Down South: 3 Meals Worth Sharing in Western North Carolina

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It’s no secret that I’m proud of my home state. Talk to me for at least five minutes and I’m bound to identify myself as a North Carolinian at least once (accent not included). Hear me out, though—foodwise, I have good reason.

I traveled back home last week for early Thanksgiving celebrations and had three different and exceptional farm-to-table experiences. The first was a grassfed Red Devon steak from Firefly Farms in Celo, NC. My dad, a farmer and cow breeder, has been supplying their hay for a couple of years and recently bartered several round bails in exchange for several rib eyes (smart one, Dad).

He seasoned them simply with salt, pepper and a little garlic before grilling them to a supple medium-rare temperature. Apparently, this steak can both deliver nuanced flavor while melting in your mouth, and that’s with only a minuscule amount of fat. It was lean, springy and an excellent complement to our vinegar-splashed turnip greens and hot corn bread. I think my dad may have found his muse.

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Baker Dave Bauer stone-milling. Facebook / All Souls Pizza

The next meal came from a restaurant that I’ve been waiting to eat at since before it opened. All Souls Pizza in Asheville, NC, is the collaboration of two of North Carolina’s local food leaders: Dave Bauer of Farm & Sparrow bakery and Brendan Reusing of Laurey’s Cafe and Catering (as well as the award winning Lantern in Chapel Hill, NC, where his sister, Andrea Reusing, is the chef).

A quick glance over the menu reveals a pizza joint serving local ingredients with a strong Mediterranean influence. My dad and I split earthy roasted beets with dill horseradish cream; a smokey crimini mushroom, rosemary, potato, roasted garlic and mozzarella wood-fired pizza (we added bacon); a couple pints of French Broad Brewing Company‘s fragrant Rye Hopper; a one-buck shot of tart kvass and an off-the-menu delight: juicy beef marrow garnished with what tasted like a butter bath of garlic and parsley. It was a rustic Italian-Appalachian meal—and thanks to them, there is such a thing.

Perhaps the strongest evidence of their commitment to supporting local food systems are their grains. Everything from the traditional pizza crust to their gluten-free polenta is grown from regional heirloom varieties that Bauer stone-mills himself. You can read more about his baking and milling process in Brooklynite Jen Causey’s newest book, Southern Makers, which is the follow-up to her popular Brooklyn Makers.

The last of several beautiful meals came from Knife & Fork in Spruce Pine, NC. I’ll go ahead and say that I have an extremely biased soft spot in my heart for this place since they figured out a way to serve (among other relatively exotic things) some of Murray’s most pungent cheeses in the rural mountain county where I grew up.

Chef Nate Allen and his wife, Wendy Gardner, opened the restaurant back in 2009 after having worked in several notable kitchens including chef Suzanne Goin’s Lucques in Los Angeles. Wendy is a local, and she and Nate wanted to return to create one of the most farm-to-table restaurants that you’ll ever find. Seriously, you’re likely to be sitting in the dining room with a farmer who grew the ingredients of your meal.

Beyond the food, Nate and Wendy are consistently looking to innovate within the “local” experience. For example, this past July, they hosted a “cup and plate” meal (see the slideshow above) where all the tableware—from the stemware to the cheeseboards—was handcrafted by nearby artists. How often is it that we demand that our plates and glasses are locally sourced, too?

I’ve had many meals at Knife & Fork since they opened and even when I worked there, I never saw the same menu twice. Such was the case this past Saturday when I had warm roasted beets with radishes, arugula and Ewephoria Gouda; banchan trout with housemade kimchi (with a strong hint of fresh ginger) and spicy mayo; and Taleggio grilled cheese with green tomato chutney alongside a classic French onion soup. Paired with a dry cider, the meal was consistent with my past meals there: simply prepared, vegetable-oriented and thoughtfully served.

Most fields lie fallow during the approaching cold months, which usually marks the restaurant’s off-season. Not this year, though. If you’re in the area, I urge you to seek out their special “series of culinary adventures” where they’ll be tuning in to the restaurant’s alter, non-locally sourcing, ego to serve dinners inspired by Mexican, Italian, Indian, Chinese, French, Chicagoan and Spanish cuisine. They may be leaders of the farm-to-table mantra, but we sometimes have to do what we can to get through the winter.

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We included a recipe for Firefly Farm’s boeuf bourguignon in one of last month’s weekly roundups. It’s sure to warm your bones on a cold night.

Contributing artists to Knife & Fork’s “cup and plate” meal include Kathryn Adams, gwyndolen yoppolo, Elisa Di Feo and Nick Moen

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