I supposed a recap is in order. Let me try to tie a quick bow.
Itching to get out of Memphis after 31 years to see other parts of the country (and avoid a second Trump term in a red state), Kristin and I whittled away our collective belongings, threw Peyton in the Forrester and headed north towing a twelve-foot U-Haul trailer. Our final destination was the sleepy sea-side college town of Durham, New Hampshire. A few weeks before slipping out of Memphis on November 20, 2020, we had agreed to pull a family-owned red sauce joint–then named, Ciao Italia–out of a self-induced downward spiral. Which, to our credit, we did in short order.
But things almost immediately went downhill. The explosive autumn foliage we’d enjoyed on our fact-finding mission in October was replaced with blizzards and cold, sending everyone indoors. One of the restaurant’s owners told Kristin to “tone down the southern accent” with customers and that he didn’t like college students (a customer base of 15,000 that he didn’t want to tap). This bit of intel killed half of my resuscitation strategy. Customers complained about the “unfamiliar food”, Kristin was constantly overwhelmed, and family time consisted of lying in bed moaning in pain from the cement floors at work. A general malaise took hold in our household. We spent almost the entire seven months trying to figure out a way to gracefully extricate ourselves.
Homesick and burnt crisp from defibrillating Ciao Italia (which we renamed to Ciao Trattoria and Wine Bar), Kristin and I decided to quit screwing around with New England and move to our crush city of Asheville, North Carolina. There, we wouldn’t run ourselves into the ground at another restaurant but would focus on our own individual niche interests. Kris would take a dive deep into pastry, and I would finally get to focus on fermentation (bread, charcuterie, beer, cheese making). To that end, Kris landed a pastry apprentice job at Curate, Asheville’s most exclusive spot, and I scored a baker’s apprentice position at Asheville’s biggest production bakery, City Bakery. The goal was to escape stressful management jobs and “go back to school”. For one of us however, as you will find out, a blissful life of culinary academia wasn’t in the cards.
In my last couple installments, I made a couple quick references to quitting City Bakery after three shifts (I am still too embarrassed to elaborate) and to taking up as lackey for a shadowy Asheville chef, I simply called The Chef. Under The Chef’s chaotic tutelage, I fried fish for drunks and broken toys at a dive bar, endured a disturbing riverside dissertation on blowjob techniques, and started to sink into depression. It was only after informing The Chef of the obvious, that I was too valuable to his organization to dunk frozen flounder, that I was transferred to research and development at the company’s commissary kitchen. He tasked me with the seemingly happy job of testing new items for his restaurant’s reopening.
During these formative sessions around the stainless-steel prep table, I realized that either pandemic burnout or a loss of interest in food, or both, was consuming The Chef. He was disorganized, sloppy, made borderline misogynistic remarks to our new prep hire, Jennifer and was increasingly missing in action. His food ideas weren’t bad, per se, and I learned a little more about charcuterie, but I could tell his mind was a million miles away from the task at hand. Dish ideas we spit-balled together ended up becoming my dishes for his lack of interest. After a while, he’d drop into Make Space (our commissary kitchen) make a couple thin suggestions for dishes and then “go to a meeting”. When he’d return hours later, I’d show him my version of his concept and he’d say fine, it’s on the menu. He never argued with me or tweaked a thing I did. Unlike with most chefs I’ve worked under, he didn’t feel the least bit threatened by my abilities. His blind approval threw me off my game. When, for instance, I pulled out smoked mashed potatoes—always my Stairway to Heaven—and made his cooks swoon, he complimented me. There was no stammering, no offering of improvement, no hint of jealousy. I found that incredibly odd. Maybe he was grooming me to take over? Maybe he was falling on his sword? Maybe he’s just a genuinely confident guy and doesn’t mind sharing menu credit? Maybe he’s in therapy? Ironically, the depression that started standing in front of the deep fryer was morphing into something darker and more consuming. What should have felt collegial and fun, felt anything but. I wanted to learn, not wipe someone’s ass while he took credit for my work. I could barely get up in the morning to make the 20-minute drive. Activating my Plan B, I emailed a couple restaurant connections I’d made weeks prior.
Ok, so that may be a little bit more than I alluded to in the previous entries… And now, for the update…
A few days before reopening Sovereign Remedies, the restaurant in question, the owner pulled the staff—a familiar tatted, pierced, bearded and youthful group of usual restaurant suspects—together for a meet and greet/pep talk. He gave a brief overview of the restaurant concept and mission, where the weird name came from, how he rose from wandering bartender to his current mantle as a certified Asheville restaurant fixture. Sovereign Remedies, to me a name better suited for a holistic pharmacy, was a reference to an old Appalachian tradition that dated back before modern medicine. Those living the mountain life learned to rely on flora and fauna found in the verdant hills and valleys to cure themselves. This was long before Rexall and Walgreen’s. Collectively, those hillbilly elixirs, root, bark and weed infused concoctions were known as sovereign remedies.
