It is easy to forget how blessed we are to have such a vibrant food scene in a city as small as Asheville. After all, we eat this food on a regular basis, and it is not uncommon for me to hear locals complaining or claiming that our culinary landscape is overrated or overhyped. We are exposed to quality so often that we forget that some cities don’t have it as good as we do. But what if a reputable New York-based food magazine took notice? What would professional eaters from one of the most famous food cities in the world think of our tiny foodie bubble?
“We loved visiting Asheville,” said Antoinette Bruno, chief executive officer and editor-in-chief of Star Chefs magazine. “I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t what I expected!”
Since 2002, the folks at Star Chefs have been roving the country seeking out top-notch food. Having profiled and issued awards everywhere from cities like New York to regions as broad as South Florida, Star Chefs has now decided to profile North and South Carolina for its latest cluster of honors, the Rising Star awards, which are given to stand-out industry professionals younger than 40.
Rising Star categories include the traditional Chef, Pastry Chef, Mixologist and Sommelier, as well as new categories such as Hotel Chef, Sustainability Chef, Community Award, Concept Award, Star Restaurateur and Star Mentor. The organization is looking at hundreds of restaurants in the Carolinas and will recognize 10-16 standouts as Rising Stars of the Carolinas sometime in the coming week. After making two visits to Charleston, S.C. and spending a week in the Raleigh-Durham area, Bruno and her team made a week-long trip to Asheville and its surrounding areas, including Highlands, Candler, Banner Elk and Spruce Pines. After sitting through more than 30 tastings in our area restaurants (that means five restaurants a day for six straight days), the panel was able to glean a good understanding of what is going on in the world of Asheville’s foodtopia.
“We came across a vibrant individuality that every chef is striving to express, but there’s also this camaraderie where each chef within Asheville is trying to one-up each other in a positive way," said Bruno. "They seem to spar and push each other to be the best that they can be.”
Among the many local restaurants visited by Star Chefs was the oft-celebrated Curaté. “I appreciate that they are focusing on the Carolinas, because it is difficult for us to compete with major cities," said Curaté Chef Katie Button. “We’re just 80,000 people.” Button, who was a semifinalist for the James Beard awards in 2013 and 2012, has been garnering a lot of national attention for the Asheville food scene, getting visits from such high-profile friends as the famed chef Jose Andres and hosting dinner for pop-food icons like Anthony Bourdain.
Bruno thanked Andres via Twitter for referring her to Button. One way Star Chefs identifies and vets candidates is peer nominations. “I have no idea who else is nominated,” said Button, “but they did ask me to recommend people in the area who I thought fit their description. And not only chefs but [people] in the food industry.”
The team also paid a visit to The Market Place restaurant with Chef William Dissen, who whipped up some crispy sweet breads with North Carolina barbecue sauce, celery salad and blue cheese. “To be nominated out of both North and South Carolina is a pretty big honor,” said Dissen, after being told of the number of nominees for the awards. “It speaks tremendously of how the food scene is just exploding here.” One standout to Star Chefs was a visit with nomadic chef Elliot Moss (formerly of the Admiral and Ben’s Tuneup). “He was phenomenal,” said Bruno of Moss, “We had a great tasting with him. But unfortunately he can’t win because our rules state that he has to be employed by a restaurant." Since leaving Ben’s Tune Up in August, Moss has been making cross-city guest appearances at places such as Cucina24 and Seven Sows, as well as hosting his own pop-up dinners at the house of local artist Gabriel Shaffer. “It happens in every city," Bruno said. "There is always someone you want to win that doesn’t meet our criteria.”
“All chefs wanna be excellent [and] make good food, but in Asheville, it's about being different, weird, an individual!” Bruno tweeted from her personal account, summarizing what many of us already know about the amazing food in our fair city. And while Star Chefs did check out nominees all over North and South Carolina, I have a feeling that when the panel makes up its mind about the Rising Stars of the Carolinas, we will see on a national scale how special our food scene is.