Serving up a taste of Appalachia
When Doug Weaver looks around Haywood County, he sees potential.
“We’re on the fence, right in the middle of where it’s almost a scene,” he said.
Head chef and co-owner at The Sweet Onion in Waynesville, Weaver is at the forefront of a pioneering movement within the county and greater Western North Carolina to make his backyard a culinary destination.
“The things is, Haywood County is becoming a place that when people are in the area they may go to Waynesville or wherever because there is this restaurant they have to try,” he said. “There are a lot of people planning their trips around what places there are to eat at here.”
Over the past decade, there has been a food revolution in the county. Whether it is local mainstay establishments incorporating different dishes into their menus or culinary artisans relocating to the area to start a new and unique restaurant of their own, the vision is clear.
“I think a lot of people can be afraid of growth, and they think if another restaurant comes to town they’ll put them out of business,” Weaver said. “But, it’s not like that. If we can encourage growth, healthy growth, then that’ll lead to us having a scene.”
And residents of Haywood are starting to take note. Go to any restaurant on a weekend evening or during the summer tourist season and you’ll find tables and bellies full from a made-from-scratch or farm-to-table meal. The key is to begin to make those busy nights properly transition into the workweek and winter off-season.
“Local restaurants need the support of the community in the winter months and the tourist in the summer months in order to survive,” said CeCe Hips, president of the Haywood Chamber of Commerce. “We have many excellent restaurants that can go head to head with any restaurant across the country, and we want to make sure that we continue to have the variety we have.”
From the ground up
Haywood County wasn’t always so enthusiastic about eclectic food and ambiance. Weaver remembers first stepping foot into the region years back, when all it seemed you could find was a burger and fries. Though those items are still immensely popular today, tastes are slowly shifting.
“In January, we’re selling cheeseburgers and Bud Light, in July we’re selling cherry pork belly and bottles of wine,” he chuckled. “But, the tide is turning. We’re trying to draw tourists in to make it a culinary scene year-round. We’re not there yet, but things like Mélange are here to cater to the idea that Haywood is a culinary destination.”
Originally from England, Michelle Briggs is a French trained chef who came to Western North Carolina a few years ago to open the Herren House, a bed and breakfast in downtown Waynesville. For her, the town is one that supports each other, which in turn fosters a proud and friendly relationship between all the different restaurant styles and themes.
“We have such an array of restaurants that whoever comes to town will be pleased,” she said. “I can send my guests to a farm-to-table place, a brewery with good food, a Thai restaurant or a great pizzeria. When people come here, they leave saying how much fun they had and how great the food was.”
Only in their second year of existence, Frogs Leap Public House knew from the start that though breaking into the Haywood food business would provide some challenges, the initial intent and purpose of the restaurant would ultimately win out. With a philosophy of offering fresh, local farm ingredients, Frogs Leap makes sure to always serve what’s in season or what’s on the market that can fit perfectly with their farm-to-table cuisines.
“My whole goal is to feature Waynesville and Western North Carolina through art, food, music and culture,” said Kaighn Raymond, head chef at Frogs Leap. “Everything we do here at the restaurant is about trying to showcase the qualities and great life we live here in Western North Carolina. I love it all, which is why I moved here.”
Raymond believes the restaurant scene in Haywood and beyond will continue to grow, with more and more talented chefs and business owners coming into the area, tapping into the vast and rich culture of Southern Appalachia.
“I do see a lot of potential in the next decade, and I want to be part of it. It’s time for a real turnover around here,” he said. “The restaurant scene is so different today. It’s entertainment. You used to go out to eat to get food, but now you go out to eat instead of going to a show. It’s an experience, and a specific one here in Western North Carolina.”
In an effort to harness the creative energy of local chefs and nurture a sense of camaraderie, the chamber is once again holding its Mélange of the Mountains event on Thursday, April 11, at Laurel Ridge Country Club in Waynesville. The culinary gala, filled with food competitions and entertainment, has become a lauded evening for the county to not only celebrate its food culture but also further set the platform for more growth within a Haywood industry quickly finding its identity.
“Mélange is the ideal venue for locals and visitors alike to sample the local culinary talent during the gala and further become acquainted with their favorite restaurants,” said Katy McLean Gould, marketing and communications manager for the chamber.
