Year in Review: Asheville chefs and restaurateurs reflect on another unusual year

CHECK, PLEASE: Clockwise from top left, J Chong, John Fleer, Drew Wallace and Luis Martinez offer their takes on a challenging year for the food and beverage industry. Photo of Martinez by East Fork Pottery; additional photos courtesy of individuals featured

Perhaps the best that can be said about 2021 is that it was an improvement over 2020, when COVID-19 badly battered the food and beverage industry. Though the struggle to right the ship continues, positive developments and reasons for optimism did shine through a challenging second year of COVID-19.

Xpress reached out to members of the local food industry to get their perspective. Participants include J Chong, chef and owner of J Chong Eats; John Fleer, chef and owner of Rhubarb, The Rhu and Benne on Eagle; Luis Martinez, multimedia designer, chef and owner of Tequio Foods; and Drew Wallace, restaurateur and co-owner of The Admiral, The Bull and Beggar, Baby Bull and Leo’s House of Thirst.

In 2021, what was the most positive development in Asheville’s food and beverage industry, and what was the most challenging?

Chong: I believe one of the most positive developments in Asheville this past year was the support for our community, whether that be folks supporting locals with ordering takeout from their favorite local restaurants or shopping at all of our great local farmers markets each day. I believe that the most challenging aspect of this past year for the food and beverage industry — and it will only get worse — are the rapid increases in pricing. Food products are continuing to go up [as are prices for] supplies. This is the reason behind consumer cost increasing as well.

Fleer: The most positive development is the display of resiliency and rethinking of how our industry operates and what we collectively view as important. The change in the staffing landscape has by far been the most challenging.

Martinez: One of the most positive things I saw was the inclusion of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] in high positions within the industry. Asheville has been known for not being highly diverse, but little by little, people like Hector Revilla, Santiago Vargas, Chef May [Sujitra Chubthaisong], Paty Saenz and others share their love for food and their roots. The biggest challenge was the departure of many talented people from our industry.

Wallace: We are still here and flourishing. The operators who remained open have proven that restaurateurs are resilient and have mastered the art of pivoting.  Leo’s House of Thirst was in its infancy, and we opened the doors to Baby Bull this year, so the challenges of staffing and looking out for the health of our team without any previous comparisons or familiarity were our biggest struggles.

What was your most memorable dining and/or cooking experience in 2021? 

Chong: My most memorable cooking experience for 2021 was cooking for the Secret Supper 2021 series back in June. [A national pop-up series, Chong was one of six chefs selected to participate in this year’s event.] It was such a learning experience for me and the support that I had going into the event leading up to the day was magical. It was a night that I will be dreaming of for the rest of my days.

Fleer: I was asked to host an evening of dining for a prominent California winemaker who is considering relocating his family to Asheville. The level of cuisine, beverage and hospitality that we experienced at Cucina 24, Table/Right There and The Times Bar made me very proud of our food and beverage community. And we bumped into Anne Grier [co-owner of Gaining Ground Farm] at Cucina, which gave me a chance to brag on our amazing farming community. This could have been three different restaurants and a different farmer several times over. That’s Asheville.

Martinez: I was very excited for the chance to cook at Chow Chow festival with Mackensy Lunsford before she moved to Nashville, Tenn. She is such an institution in town; it made me happy to spend an evening cooking, laughing and spending quality time with a great friend. Also, I liked how Chow Chow held different types of unique events. It was something new and evolving.

Wallace: A tie. Reuniting with Cucina 24 and experiencing [chef] Brian [Canipelli‘s] take on a family-style menu was at the top of my list. Also, Danny Reed’s [founder of Hot Stuff Tattoo and Crooked Creek Holler] home-cooked smash burgers, potatoes, and endless Beaujolais reminded me of the camaraderie and comfort that only a delicious meal in the presence of friends can provide.

What food event or new opening (other than your own) excited you the most in 2021? 

Chong: The Cultivated Community Dinner Series that Cultura has masterfully put on. All of the great minds at Cultura have created such a wonderful experience for our community. It is such a great way to bring people together over sharing a meal.

Fleer: I thought the reboot of Chow Chow was a major win for Asheville. The strides made in celebrating a diversity of culinary and beverage voices and beginning to ask difficult questions about how the culinary community can impact social and climate issues was a significant advance in modeling what food and beverage celebrations should be. To add a personal disclaimer: I am on the Chow Chow board, but I have often been the contrarian voice.

Martinez: The Cultivated Community Dinner Series events hosted by Cultura have been one of my favorite events in the last months of the year. The space is beautiful and chef Eric Morris is doing great dishes there daily. The dinners highlight talents in our town like chefs Silver Cousler of Neng Jr’s, Jonathan Pridgen from Cúrate and J Chong. They all have unique, sincere and innovative approaches to classic dishes and experiment with new flavors. Seriously, I want this kind of event back in 2022!

Wallace: My wife, Leila, and I are bringing up our two sons and found ourselves eating out of to-go boxes for the majority of our meals. Watching Gan Shan West pivot to a delicious takeout-forward concept [was a highlight], and it became our go-to. Takeout from the new Andaaz was also a very welcome addition and at the top of our list.

What about 2021 gives you hope for the local food scene going into 2022? 

Chong: This past year, for myself included, was a year for the underdog to shine. We had so many diverse pop-ups around town that gave us a glimpse of the quality of talent that the food industry has to offer here in Asheville. I hope that Asheville and beyond can finally truly see the raw talent that this great mountain town has to offer when it comes to the local food scene. We have such a wide range of movers and shakers in this industry, and we are still going strong.

Fleer: The local food scene endured some difficult times, most certainly. But when you look around the country, it is clear that we are weathering these challenges better than many other food and restaurant communities. To me that indicates that the foundation we have built our local food scene on — great producers, collaboration and passionate chef/owners — is a really solid base to build from in 2022.

Martinez: This year was rough for the local scene, but a lot of conversations took place that needed to happen. This gives me hope that our industry is headed in a good direction where 15-hour shifts, sacrificing everything for “the rush” and constantly turning a blind eye to the substance abuse in the kitchens are not viewed as the norm. Things are changing, maybe not as fast as we need them to, but I am very optimistic that we will learn from our mistakes.

Wallace: The drive, creativity and passion I’ve seen from young chefs Chuck Baudendistle at The Admiral, Austin Inselmann at Leo’s, Seth Fowler at Baby Bull and Erin Hughes, the pastry chef of Leo’s, The Admiral and Bakesale Social, have all revived my obsession with this industry after a challenging year and questioning why to keep pushing forward. I believe 2022 will be the biggest dining year in my time.  Restaurants, and in particular fine dining, have long been troubled and in need of a revamp. We are already seeing fantastic food being served in a more comfortable manner. Our hourly employees have long deserved higher wages, and that bar has been raised.


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About Kay West
Kay West was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, StyleBlueprint Nashville, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. To kick off 2019 she put Tennessee in her rear view mirror, drove into the mountains of WNC, settled in West Asheville and appreciates that writing offers the opportunity to explore and learn her new home. She looks forward to hiking trails, biking greenways, canoeing rivers, sampling local beer and cheering the Asheville Tourists.

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