APPALACHIAN CHEF SPOTLIGHT
In the last few years, a resurgence has been occurring in kitchens all across the southeastern United States. Dishes that have been enjoyed for generations, flavors that have been cultivated with love and care are making their way into restaurants in ways that are both exciting and challenging.
Appalachian cuisine is a style that, for many, takes them home. It reminds them of their childhood, of summer days spent lazily on the front porch, of cool winter nights huddled inside to stay warm. Chef Shelley Cooper, head chef of our Appalachian Bistro at Dancing Bear Lodge, is part of a movement that is seeking to bring the flavors, ingredients, and dishes that have so long been a staple in the diets of those in Appalachia into the limelight. Joining her in this quest are quite a few figures.America’s ’25 Most Romantic Restaurants’ by TripAdvisor
Shelley Cooper is the Executive Chef of Culinary Operations for Oldham Properties LLC. She directs all food operations and is responsible for culinary talent at Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro and Apple Valley Mountain Village in Townsend, Tennessee. Prior to this, she was the Executive Chef at TerraMae Appalachian Bistro in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
She was born in Memphis, Tennessee, into a family that revolved around a bountiful table always filled with farm-fresh Southern cuisine. Her maternal family hails from the Mississippi Delta and her father from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. She credits this combination with providing her Southern culinary roots.
Both families placed a high regard for fresh, seasonal, and “made from scratch” foods, as well as instilling the appreciation of pure simple ingredients. Shelley could not help but be positively affected by such inherent passion.
She was professionally trained at Johnson and Wales Culinary Institute in Charleston, South Carolina, and The San Francisco Baking Institute. Chef Shelley honed her craft at Belfair Club in Hilton Head, South Carolina, 30° Blue at Bay Point Resort in Florida, Craggy Range Winery in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, First and Hope Supper Club in Los Angeles, Alaska Expedition on the Gulf of Alaska, and Monettes Artisan Seafood on the big island of Hawaii.
Now she is tapping into her true roots and fully embracing her heritage at Dancing Bear. The culmination of her life travels and culinary passion have merged to create her unique version of highbrow Appalachian fare.
MIKE COSTELLO & AMY DAWSON
Based at Lost Creek Farm in north central West Virginia, Chef Mike Costello and his partner Amy Dawson share story-rich regional cuisine in Appalachia and across the eastern U.S. Both West Virginia natives with strong connections to family farms and traditional foodways, Mike and Amy offer a creative take on menus that include heritage foods such as Spanish charcuterie, salt-rising bread, wild harvested ingredients, and a variety of heirloom crops grown on their 180 acre farm. In 2018, Mike and Amy–along with their vinegar pie, Logan Giant pole beans, and Bloody Butcher corn–were featured on CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.
Chef Ian Boden began his culinary journey in 1991 at age 13 with Master French Chef Marc Fusilier. A graduate of New England Culinary Institute, Boden has had the opportunity to work in many celebrated kitchens, including Payard Patisserie and Bistro (NYC), Judson Grill (NYC), Prince Michel Vineyard Restaurant (VA) and Westfield’s International Conference Center (VA).
Before returning to his Virginian roots, Boden was the executive chef at Home Restaurant in New York City. During his tenure, Chef Boden was included as a “Critic’s Pick” in the first addition of the Michelin Guide. Some highlights from his culinary career include” cooking for a sold-out event at the James Beard House in New York City; cooking with his mentor, Marc Fusilier for the Escoffier 100th Anniversary Dinner; cooking for Share Our Strength’s Taste of a Nation to help feed the hungry in New York and cooking for Hillary Clinton’s New York Farm Day to promote local agriculture. Boden is also proud to be instrumental in the development of the Shenandoah Buy Fresh Buy Local chapter, and continues to support forty plus local family farms through the ever changing menu of his contemporary Virginian cuisine.
Chef Boden’s first restaurant, The Staunton Grocery in Staunton, VA, opened in January 2007, receiving regional and national recognition in several publications including; Virginia Living Magazine, Southern Living Magazine, Northern Virginia Magazine, Garden & Gun Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Post, Atlantic Monthly, Edible Blue Ridge Magazine, Flavor Magazine, The Washington Post, and The Washingtonian, as well as receiving the Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence. Over its last three years in operation, The Staunton Grocery received the “Dinner’s Choice” award from both Opentable and TripAdvisor which are nominated by guests of the restaurant, as well as the “Critic’s Pick” by Fodor’s Travel Guide. His success here lead his recipes to be published in books including the Southern Living Cookbook “1001 Ways to Cook Southern.
