Food Lifestyle

On a Personal Note: Ashley Espey

Ashley Espey. Photo by Lauren Stepp

By Lauren Stepp

Ashley Espey’s culinary career began when she was five years old. A winter weather system had dumped several inches of snow overnight, forcing Buncombe County schools to close. Unable to find last-minute childcare, her dad had no choice but to bring her along to the Charlotte Street Pub, where he worked as the executive chef.

“I remember sitting on an upside-down milk crate, eating a burger while he fileted salmon and chopped vegetables,” Espey says. “I couldn’t help but think, ‘Someday, I want to do this. I want to follow in his footsteps.’”

Southern fare at AMB. Photo courtesy of AMB

But even as a child, Espey knew they were big shoes to fill. Her father, Michael, was a classically trained chef who had worked at some of the most iconic eateries in Asheville, from the Stable Café at the Biltmore to the Blue Ridge Dining Room at The Omni Grove Park Inn.

His culinary prowess even captured the attention of local media outlets. In a 2004 issue of the Hendersonville Times-News, Michael poses in his chef’s whites and toque blanche during Sunday brunch at the Grove Park. “I want you to leave here saying, ‘That’s the best Sunday brunch I’ve ever had,’” he told reporters.

Determined to make her dad proud, Espey began busing tables at the Pisgah Inn at 18. In her early 20s, she got a job as a server at the Stable Café—the same restaurant where her father had worked as executive chef 10 years prior.

“My time at the Biltmore Estate was very special,” Espey says. “From catering celebrity weddings to watching the entire estate light up for Christmas, I have lots of fond memories.”

But after four years, she knew it was time to move on. And so, in 2015, she left to help open Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s taproom and restaurant in Mills River.

From there, Espey did a little bit of everything: line-cooking at various restaurants, butchering at Hickory Nut Gap Farms in Fairview, making pastries at Old World Levain Bakery in West Asheville. She and her father even worked together in the kitchen at Solstice East, a residential treatment center for youth in Weaverville.

Michael Espey, Ashley’s father. Hendersonville Times-News photo

“I wanted to learn as much as possible, knowing that someday I would step into an executive chef role,” she says.

That day came earlier this spring when Espey assumed the chef position at Appalachian Mountain Brewery (AMB) Taproom and Kitchen, the newest eatery in Mills River.

According to Taproom Manager Adam Barone, the restaurant is thrilled to welcome Espey to the position. “As a Western North Carolina native and second-generation chef, she is uniquely poised to be at the helm of our kitchen and deliver southern classics with an inspired touch,” he says.

“It’s definitely a career-defining moment,” says Espey, who, at 33 years old, is nearly 10 years younger than the average executive chef in America. She is also one of just two female executive chefs in Mills River. (Sierra Nevada’s Jessica Massie was the area’s first.)
“The food and beverage industry is male-dominated,” says Espey. “So, it feels good knowing that I’m paving the way for future female chefs.”

Sadly, Espey’s father wasn’t around to celebrate her accomplishments. In 2017, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease. He passed away two years later on May 23, 2019.

It was an immense loss for Espey. “Because he was more than just my dad,” she says. “He was my mentor, my colleague and my best friend.”

But Espey believes her father would be proud of the food she serves at AMB. Inspired by Appalachian cuisine, her menu features everything from confit chicken wings slathered in house-made sauces to thick slices of cornbread paired with sorghum butter, bacon scallion butter and smoked corn honey.

Needless to say, she has come a long way from that upside-down milk crate at the Charlotte Street Pub.

“As a kid, I set out to honor my father’s legacy,” says Espey. “In the decades since, I think I’ve done that. But I’ve also made my own legacy.”

Appalachian Mountain Brewery Taproom and Kitchen is at 46 North Mills River Road, Mills River. Hours are Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. To learn more, visit AMB.Beer or call 828.393.5618.

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