Story by Peter Kent | Photos by Lynne Harty
Asheville and surrounding Buncombe County tally about 670 eateries, ranging from convenience food counters to white-tablecloth establishments. In all of these, the business model is essentially the same: buy ingredients, cook them and sell them for a profit. How hard can that be?
Ask an executive chef. It’s his or her job to shape a restaurant through cuisine and culinary skills, setting menus, selecting and purchasing food, overseeing storage and inventory and managing employees. In short, ensuring a delightful dining experience. After spending time with three outstanding executive chefs, I’ve decided it’s a lot more fun eating in a restaurant than running one. To those who embrace the heat and intensity: I salute you.
Corner Kitchen: Josh Weeks
It’s a Thursday evening at Corner Kitchen, a mecca for contemporary southern food with a French flare. An average night is expected at the restaurant, which is located in an 1880s house in Biltmore Village. Executive chef Josh Weeks has gone over the menu with staff, checked in with everyone from sous chef to servers, and prepped his area with garnishes, spices and sauces.
Weeks cooks alongside both the sous chef, who handles the hot side of the kitchen, and the cold-side cook. As quality control, Weeks’ hands are the last on the food before it goes out. He finishes the plates and passes them from the open kitchen to the servers. “The house was never meant to have a commercial kitchen,” says Weeks. “Having it up front is a great way for us to greet our customers.”
After 6 p.m., the pace picks up. You can hear it in the cadence of the kitchen knives. Servers buzz in and out, the phone rings at the hostess’ desk. A takeout order—eight boxes of food for a group heading to a Biltmore concert—threatens the flow from kitchen to diners. Weeks talks constantly to his team, directing them until the boxes are done. Despite some tense moments for staff, customers remain happily unaware.
Smoky Park Supper Club: Michelle Bailey
Across town, Michelle Bailey, the executive chef at Smoky Park Supper Club, is dealing with her own crunch. Parties of 15 and 20 have arrived at the trendsetting restaurant on the banks of the French Broad. As the servers enter selections, Bailey rips food tickets from the printer and parcels them out to the appropriate stations, along with timing instructions to accommodate the big orders. And timing is tricky when you’re cooking in a giant French clay oven.
“It’s a dance around the fire,” says Bailey, who uses flame and char to conjure up distinctive dishes. “You really have to watch what you’re doing. When you have a lot in the oven you have to remember the order of the skillets.”
This cooking method gives the food deeply satisfying elemental flavors and textures, which Bailey enhances with things like fresh herbs or a dusting of spices. Nothing leaves the kitchen without her touch.
Ambrozia: Sam Etheridge
Up on Merrimon Avenue, it’s a typical night at Ambrozia, where executive chef Sam Etheridge and his family live just a few blocks away. “I wanted this place to serve the neighborhood,” he says. “On any given night, I know about half the customers by name. We’re part of the neighborhood.”
Etheridge also wants to serve taste-bending food and, since his customers trust him, they’re willing to explore new flavors. The menu is ever changing. “Once I’ve cooked it, it’s out of my system,” he says. “I’d get bored cooking it again.”
There are a few exceptions such as Benn’s fried chicken—chicken confit made in duck and pork fat, then brined and fried in buttermilk and served with chili honey, a buttermilk and sage biscuit, country ham gravy and succotash.
“Benn came to me after he had the chicken and said if I ever took it off the menu he’d quit coming here,” says Etheridge, who promised to keep it on—and put Benn’s name on it. That’s the power and prerogative of the executive chef.
Peter Kent is a writer and audio producer who focuses on Appalachia’s culinary tastes, traditions and sense of place.