Boden closed his restaurant in December of 2011 and accepted the position of executive chef at Glass Haus Kitchen in Charlottesville, VA in early 2012. Under his culinary leadership, the restaurant was recognized on Eater National’s Heat Map; it garnered 2.5 stars (out of 4) from Food Critic Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post, and Boden was nominated for the “Best Chef Mid-Atlantic” award by the James Beard Foundation.
Then in 2013, Boden returned to Staunton, VA to open his community spirited, causal 26-seat restaurant, The Shack. With a limited reservations policy, The Shack offers service and food one would not normally associate with its simplistic setting. Here Boden showcases his pre fixe three-course ($45) and four-course ($55) ambitious tasting menu available Friday and Saturday nights, with an a la carte menu served on Wednesday and Thursday nights. The Shack has been featured in The Wall Street Journal; named one of the places for “Best Burgers in the South” by Garden & Gun Magazine and was featured in the “December 2014 coverage of “Where We are Going in 2015,” by the magazine as well. The Shack was recognized by Southern Living Magazine as one of the “Best New Restaurants” and Esquire Magazine tapped The Shack for the “Best Dish” award for 2014 Restaurant Issue. Blogs Eat Like A Man and Eater National have also both recognized The Shack.
A welcomed guest chef throughout the country, Boden participated in the “Indie Chef Week” in Southern California in October 2014. He also was a featured chef in November at “The Metropolitan Cooking & Entertaining Show” and won a 2014 StarChefs.com “Washington, DC Area Rising Stars Award” while creating one of their favorite dishes of the year. Then in January, 2015, Boden was named among of the “People to Watch,” by Restaurant Hospitality and he returned to cook at the acclaimed James Beard House in New York in February. He was also tapped as a featured guest chef for the Local Palate dinner on March 5th for the Charleston Food & Wine Festival.
Boden also has plans underway to open a second restaurant in Staunton with chef and restaurant partner Charlie Brassard. The two chefs met working at Judson Grill. Their upcoming collaboration will have approximately 30 seats and feature innovative cooking incorporating farm fresh local produce for which Boden has become known in the region.
Fleer, A native of Winston-Salem, NC, was named one of the “Rising Stars of the 21st Century” by the James Beard Foundation and is a five-time finalist for the James Beard “Best Chef in the Southeast” award with his most recent nomination occurring in 2017.
While attending Duke University as a Religion and Philosophy major, John was inspired by the “culture of food” that he experienced while traveling in Italy. After finishing up at Duke, John, looking to pay for graduate school at UNC, began his culinary career rolling pasta and baking black tie pie at Aurora Restaurant in Carrboro. Moved by his experience, Fleer enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America seeking to explore the culinary arts.
After completing a fellowship at one of the CIA’s restaurants and a stint as personal chef to Mary Tyler Moore, Fleer joined Blackberry Farm, a 4,200-acre estate that includes a luxury hotel and restaurant, where he served as Executive Chef from 1992 until 2007.
Working at Blackberry Farm, John helped establish the unique “foothills cuisine”, a style that blurred the line between refined and rugged, fancy and familiar. His cooking style focused on interpreting the regional food offerings through classical and traditional techniques, eventually catapulting the resort to the honor of Relais Gourmand.
John took his first step back across the Blue Ridge from Tennessee in May of 2009, to open Canyon Kitchen at Lonesome Valley in Cashiers, NC where his food was paired with what many consider one of the most beautiful restaurants in the country. In 2015, John left Canyon Kitchen to devote his time to Rhubarb, his current restaurant in Asheville.
John is actively engaged in creating community, both in Asheville and, more broadly, in the Southeast, spreading his love of local food and adding a unique twist to his dishes.
Hailing from rural Southwestern Virginia, Travis Milton spent his childhood in a true Appalachian kitchen, learning the proper method for shucking beans, preserving produce through canning, and planting gardens—all under the tutelage of his great (and great-great) grandparents. A reverence for the traditions and heritage of Southern cooking was instilled in Milton from his earliest days spent behind the counter of the Village, a restaurant in Castlewood, Virginia, owned by his great grandparents.