Though in years past Mélange was a one-day affair, it has now expanded into a weekend-long event filled with specialized dinners, drinks and demonstrations around Haywood. With the gala kicking things off, the weekend itself is shaping up to be one of culinary passion and curiosity.
“Personally, it’s a chance for me to take what I do best and put it out there,” said Art O’Neil, head chef/co-owner at The Gateway Club. “But more importantly, it’s for Haywood County to see what we have to offer. Locals supporting local.”
Started eight years ago between O’Neil and the chamber, the annual fundraiser has become a much-anticipated gathering. Add in the craft beer component, with three breweries now in Waynesville alone, and patrons truly get to be exposed to the essence of their surroundings.
“It’s not about being exclusive and not wanting to play with each other, it’s about camaraderie between the local restaurants,” he said. “This was created with the idea that you don’t have to go to Buncombe County to find something good to eat.”
That camaraderie is important for the health of the county’s entire food industry. For many chefs, Mélange may be the only time during the year they can get out of a hectic kitchen and rub shoulders with their peers. It’s about putting a face to the name of the business and realizing you’re all in it together.
“I’ve got friends that are my Mélange friends, where I don’t see them the entire year and that one night at the gala we’re all next to each other having a good time,” Weaver said. “It’s important for us to do this with the community. We’ve been able to see this really grow, and there’s an eclectic mix if you look at it.”
Categories at the gala are meat (red, pork), poultry, seafood, soup, salad and dessert. While some of the head chefs specifically focus on a certain category that expresses their forte, many look forward to letting their assistants loose and allowing the creative juices to flow.
“Everyone gets to experiment and do something you might not do on a regular basis,” Weaver said. “You have these restaurants that come to Mélange to do these crazy extravagant plates that are completely different and it blows people’s minds.”
Participants this year include Sunburst on Montgomery, The Gateway Club, The Sweet Onion, Herren House, Frogs Leap Public House, Waynesville Inn, Laurel Ridge County Club, Harrah’s Cherokee, City Bakery, Lake Junaluska, Bocelli’s, Frog Level Brewing, Bear Waters Brewing and Tipping Point Brewing.
“Making Mélange into a weekend to showcase what I can do here excites me so much,” Briggs said. “I get to shine doing what I do best. It gives everybody in the community that little extra edge to express themselves during this weekend.”
But, above all, the weekend is about getting the word out that the local culinary scene is emerging, and the only way it can go is up.
“The main thing with this weekend of events is that it’s a great way to show what’s going on in this area just as the tourist season is starting,” Raymond said. “It gives people in the county a chance to see and taste things they might not realize are here.”
“We’re trying to keep one foot in the past and one in the future,” Weaver added. “We’re definitely focused on the future and what needs to change, for the better. But, at the same time, we’re championing our past and the heritage of this area.”
Want to go?
Once again gracing Western North Carolina with an array of culinary delights from chefs around Haywood County, Mélange of the Mountains will take place April 11-13.
The weekend of events around Waynesville will kick off with a culinary gala from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 11, at Laurel Ridge Country Club. Tickets are $40 per person, with a VIP option at $60 per person. Tickets are available at the event but may be purchased in advance at the Haywood Chamber of Commerce in Waynesville.
• A “Farm to Fork Dinner” will take place on Friday, April 12, at Frogs Leap Public House. The prefixed menu is $50 per person. 828.456.1930.
• “Hands-on Biscuit Making Demonstration” will be at 10 a.m. Saturday, April 13, at City Bakery. Pastry Chef Brooke will be in the kitchen for the demonstration. Cost is $10 per person. 828.452.3881.
• “Champagne & Caviar Tasting” will run from 3 to 5 p.m. on April 13 at Sunburst Market on Montgomery. There will be caviar appetizers prepared in three ways, paired with champagne. 828.452.3848.
• “Beer & Cheese Tasting” will run from 3 to 5 p.m. on April 13 at The Classic Wine Seller. Gourmet cheeses paired with craft beer from Bearwaters Brewing Company. 828.246.0602.
• A “Farm to Fork Dinner” will take place on April 13, at Frogs Leap Public House. The prefixed menu is $50 per person. 828.456.1930.
• “Five-Course Wine Dinner” will take place on April 13 at the Herren House Bed & Breakfast. Evening five-course wine dinner with selections from The Classic Wine Seller. 828.452.7837.