By Belle Crawford
Rhubarb owner chef John Fleer and his team pride themselves on being pioneers of locally sourced ingredients, many of which are wild foraged from the forests of Western North Carolina. This fall the restaurant is featuring dishes made with mushrooms collected by forager Craig Hastings, who tracks his mushrooms 30 miles away in Waynesville.
“Hen of the Woods only grow in the autumn,” says Hastings. “Unlike a lot of mushrooms that grow on dead trees, Hen of the Woods have a symbiotic relationship with live oak trees and can be found on the ground around the oaks’ bases.”
Hastings grew up in the mountains, but first learned about collecting wild mushrooms while living in Alaska. On returning to his Appalachian home, he studied with local forager and educator Alan Muskat before branching out to start his own restaurant supply work. “I also supply Rhubarb with wild greens, ramps and herbs in the warm months and chanterelles in the late summer and early fall,” he says. “In the right spot, chanterelles are easy to find. They grow in a mixed hardwood setting. Wait for good rain, and they’ll be all over the ground.”
Rhubarb’s sous chef Paul Cremer says it takes much less work to make wild foraged ingredients taste good. “Hen of the Woods are also known as Maitake mushrooms, and they can be cultivated indoors on logs, but they just don’t taste as good when they’re grown indoors. When you’re combining ingredients that have all come from the same region and grew outside at the same time of year, it really makes a difference. These are foods that are meant to be eaten together,” he says. “It’s the way cultures have eaten for hundreds of years.”
Cooking with wild foraged ingredients allows Cremer to experience a connection to the traditional people and ways of life that came before him. “The Cherokee used Hen of the Woods as a medicine,” he says. “There’s a real depth to wild foods that modern growing and preparation methods overlook.”
At Rhubarb, the menu changes daily, but a common iteration of the Hen of the Woods dish tosses the mushrooms in olive oil before roasting them in a woodburning oven. The mushrooms are served with a sauce crafted from curry and Bliss pumpkins brought in from local Gaining Ground Farm or are served with Candy Roaster pumpkins and chestnut dumplings wrapped and steamed in hickory leaves.
Fleer believes in the power of food to connect people, build community and provide a place where stories are shared and friendships are built. “I want Rhubarb to be where the important stuff happens,” he says. By bringing in regional and heritage foods, Fleer is tapping into the flavors and sustenance reminiscent of many of WNC’s oldest and most sacred traditions. Chef Cremer puts it this way: “Wild ingredients make the food sublime.”
Rhubarb is located at 7 SW Pack Square in downtown Asheville. Learn more at RhubarbAsheville.com.