Milton moved to Richmond to attend school and started cooking on his own in his early teens, initially just as a way to make money doing something familiar. Soon, jobs in the kitchen became more than just income, and before long Milton was staging in kitchens across the country, like Todd Gray’s Equinox in D.C. and Chris Cosentino’s Incanto in San Francisco. When Milton joined his friend and fellow Virginian Jason Alley to work as chef de cuisine at Comfort in Richmond, he realized his ability to combine the memories of his family’s kitchen with the techniques of his mentors, creating composed and modern Appalachian dishes.
It was with these two culinary traditions in mind that Milton left Comfort and embarked on his dream of a genuine Appalachian restaurant. His first Appalachian-centric restaurant, Milton’s at the Western Front, opened in February 2018 as a meat-and-three. The menu includes not only staunchly Appalachian items such as Chili Buns and Pepperoni Rolls, but will also feature dishes like Hungarian Goulash, reflecting the rich food culture of the Eastern European immigrants who settled in Southwestern Virginia.
Hickory at Nicewander Farm, opening in late 2018 and early 2019 respectively, will represent both aspects of Milton’s background (“both sides of my brain,” as he puts it) by showcasing a modern take on the comforting foods of his youth, while also serving a more rustic take on those traditions as well. Rare Heirloom fruits and vegetables will be at the forefront of all the menus, from more than 65 different varieties of indigenous beans (his favorite being greasy beans) to rare varieties of squash, originally cultivated by Native Americans will be grown, served and preserved on site.
Outside his restaurants, Milton is at the forefront of the grassroots effort working to preserve the heritage of the Appalachia kitchen. A conversation among fellow Appalachian chefs on a Facebook thread turned into the creation of the Appalachian Food Summit, for which Milton serves on the board of directors. He also works to highlight the rich history of the area in conjunction with the Central Appalachian Food Heritage Project, the Clinch River Valley Initiative, and the Virginia Food Heritage Project.
Milton spends much of his free time traveling to Virginia farms and fostering relationships with purveyors across the state. When not in the kitchen, his favorite place to be is sitting on his front porch, enjoying his whiskey collection and listening to 90’s R&B records.
Ashley is a North Carolina native. She has traveled to work, eat, and cook from age seventeen and will continue this journey until she is very old. Ashley has planted roots in the mountains of Asheville, creating a community in this region since 2002. Places that shifted her perspective and laid the path that she walks today have been: Restaurant Five & Ten, Farm and Sparrow Bakery, Eleven Madison Park, MG Road Bar and Lounge, Rhubarb, Buxton Hall Barbecue and teaching at Asheville Buncombe Technical Community College. Her dedication to pastry work is serious, obsessive, blended with a humble disposition.
She always gives credit to the people she works alongside. She has been apart of teams that received national acclaim including Bon Appetit’s Top 50 Best New Restaurants, Southern Living’s 100 Best New Restaurants Southeast, Bon Appetit’s Top 10 Best New Restaurants 2016, Southern Living’s Best Restaurants 2016. In February 2019, Ashley was recognized by the James Beard Foundation as a semifinalist for the Outstanding Pastry Chef category and also joined the board for the Appalachian Food Summit.
Ashley’s values are woven into her work. Supporting small farms, connecting to producers, and using seasonal ingredients are important to her. She finds fulfillment in teaching and creative collaboration.
Sean was the chef of McCrady’s in Charleston, South Carolina for the past 12 years. As the Founding Chef of the Husk restaurant concepts throughout the American South, Sean is known all over the southeast for his culinary prowess.
This fall Chef Brock is set to embark on his first solo venture and open his own flagship restaurants in a sprawling 10,000 square foot complex in East Nashville, TN. This space is being created by Sean as a way to explore the possibilities of Appalachian food.
Raised in rural Virginia, Sean has, for the past 20 years, been involved in the repatriation of the Southern pantry and the revival of Appalachian cuisine. Brock won the James Beard Award for Best Chef, Southeast in 2010, and is a four-time finalist for Outstanding Chef, as well as a three-time finalist for Rising Star Chef. His New York Times Bestselling cookbook, Heritage, won the 2015 James Beard Award for American Cooking. Brock hosted season 2 of the Emmy Award-winning television show Mind of a Chef, produced by Anthony Bourdain and is currently featured on the popular Netflix show, Chef’s Table. Sean is slated to release the highly anticipated follow-up to his first cookbook this fall.
