Year in Review: Local chefs reflect on the highs and lows of 2022

THREE OF A KIND: Asheville's top chefs contemplate the local food industry's 2022 achievements and setbacks. Featured, starting left, are Katie Button, Steve Goff and Meherwan Irani. Photo credits, starting left, Evan Sung, Sam Goff and Tim Robison

Staffing issues, supply chain woes and rising costs have all made running a restaurant, particularly challenging over the last few years. But amid these obstacles, local chefs and restaurateurs have continued to find ways to not simply survive but thrive in 2022.

Xpress reached out to members of the local food industry to see how they’re feeling after another demanding year. Participants include Katie Button, whose restaurant Cúrate won this year’s James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Hospitality; Steve Goff, who took over ownership of Tastee Diner earlier this year with his wife, Sam; and Meherwan Irani, whose restaurant Chai Pani earned the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Restaurant. Both Irani and Button served as grand marshals at this year’s 76th annual Asheville Holiday Parade.

What dish do you think best represents Asheville in 2022 and why?

Button: For this, I’m choosing J Chong‘s chili oil. The theme that I have been seeing in 2022 is chefs in Asheville pursuing their authentic selves, and we couldn’t be happier about it. Just a few examples are J Chong‘s Cantonese food paired with her Canadian upbringing; chef Silver Iocovozzi launching Neng Jr., a Filipinx restaurant; and Iris Rodriguez‘s Little Chango. Increasingly, Asheville’s food is a reflection of its people — authentic, self-storytelling through food.

Goff: Asheville is such a melting pot of talented chefs, farmers and artisans that it’s hard and feels somewhat unfair to pick a single dish to represent our city and our people. We had a slew of great openings from Neng Jr. to The Trashy Vegan to La Bodega. The old guard is also still standing strong. I’m so proud to be a part of this food scene!

Irani: I can’t just pick one! If I had to, the Nordic deviled eggs at Vivian are a perfect bite. The classic (and very Southern) deviled egg is transformed with smoked fish and chopped cornichons and then topped with caviar. It’s such a classic Asheville menu item — a humble dish so unexpectedly elevated with impeccable technique and global flavor by an immensely talented chef. Honorary mention must go to the radicchio, ricotta and black garlic at Cucina 24 — [chef and owner] Brian Canipelli sources everything from [Evan Chender of] The Culinary Gardener.

In what ways did the local food industry thrive this year? 

Button: For the first time in almost three years, the restaurant industry felt a little push of forward momentum. We saw really fun and interesting new concepts opening, pop-ups featuring independent chefs and new names on the scene. It is all very exciting. A lot of new restaurants are also considering living wages and new standards of pay — driving the industry here to be more thoughtful and intentional.

Goff: I was soooo excited to see Asheville Food and Beverage United come together and stand up for the rights of the folx in our industry. I salute them! Seeing a group rise to combat some of the massive issues in our industry that have plagued it since its inception is such a breath of fresh air.

Irani: Five eateries in Asheville were nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award in 2022 — no other city in the country had that many nominations.  That’s a stunning accomplishment for our city and, I believe, has cemented our reputation as a culinary destination. That drives tourism, attracts talented young cooks and chefs, allows restaurants to justify pricing their menus in line with the true cost of doing business and allows our local farm and maker communities to thrive.

What concerned you most about the restaurant industry in 2022?  

Button: The continuation of the slow recovery from the pandemic. It has been longer and harder than we all thought. As we look into the future, we see how anticipation of further inflation is weighing on our team. We have been talking about it a lot, and trying to keep wages at pace is a challenge. It feels like we are on the cusp of a good balance but that the target keeps moving. At the end of the day, we are all concerned about how Asheville will be impacted if the economy recesses.

Goff: The rising cost of goods, which is not set to stop anytime soon, has me literally shaking in my boots. I pride myself on being able to provide big value for the money spent in my establishment, and I also pride myself on giving my staff a sustainable work environment and living wages, as well as purchasing sustainable product from local sources. It’s getting harder and harder to provide quality ingredients and living wages and affordable products. I keep my nose to the ground researching and staying abreast of how to provide all three, but it ain’t an easy task.

Irani: Inflation and the shortage of employees. With notoriety comes expectations, and I think it’s critical for Asheville restaurants to maintain the quality of food and service, innovation and caring hospitality while supporting our local producers that make us such a unique and special dining destination, which put us on the map in the first place. Inflation often forces restaurants to make difficult decisions with what ingredients to buy and from where, as they balance menu pricing that doesn’t drive away customers. And employee shortages and turnover affect the service experience and consistency. I’m worried that a large part of the labor shortage is due to the high cost of living in Asheville, parking expenses downtown and no practical public transportation for anyone living outside the city limits.

What event, dish or opening made your year and why?

Button: The April opening of the upstairs of La Bodega by Cúrate was an incredible feat for our team. It has been a blast to see the evolution of chef Matt Brown‘s menu — a great brunch, easy lunch options and a fun, celebratory dinner. The space feels like a personal and authentic version of us. Decorated with paintings from Felix [Meane’s] late father, it is a bright and fun place to enjoy all day. My favorite seat is looking out at the dining room from the corner seat at the bar.

Goff: I got to attend the opening of La Bodega and, gosh dang, was it everything I have been wanting! Escargot en brioche, tinned fish, great charcuterie, excellent bread — it was the perfect clean yet rustic upscale goodness we needed. The personal touches from Félix and the Button family built into the space is truly top-notch.

Irani: The Garden & Gun’s Made in the South Awards were held in Asheville this year, and Chai Pani hosted a Bollywood dance party at Citizen Vinyl, which was one of my favorite events of the year. Where else but in Asheville could you find nominees for the best of Southern products celebrating to Bollywood dance and music and eating Indian street food in a locally owned vinyl printing factory?

Any bold predictions for the food industry come 2023?

Button: I think that restaurants are going to find more ways to reach people outside of the dining room. We are seeing it through curateathome.com and Goldbelly, where our products are available for shipping all over the country, along with Cúrate Trips. There has been incredible interest in experiences beyond the plate and restaurant, and we predict this interest will only continue to expand.

Goff: I mean, I hope to keep seeing the movement toward sustainable environments at work and living wages dominating the conversation. Everyone in the restaurant industry has been chronically underpaid from dish to buzzer to executive chef for as long as I’ve been in this industry, and the end to that can’t come soon enough!

Irani: Asheville has the potential to be a thought leader within the restaurant industry in terms of sustainability — not just in sourcing ingredients but in business practices, employee growth, culture, retention, community service, work-life balance and so much more. I think we have an opportunity for being known not just for exceptional food and concepts but for exceptional restaurant culture and for business models that break the mold. The number of chefs and owners in the food industry in Asheville who are involved in activism for the betterment of the industry is inspiring and motivating.

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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