses she now carts in coolers in her Honda CR-V. The money will also pay for a packaging overhaul and new equipment to allow for the increased capacity Hageman will need to accept a recent offer from Whole Foods to carry Darë.

Since starting Darë, the company has added a full-time production manager and sales manager and is hiring a packaging manager. “I started this company with money I saved from my job in the service industry,” says Hageman. “I did it all. It’s been my baby for so long, and now it’s time to let go and let it grow.”

To learn more about Darë Vegan Cheese, visit avl.mx/9f5.

Rise up

On Jan. 31, High Top Bread Co. made its entrance on Instagram with the post, “This is Juliet and Ben, and we’re starting a bakery!” On April 14, business partners/bakers Juliet Ramirez and Ben Engebretson sold their first loaf of naturally leavened sourdough bread at the Weaverville Tailgate Market.

The two met in Asheville as co-workers at a local outdoor program, then Ramirez spent four years in Yosemite, Calif., where she started a cottage bread-baking business. When she moved back to Western North Carolina, the pair teamed up again to bake bread, leasing kitchen space in the former Dynamite Roasting Co. building in Black Mountain.  “We saw a niche for sourdough bread the way we make it,” says Engebretson.

In addition to the Weaverville Tailgate Market, High Top is at the East Asheville Tailgate Market and Mills River Farmers’ Market. Featured items include baguettes; classic sourdough loaves; olive and rosemary, lemon-lavender and turmeric-lemon bread; a seeded, whole-grain and sourdough chocolate chip cookie; and gluten-free brownies.

“The lemon-lavender is one of those big, chewy, crusted, moist, open breads,” says Ramirez. “We grate lemon zest into the dough and use dried organic lavender; it’s so aromatic it’s almost romantic.” Follow High Top at avl.mx/9f3.

Free market

Erik Mills Christenson, former-chef-turned-Marshall-cattleman, is clear that he has no beef with farmers’ markets in WNC and applauds the work of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. He just wanted to do things his way, so he started his own market. On May 11, Maverick’s Freedom Market in Weaverville welcomed about 20 vendors and 200 visitors for its first day of operation.

Among the sellers set up in the parking lot behind the Sonopress Building on Monticello Road were his own Maverick’s Cattle Beef, Carolina Bison, Carolina Elk, Outer Banks Seafood, local produce vendors and Bonny Bath organic body care owned by Heidi Vasone, Christenson’s partner at the market.

“I found it was hard to get into established markets, so I decided to start one,” he explains. “We call it the ‘freedom market’ because people are free to come in and sell their stuff. If we have 100 people who want to sell watermelon during watermelon season, we won’t turn you away.”

Maverick’s Freedom Market, 3-6 p.m. Tuesdays, 108 Monticello Road, Weaverville.  avl.mx/9f2

Smart cookie

Less than a year since debuting her “thick and pudgy, chewy and gooey” Morsel Cookies, baker Caroline Dockery has signed the lease on a 600-square-foot production kitchen in Woodfin that will help her meet her business’s cookie-monstrous growth. Her eight standard flavors and one monthly special can now be picked up from a dozen locations,. Schedule updates are posted on her Instagram account.

Popping out of the oven in June will be Morsel cookie cakes – 9-inch by 13-inch, 1½-inch thick and 4 pounds of chocolate chip goodness with the option of adding a Nutella or peanut butter swirl.

The cookie cakes will be available by custom order only. avl.mx/89s

House party

Raise a glass of bubbles to concept/design duo Drew Wallace and Leila Amiri, architect Brent Campbell, landscape architect Joel Osgood and Drom Construction — the team behind the Leo’s House of Thirst building on Haywood Road, which this month received a 2021 Griffin Award from the Preservation Society of Asheville Buncombe County.

In recognizing the 900-square-foot cinder-block structure built in 1949 as winner in the Adaptive Reuse category, PSABC noted that the “modest beauty” has been everything from a residence to a dentist office.

Wallace — who owns Leo’s as well as The Admiral and Bull & Beggar — signed the lease in 2018. “I’m kind of a sucker for stand-alone, cinder-block, economical buildings; the funky quirkiness of this was similar to The Admiral,” he says.

Campbell was also seduced. “I was pretty excited when Drew found this neglected supper club building in West Asheville,” he says. “Given his track record and vision for the project, I knew we would be able to transform the former gem-mining shack into a little jewel. For a relatively small building, there are a variety of spaces and experiences.”

The team’s love was tested when the extent of the construction and rehabilitation necessary became clear, turning into a nearly two-year project before Leo’s opened under COVID-19 restrictions at the beginning of September.

“Adaptive reuse is a celebrated preservation practice put to good use in this project,” says PSABC Executive Director Jessie Landl. “We love a rehabilitation that shows that even simple buildings can be saved and turned into something special.”

Leo’s House of Thirst, 1055 Haywood Road, avl.mx/9f1


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About Kay West
Kay West began her writing career in NYC, then was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, including contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. In 2019 she moved to Asheville and continued writing (minus Red Carpet coverage) with a focus on food, farming and hospitality. She is a die-hard NY Yankees fan.

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