Most recently, Sean started a lifelong project entitled “Before it’s Too Late” dedicated to recording and sharing the cultural and culinary wisdom of the American South. This project includes a podcast, his personal photography, and eventually a large format book to showcase his discoveries, insights, and wisdom.
Born and raised in Aiken, South Carolina, Chef Christopher Huerta’s passion for food stems from watching his Grandmother prepare traditional southern dishes. At the age of 15 he took his first job in a local coffee shop and bakery where he was responsible for all the daily baking. In 2000 at the age of 17 Chris was given an amazing opportunity to work with renowned Chef, Guenter Seeger as a prep cook. Chef Seeger partnered with The Garrett Hotel Group to open Seeger’s at The Willcox, in one of Aiken’s Historic Hotels. Under Chef Seeger’s direction Chris embraced his passion for cooking and developed a wealth of culinary knowledge, skill and discipline. It was here he learned the emphasis of cooking with only the finest and freshest ingredients.
During his time working under Chef Seeger, Chris was given the opportunity to spend two summers working for the Garrett Hotel Groups famed Relais & Châteaux’s, Lake Placid Lodge and The Point in the Adirondacks of New York where he worked his way through all aspects of the kitchen. Working for these boutique hotels furthered his interest in guest awareness of the quality of food that they are receiving. In 2004 Chris moved to Atlanta to work and train directly under Guenter Seeger in his Mobil Five Star, AAA Five Diamond, Relais & Châteaux’s flagship restaurant, Seeger’s. Chris found his experience working for Guenter to be life changing.
When Seeger’s closed its doors in 2006, Chris discovered the beautiful mountains of Highlands, NC. He took on the position of Sous Chef at Madison’s Restaurant at Old Edwards Inn and Spa. When joined a couple of years later by Executive Chef Johannes Klapdohr, their respective philosophies and techniques grew stronger and became a unified vision. In 2011, Chef Huerta and Chef Klapdohr started Madison’s Organic Garden at The Farm at Old Edwards. Chef Huerta was promoted to Chef de Cuisine shortly after, and then to Executive Chef of Old Edwards Hospitality Group upon Klapdohr’s departure in November 2015. Chef Huerta is passionate about carefully crafting all aspects of the dining experience, beginning with agricultural practices and carrying through to the presentation and guest experience.
Ryan is a Yankee transplant to Asheville, NC hailing from Hastings, PA. After graduating with high honors from Indiana University of Pennsylvania Academy of Culinary Arts Ryan completed his externship at the prestigious Biltmore Estate in Asheville. Ryan continued on at the Biltmore for 2 years before accepting the Sous Chef Position at Storm Rhum Bar and Bistro in downtown Asheville. During his time at Storm, Ryan was named a Rising Culinary Star by the Asheville Citizen-Times.
Multiple collaborations with Blind Pig, and staging throughout some of the Southeast’s Best restaurants led Ryan to be named Executive Chef/General Manager of Buffalo Nickel in West Asheville at age 25. Ryan served his post for two years before moving on to become the Chef at Adam Bannasch’s Zambra in downtown Asheville. Ryan now showcases his farm-to-table eclectic global cuisine and heads the culinary team at Zambra. Zambra has recently been named the most romantic restaurant in North Carolina by the USA today, and has been consistently been named most romantic and best wine list by the Mountain Express of Asheville, NC.
Outside of work Ryan enjoys golfing and spending time with his wife Catherine and their pit bull Blueberry.
Deeply rooted in Southern tradition with a contemporary approach to locally sourced ingredients, Chef Kent Graham brings an honest approach to food that is otherwise lost in technique. Classically trained, he started at his mother’s apron strings in Memphis, Tennessee. With both Father and Mother having a heavy appreciation for the arts, Kent’s youth was spent enriched with culture and education. Creating beauty and bringing it to life was a pastime in the Graham home. Following his love of food, Kent studied at the hands of very talented mentors across the country. He has cooked in France, Spain, Scotland, New York City, Napa Valley, Jackson Hole, Atlanta, and throughout the South with. He now makes his home in Atlanta, Georgia.