As a nod to the past, the cocktail program at SR relies in large part on the same roots, barks, mountain vegetables and odd bits that comprised turn of the century snake oil cures. For example, on any given day, you might find a SR bartender boiling a witch’s brew of burdock root, sassafras, birch slivers, dandelion greens and organic cane sugar for tonic water. Yes. They make tonic water, a bar staple that is readily available anywhere. The effervescence is naturally produced from the combination of ingredients…somehow? This is next level shit. One day I’ll tell you about the ice program with its pulleys, chainsaws and rubber overalls.
The food? The owner’s mandate is as local as you can get without breaking the bank. He’d be happy purchasing everything that comes into the kitchen direct from a farmer. And with so many meat, vegetable and dairy producers in the environs of the city, the farm to table concept isn’t hard to pull off. It was refreshing to see and fit with my current culinary ethos.
When it was my turn to introduce myself and give my backstory, I thought it would be a cute icebreaker to say, “My name is Spencer McMillin, I wander the country rescuing restaurants, and I don’t want his job.” I pointed directly at The Chef and smiled. This bold statement, of course, was true, but to deliver it in such a moronic way was a gamble. Miraculously, everyone laughed, including the roasted chef himself. It was, however, after a few seconds clear, I was now being considered the awkward new guy.
The owner sat on his hands zip-lipped waiting for the last of the chuckles to stop and puzzled faces to return to attentiveness. He then moved on to clocking in and out procedures and a loose fraternizing policy.
At the end of the session, he handed each of us a pro-forma document to fill out. “Tell me three ways you plan on contributing to our success and three things you hope to get out of your employment with Sovereign, besides money,” he said, lording over us in the dining room. Although I thought the move was a little sophomoric and corporate, I saw filling the thing out as an opportunity to better introduce myself. I wove a short narrative in ballpoint of bringing my thirty-eight years of experience to bare on the kitchen as a SUPPORTING cast member. I used the word team a lot. I mentioned fun as being job one a few more times than necessary, camaraderie, low margins, high energy, top tier food quality, chef partnerships, community outreach. In other words, I told the owner what he wanted to hear. I wanted off his bad hire radar.
Back at the commissary, The Chef took a new, post-meeting approach with me. My every move was micromanaged, assessed, scored. My French fry cutting posture was all wrong. I needed to bend at the waist, spread my legs out, keep my head in the strike zone, put my left palm under the blade. I filled up the blender with too much harissa for his brain to deal with. He told me to dump it out and start over like I was his student. Ridiculous. The boudin croquettes, an idea we both drooled over at a spitball session, were too salty, not salty enough, not authentic, ill-conceived. My swan song side dish he said, head shaking indicating a reversal of his original position, needed “something bougie”. So, for the first time in their 27-year history, smoked mashed potatoes were garnished with potato chips and olive oil. I was indignant but didn’t let on. Neither flourish is necessary. Olive oil fights with smoke. I know this because I’ve added everything one can think of, from cheese to pepper to garlic to sour cream to fucking olive oil, to them already. He was just bullying me because of the foot in mouth meeting comment. I started to fantasize about telling him off and almost acted on the impulse a couple times. Thank God he still went to his“meetings”. I desperately didn’t want to cross the line into unprofessionalism so early on in my Asheville work life. I have zero swagger in this town. Burning another bridge wasn’t the fresh start I was looking for.
I started wearing a chef jacket as a form of protest. I ditched the Ciao Trattoria v-necks. The Chef, in apparently the only pair of grey work pants he owned, ratty bar dive t-shirt, and filthy ankle-hugging hipster boots, made fun of me relentlessly. “Oh, look at you. You’re really gonna take my job now, aren’t you?…smarmy chuckle…” I absorbed his scorn and focused on my cooking.
Things at home were spiraling as my depression jumped from situationally derived, to chemical. The weeks of feeling like pond scum triggered a massive serotonin imbalance. Poor Kristin didn’t know how to help me. I didn’t know how to help me. Quitting my job, packing the car, and taking a long, wandering road trip seemed like the only choice for a couple weeks there. The road has always been good for my head. I needed a couple weeks among the jagged rock formations and lonely switch back roads of the inner Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, Montana, central Utah. It had worked before. But I couldn’t do that. We’d just moved to Asheville. Kristin was enjoying her new role as confectionary padawan. Peyton wasn’t miserable either in her new, liberal arts focused school. I was the only one circling the drain. Thoughts of leaving those two, my anchors and traveling compatriots, to selfishly ‘find myself’ made the depression worse. I was not in a good place and couldn’t figure out a way to dig out.
But salvation came in a response email from Appalachian cuisine pioneer, Chef John Fleer, owner of Rhubarb restaurant. He needed a commissary lead. That’s basically what I was doing with Chef Dipshit. Just moving down the street a little bit would be a lay up. John and I had talked twice before and took a liking to each other. In a previous post, I mentioned that he and I were trying to figure out a way to work together. Well he figured it out, finally. It was perfect timing. I gave Sovereign’s owner my two weeks’ notice a few minutes after I got Fleer’s email.
That’s when things really took a turn for the insane.