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Asheville: Land of the Discontent

by Jonathan Ammons

A few days ago, my dear friend and former wine columnist for Rapid River Magazine, Michael Parker, posted the following to facebook:

“Word from a soon-to-be former Asheville restaurant owner: ‘We’re closing. Quite frankly we’re over the Asheville food scene.’

In a way, I get the remark. We are blessed here, to be surrounded by so much bounty, creativity, and talent. However, things seem too full-speed-ahead around here, and have for a while. I haven’t yet figured out the words for what exactly has been bugging me, but it’s like we have lost the concept of leisure. Your thoughts?”

Several folks saw need to respond, many very graciously, but some in very disparaging terms about Asheville. Many blamed tourism, one man simply said, in the most valleygirl statement of the late oughties, “I’m over Asheville.” And it all really stuck in my craw. You see it all the time on social media now, “this place is just here for tourists”, or my favorite “the Asheville food scene is so overrated”. No, it isn’t you nitwit, you’ve just been in the bubble too long. 

I remember when I was seeing this girl when I was a freshman in college. There was a field right near her house that had once been someone’s lot for a trailer with a quite lavish garden, but had long since been overgrown. I’d always grab flowers for her on the way to pick her up. One day she said to me ‘I love these, but you know if you give these to me every day, I’m going to grow to expect them more than I appreciate them. And I don’t want that to happen.’ I’m pretty sure something similar happens with our expectations of our food. When you are surrounded by roses, you eventually stop smelling them and start to bitch about the humidity. The fact is, we are surrounded by a bunch of James Beard nominated chefs in a very small city. Make of that what you will, but it tends to rub off on everyone and tends to generate a heavy sense of one-upsmanship of the best kind. But all that praise often tends to lead ass-hat hipsters to bitch about the quality of food, when what they are really bitching about is that they cannot afford to eat that food. If I hear one more person complain about how overrated Elliot Moss is, despite never having eaten one of his meals, I’m going to go postal.

So, driven, as always, by pure hubris, and always reluctant to keep my mouth shut, I let loose on Mr. Parker’s friends with the 800-word rant that follows:

Asheville is in a growth spurt and we are feeling growing pains. Any time a city grows [10% in population in under five years], you’re going to get a rapid boom in the restaurant industry. That tends to alienate a lot of the old vanguards of the food scene. Personally, and I know I’m a little biased, I find it amazing. As Antoinette Bruno, the editor of Star Chef’s magazine told me in an interview recently, “I’ve never seen a food scene like Asheville, everyone is doing these amazing things, but when you go to talk to them about what they are doing, they refer you to another chef… I eat all over the world and I’ve never seen a city where chefs work as collaboratively as they do here. It’s like they are all part of a big community.” And I think she is right.

As for the tourism complaint. Asheville has been a tourist town since the great depression when the mayor asked the owners of the Biltmore Estate to open it up to the public. From then on, we were a tourist based economy. This isn’t anything new, it’s always been this way. If you don’t like living in a tourist town, maybe you shouldn’t have come to Asheville. After all, our baseball team has been named the Asheville Tourists since the 1950’s, that should have been your first clue.

I do not think that the tourism focus is effecting our restaurant scene as much as people like to say it is, though. True, we get our fair share of terrible, tourist targeting restaurants popping up, but they are usually short lived (Cafe Aqua, anyone? Zoe Rose?). But when you look at the last two months alone, Buffalo Nickel, King Daddy Chicken and Waffles, another Nine Mile opening, all of those restaurants opened on the West side, they were NOT targeting tourists, they were targeting a huge influx of people that have been waiting on the wings since 2007 to move to Asheville, people that, because of the housing crisis, or the recession, were unable to get here. Well, now they can and as a result, we’ve had a population boom. They aren’t servicing tourists, they’re servicing transplants, and nothing changes the face of a city like transplants. So yes, the restaurant scene is changing, no it is not changing for tourists, it’s changing for the new Ashevillains.

I think there has been a change in the mentality of the Asheville restaurant scene, but I think it has been for the better. There were a lot of terrible restaurants in this town that have been there as long as I can remember (and I was born here), but I think that this influx of really passionate chefs, exceedingly talented restaurateurs and savvy cooks is building a scene where, combined with that sense of community I mentioned earlier, all of these guys spar with each other in a really friendly manner trying to one up each other and raise the bar of one another’s cooking. That doesn’t leave very much room for the mom and pop that have been running their little diner for 25 years, as they have no desire to step up their game or to do anything more than the status quo. But the entire food landscape is changing now. Food is on TV more than scripted programming it seems like. Not only that, with Yelp and Trip Advisor, everyone thinks they’re a food critic, even if they can’t cook an egg. The old dogs of the food world here aren’t being run out of town because of some sinister new food landscape that is evolving, they are being run down because they have worked long and hard in a city that has always been tough, that has always ground down it’s workers. I doubt any of the chefs starting restaurants today will be running them in this town in 10 years. And after as long as a lot of these folks have been in the game, it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Serving the caliber of food they served in the 90’s or even early 2000’s doesn’t really hold up anymore and if you can’t adapt, it’s time to find somewhere that will let you do what you do best. That is just business.

From my perspective, as someone whose job it is to document all of these changes in our food scene, we’re on a very good path to being a mecca for people who like good, wholesome, fresh food from local farms. Are there going to be growing pains? Yes. But the folks who are at the forefront of this scene are some amazing people, and they are doing what they do here because they love this city. And as I always say, if you don’t like my city, you can always move.  I’m always amazed at how many people move to Asheville from other cities and bitch about Asheville being a tourist town. This city was a tourist town before most all of you were born. If you don’t like it, I hear Ann Arbor Michigan is like Asheville, but without the tourists. I also hear it snows like hell in the winter time.

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