Chefs of the Mountains
Some of Jessee Roque’s earlier cooking experiences include making soufflés in a kitchen so hot she wore a bikini. The chef of Never Blue (Hendersonville) and Blue Gypsy (Saluda) is one of forty chefs and restaurants profiled in a new guide to Western North Carolina by John E. Batchelor sure to compel readers and eaters out of their hot kitchens for a chance at new experiences and a return to old favorites.
Batchelor, who has reviewed North Carolina restaurants for the News and Record (Greensboro) and Winston-Salem Journal, relied on several sources, including the Western North Carolina Chef’s Challenge, the Fire on the Rock Chef’s Challenge, Best Dish North Carolina competition, and the Foodtopian Society for his book.
While Batchelor’s guide is by no means comprehensive—not every chef and restaurant contacted responded to his invitation for an interview—it provides an overview of the variety of culinary options available. The work brings into focus the region’s farm-to-table emphasis, in which North Carolinians are seeing “a generational phenomenon of family members moving off the farm, often going to college and starting careers, but eventually returning to the land and readopting a lifestyle and approach to farming closely mirroring those from a hundred or more years ago.”
Each entry follows a standard style. Readers learn about each chef’s origins, education, and work history in food service; a morsel or two regarding the kitchen atmosphere, such as the kind of grunt work one needed to work one’s way up the hierarchy; or how to balance fun with perfection, if that’s possible. Often readers learn about kitchen catastrophes, like when Spruce Pine’s Knife and Fork “found fuses blown on our only refrigerator, and $3,000 to $4,000 worth of food ruined. We not only had to throw it away, we had to figure out how to completely restock and prepare for our busiest night, in about three hours.” Next, readers learn about each restaurant, how it was established, how it approaches prep, cooking, service, and customer satisfaction, and how it supports the local economy and local farmers. And last, each chef shares one or more recipes from his or her menu.
In Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay, Christopher Benfey traces the origins of American art and Southern pottery via recollections of family history, interweaving travelogue with memoir that brings him to the Smoky Mountains in search of “the fine white clay in Cherokee country,” reminiscent of a pot his parents bought at the Cherokee Artists’ Collective in 1949 while honeymooning.
Clay, stoneware pottery, Japanese (and Chinese) pottery, and Black Mountain College appear in Benfey’s narrative as he traces their intersection across centuries, the piedmont, and the mountains. Benfey’s mother, Rachel Elizabeth Thomas, was the daughter and granddaughter of brickmakers and bricklayers. Benfey’s childhood home in Indiana was filled with Jugtown pottery and other pieces from North Carolina potters. On a family trip to Japan in 1970, Benfey had the opportunity to live and work with a potter and his family, the Takedas, in Tachikui. Benfey alternates this narrative with time he spent in Pittsboro, N.C., with Mark Hewitt, a potter whose “monumental pots—glazed in the rich oranges and juicy alkaline browns of traditional Southern folk pottery and studded with bits of partially melted blue glad—were of truly Ali Baba-esque proportions.” He puts into context the English potter’s practice by comparing it to nineteenth century North Carolina pottery practices “when potters made large-scale whiskey jugs and grave markers.”
Benfey’s father’s aunt and uncle, Josef and Anni Albers, fled the Bauhaus in 1933 due to Nazi pressure. Offered refuge outside Asheville at the experimental Black Mountain College, the Albers stayed fifteen years, “bringing the Bauhaus to Black Mountain” by attracting John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Ruth Asawa, Robert Rauchenberg, Buckminster Fuller, Willem de Kooning, Cy Twombly, and Jacob Lawrence to create, teach, and study in the Great Smoky Mountains surrounding them.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park itself inspired Albers and his students. Through collage and color Albers’ work reflected the geographic change, as did Anni Albers, whose jewelry making included parts fashioned from ordinary found objects like bobby pins, paper clips, and faucet washers.