2017 BEST OF ASHEVILLE PART III
PEOPLE POWER!

I’m a real people person… most of the time… some of the time…. people are fine, I suppose, whatever, they exist and I have to live with them. I have a personal mantra that has helped me to understand the evils of the world, and that is: “People are the Problem,” (Alt: “People are Poople“) but that’s just the punk-rocker inside of me talkin’. I know in my heart, that as much as shitty people make things shitty, good people make things awesome! And even if there is a lot of bad stuff in the world caused by bad people, there are microcosms of good people, including right here in Asheville, working hard to do the best they can, to be responsible, caring, mindful, courteous, and totally kick-ass on a daily basis. This installment of the Stoobie Awards is a solemn nod to those fine people in the food scene who are making the world a better place to to live in, and… with that heart-felt intro…

Ooh-la-whee, it’s time for part 3!

DISCLAIMER: The pictures below are kind of lame, sorry. For one thing, even though the title is “People Power,” and you might expect to see some pictures of the people I write about, I take very few pictures of people throughout the year (I’m pretty focused on the food) and the only two pictures of people I could find are done selfie-style, so my fat ugly face in way up front. Oh well. It’s like the pickle said to the sandwich, “Dill with it.”

If you wanna read the rules and regs of the Stoobie Awards, click HERE. Otherwise scroll down, readers and eaters, to see who’s the best at what in this town! Let’s begin as always with the…

The firrrrrst Category…

This one is a no brainer, Yo. It’s based on a simple query: Who’s counter is busy as fuck all day long, day after day after relentless day, but the crew still kicks it in the ass no matter what? Every single frequent luncher in downtown Asheville knows the venues that do it right and the ones that fail miserably. Here are my top three nominees of those who do it right…

City Bakery, Biltmore Ave – Yeah, duh, this is not hard to figure out. Anyone can see it with their own eyes, just about any time of day, most days of the week, but especially starting from the minute they open their doors, until about 2pm or so: There’s almost always line at the counter of City Bakery on Biltmore Ave. Not a slow line, it moves at a steady pace, it’s just an endless line. You find your place in the endless line, move along like a human conveyor belt, until you get to a counter person with a pad of paper who answers any questions you might have & takes your order. They tear off the paper, hand it to the appropriate food or beverage personnel, and you are directed to the cashier, who rings you up, gives you a number and sends you on your way. Then, soon after, your food shows up at your table. It’s pretty fucking easy.
Past & Current Stoobies: Best Coffee 2013, Best People Watching (runner-up) 2013, Hot Coffee of the Year nominee 2014, Sandwich of the Year nominee 2014, Server of the Year nominee 2014, Restaurant of the Year nominee 2014, Best House Cup nominee 2015, Best Sandwiches nominee 2015, Best House Cup 2017

67 Biltmore Ave Downtown Eatery & Catering – The least complicated thing you’ll do all day is order food from 67 Biltmore Ave. I mean… if you’re a total novice at existing in the world, ask someone for instructions I guess, but anyone who’s ever ordered food at a deli-case style counter before is going be, like, “I’ll have the sweet potato salad (point point), some of that breaded chicken (point), and (looking up at menu board and daily specials) a cup of your soup of the day.” While you’re talking, one of the very nice and efficient counter people is getting your deli case items for you, and / or writing down your menu board order for the kitchen crew. You pay, you sit, you eat your deli food right away — nom nom nom — and soon another nice person delivers your menu board food shortly.
Past & Current Stoobies – Best Breakfast 2015, Best Breakfast 2016, Best Breakfast 2017, Best Pastries Nominee 2015, Best Biscuits ‘n’ Gravy 2017

Mamacita’sMaaaan, the only thing that slows down the counter service at Mamacitas is when some guy named Bob visiting from the middle of Kansas doesn’t know what-all “sill-antro” is. Apart from Bob, the line at the counter at Mamacita’s is one of the great wonders of the modern world. Seriously, the people who work there are amazing at what they do, and at least some of them are doing it in a language that was not the first one they learned how to speak. That’s really a feat in my opinion! I speak one language. I suck.
Past Stoobies – Best Lunch 2013

Aaaaand the winner is…

MAMACITA’S!!!