A Chef, a farmer, a huntsman; Kent introduces diversity to classic southern offerings. With a heavy concentration on locally sourced and crafted foods, he uses naturally raised or grown ingredients to highlight the cornerstone of his culinary philosophy – “Keep it local; Keep it fresh; Keep it simple.” Moving forward, Kent hopes to break the mundane, over cooked, tired thoughts of Southern food over saturated with butter and all too commercial ideals with his new projects.
As a Southern Foodways Alliance member and grass roots Southern boy, he looks to bring the heritage… history… stories…memories… back to Southern dining. Kent has been featured in magazines and one television throughout the South. He has been a repeat participant Charleston Wine + Food, Euphoria and a guest chef at Popup dinners and supper clubs. He gives his time to cook with St. Jude and other organizations on fundraising events. He is proud to be partnering with KaTom.
Alex Gass grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where his late mother and nanny owned and operated a catering company, which Gass was forced to help with as a child. While he despised it then as a boy, working closely with food throughout his life has taught him the importance of local farms and tending the land. “People want to be connected back to where their food originated,” Gass says.
He carries with him the lessons and techniques he acquired from his family into his culinary career, which started as a teenager at Big Ed’s Pizza. He worked for several restaurants in the area before finding his dream job. “My first passion in life was music, but true passion is making people happy,” Gass says. He combined his love of music and cooking for years on the road, cooking for musicians on tour. From Widespread Panic to Elton John, and Van Halen to Chris Stapleton, Gass was able to cook custom meals for a variety of artists, and was in bliss. Being on the road for several months out of the year was hard on Gass and his wife and children, so he decided to work closer to home while keeping connected to both music and cooking.
He helped open the Knoxville Babalu, and through facilitating secret pop-up dinners around the region, he was introduced to Aubrey’s Inc. and worked at Bistro By the Tracks. While Gass has been with The Walnut Kitchen since 2017, he has been the executive chef since March 2019. He continues to keep relationships with local farmers a priority, and those ingredients drive the seasonal menu at The Walnut Kitchen. “I want to have The Walnut Kitchen be as sustainable and wholesome as possible. Chef tasting experiences are a great way to highlight who we are.”
Erik Hoover is the Executive Chef and owner of Cockeye BBQ in Warren, Ohio. A graduate of Johnson and Wales in Charleston, South Carolina, Erik has spent 20 years as a BBQ pitmaster traveling and cooking with some of the nation’s foremost BBQ legends. Erik and his wife Stacey opened their flagship restaurant Cockeye BBQ in 2015 as a testament to the alchemy that blends BBQ, regional styles and heritage ingredients. Never far from his midwestern roots, in 2019 they will be launching Cockeye Creamery, their homage to Ohio dairy and Mahoning Valley farmers.
Renee Merritt started her career as an artist, working as a graphic designer for ten years, leading her to receive her BFA in Fine Arts and Sculpture where she graduated Magna Cum Laude from Ole Miss in 1999. While taking a mindful break before graduate school, Renee began working as a sauté cook at a small local restaurant. She discovered food as another medium of art and made the decision to attend Culinard, The Culinary Institute of Virginia College, Birmingham, Alabama to further develop her passion for food and cooking where she graduated with honors as part of the 2002 inaugural class.
Upon graduation, Renee had the privilege to work at many exciting venues and food service establishments including working as an Artisan Baker and Pastry Chef at the Bakery at Culinard, a full service retail bakery, giving her the opportunity to mentor and teach interns from the culinary college. Next, she served as Sous Chef at The Lodge on Gorham’s Bluff in Pisgah, Alabama followed by becoming Sous Chef at Hennen’s from 2007-2010. Looking to expand her experience, she had the pleasure of working with Executive Chef Shelley Cooper at Terra Mae, Farm to Table where she assisted in training and mentoring new kitchen staff at Dancing Bear Lodge and Restaurant in Townsend, Tennessee. She is currently working as the Executive Chef at Cork and Cleaver Gastropub.
Chef Renee has a strong passion and appreciation for foods of all kinds and believes dishes don’t have to be complicated to be delicious. Keep it simple, creative and clean, all the while believing that respect and integrity are paramount in her culinary preparations. She was influenced greatly by her two grandmothers that grew up in an era where you cook what you have available to make an amazing, nourishing meal. Fill it with love and care. Her culinary focus is on all the senses, delivering an experience in taste, texture, flavor, eye appeal and aroma.