By: Carol Dreiling
For 17 years I’ve come in the back door of restaurants around the Asheville area, delivering the gourmet mushrooms my husband Pete and I grow on our farm in Alexander. I feel lucky to get a glimpse behind the scenes in these excellent eateries as they do their culinary magic. It’s like the hustle and bustle behind stage before the curtain rises.
I love the appeal to my nose that the food sends out, the smells of fine cooking that allure me as soon as I come in the door. Whether it is garlic permeating the air, or cinnamon and spices that the pastry chef is baking with, or pork roasting on wood chips, I breathe it all in with delight. I inhale the pungent oregano-and-basil tomato sauce cooking in huge pots on the stove or bread fresh out of the oven and carry their perfume with me as I make my rounds of deliveries all over town. It even seems to hang on the clothing I wear. The smells surround me like a cloud and comfort me like sunshine.
Many times I don’t literally come in the back door, because to get to the back I need to come through the front. There is food in preparation in many cases as I deliver. What you encounter as a customer of the eatery and what I encounter on the inside is a contrast. Customers see an organized eating area decorated to make you feel at ease as you dine. Coming in the back door there are huge walk-in coolers, expansive cutting boards, commercial stoves and ovens. The stage setting for food creation.
Here are the sights I’ve experienced:
- fragrant, cooling loaves of restaurant-made bread at Table
- an overflowing carton of organic produce from a local farm sitting on a counter at Early Girl
- pork being exuberantly chopped up prior to barbeque at Curras
- a basket full of wild mushrooms gathered in the woods, sitting in a cooler
- a tray of sweet little cookies ready to pop in the oven at Country Club of Asheville
- workers busy kneading dough into rounds at the Marketplace’s window production line
- trays of restaurant-made potato chips at drying at Corner
- the arranging of a simple salad on a white plate in an artistic presentation
- a knife-edge chopping fresh strawberries in season, ready for a scrumptious dessert
- a chef collecting fresh colorful veggies for a burrito with beans and rice and guacamole
- a pig’s head lying on a tray ready for preparation
a group-tasting by a large table of staff becoming acquainted with the evening’s presentations before serving.
This complex mélange of sights and smells gives me a view into the incredible amount of hard work and creativity that constitutes fine dining in the Asheville area independent restaurants.
As a behind-the-table person I receive food to taste at times.
I’ve sampled white asparagus, zucchini blossoms, fresh pita bread at Laughing Seed, herb sauce at Zambras, tomatoes in season from Fig. Sometimes I was lucky enough to come in just as the creators were mixing up their tasty foods. I even got a biscuit to take home to my dog from Lobster, made partly of leftovers from their beer-making.
The independent chefs in Asheville are committed to bringing high quality food using products from WNC. I remember in l997 two chefs organized a meeting of local growers and chefs at Asheville-Buncombe Tech’s Culinary Department. As farmers, we donated food—and the students cooked up fantastic tastings! Much networking occurred at this gathering. This was the beginning of the Buy Local movement in the Western NC mountains.
Appalachian Harvest was another big event that kicked off the Buy Local movement. In October of 2000 Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) organized a huge farmers’ market in one of the big ballrooms at the Grove Park Inn. Farmers from all over WNC packed the ballroom, selling their wares. This was a strong boost early on to those of us who were growing locally to continue in our commitment.
As our mushroom operation and other farms have grown over the years, so have the restaurants. One eatery started just at the time we did. We would trade mushrooms for food. Now we deliver our produce in boxes. Back then we would take mushrooms in bowls or grocery bags—a bag of mushrooms bartered for a meal for two. One eatery started as a window in the YMCA. Now it’s a Bistro. Our product has been used in national competitions as our eateries become more and more established in Asheville.
Now when we view the many inventive restaurants in Asheville, it’s easy to lose track of the history. I’ve lived in Asheville for 38 years and there was very little in the way of businesses downtown except for banks and lawyers offices when I first moved here. Nowadays, downtown and the outlying WNC areas are booming with creative, tasteful establishments custom-made to meet just about anyone’s taste in food. The really wonderful aspect about these eateries is they support our mountain products. These chefs form a beneficial team with farmers, adding to the quality of life for Asheville.
Carol Dreiling lives in Alexander with her husband and their dog and cat. We grow gourmet mushrooms for the restaurants and North Asheville Tailgate. Carol takes care of children at First Presbyterian Church and has her own pet sitting business in Alexander