MAMACITA’S, te amo, y lo he hecho durante años, ¡y solo has mejorado cada vez más en todo ese tiempo! (thank you Google Translate!) Yeah. No. I don’t speak Spanish. I wish I did, but alas — damn you, public schools of America! — I don’t. However, despite any perceived language barrier between myself and any counter service provider at Mamacita’s, I always know that my food-ordering experience is gonna go super smoothly, and a little something like this: I point at the stuff that I want on my tacos, I pronounce the English ingredients clearly, and I say the Spanish ingredients as best I can. It’s the easiest interaction I’m likely to have that day, and it’s all done using the international language of food… and index fingers. “Sour cream. Cheese. Cabbage. Jalapeños. Aaand cilantro, please.” Point, point, point, point, aaaand point. Very few words need be exchanged for a fanfuckingtastic taco to be assembled at Mamacita’s. One “thank you” later, I’m on my way down the line to the next person behind the counter, who kindly hands me my food, and takes my money. I’d be willing to bet this exact same exchange, plus or minus an ingredient or proper pronunciation here and there, happens at least a buh-zillion times a day at Mamacita’s, and that they handle it impeccably well every time. They’ve won many popular votes in Asheville and they are a food fan favorite for sure. Now I’m giving them a well-deserved and perhaps slightly over-due Stoobie award for Asheville’s Best Counter Service.

Whoa. I might to start giving out Stoobies for wall-art soon. Hint: Mamacita’s would win. – photo by Stu Helm

Next category…

I’m a bit of a princess. I like to sit at a table, and have people bring me things that I want, then take them away as soon I’m bored or finished, then bring me new things to delight in. And by “things,” I mean food. Don’t be bringing me no frogs to kiss, or peas to sleep on top of, I ain’t that kind of a Princess. (I wish!) I just really enjoy great table service. It is literally THEE very reason that I go out to eat sometimes. Too lazy to cook. Too lazy to clean. I just wanna sit at a table and be treated with respect,and kindness for about an hour, with food. Below are three places, with three different styles of table service, that are my nominees for this award…

The Admiral – Dawn and I usually sit at the bar when we go the Admiral, and usually in that awesome little corner of the bar where our backs are to the room, shunning all of humanity while we share 2 or 3… or 7… small plates of amazing food. BUT, every once’t in a while, we will opt for a table, and when we do, the service is great! The servers are always friendly, and seem very genuine. They smile, they laugh, they even offer small jokes of their own, and banter a little bit, but they never linger! They are far too busy, for one thing, but also, they can clearly see that Dawn and I are enjoying time alone together, and they always seem to respect that. That kind of perceptive attention to your guests’ personal interactional preferences is exactly the kind of detail that I notice when I’m enjoying the luxury of table service. Yes, table service is a luxury — are you kidding me? People bring you hot food, and then clear your plates — and even thought the setting is decidedly divey, the table service at The Admiral feels as luxurious as can be.
Past & Current Stoobies – Best Desserts 2016, Best Date Night nominee 2017

Nightbell – Every venue has its own personality, and the style & level of service a venue provides should reflect that personality. The Med for example has its homey, small town style, and the service matches it perfectly. I’ll never forget the time my server sat, side-sadle, in my booth opposite of me to take my order. That was charming and kind of perfect in that venue. At Nightbell? No. Actually, not just no, but hehhhlllll no. At a venue as high class, well run, and upscale as The Nightbell, nothing but the most impeccable table service will do, and that’s what you’ll get with perfect consistency every time you go there. From the snappy dress code, to the polite demeanor, to an in-depth knowledge of the menu, an ability to put up with a million questions and keep a smile on their faces…  everything the table servers do at Nightbell is just right every time. I even appreciate that the smiles are warm but somewhat reserved, and banter is kept to a friendly but professional a minimum. In a way, it’s all business at Nightbell, but it’s the business of hospitality, which they’re really fucking good at, and they do it ezzackly right.
Past & Current Stoobies: Chef of The Year 2016 Katie Button, Best Late Night Bite 2015, Best Late Night Small Bite nominee 2014, Server of the Year nominee 2014, Best Date Night 2017

Buxton Hall – There’s something I like to call, “just the right amount of friendly.” The table service at Buxton Hall Barbecue is exactly that. I’m in there often enough that some of the servers know me by name, and I even know some of their names as well. We always smile at each other, and we all seem glad to see one another. All that friendliness is 100% genuine on my part, and seems genuine on theirs, which is pretty much all I ask for from the hard-working folks who provide table service in the hospitality industry. That, and the ability to take my food order, then bring food to me, plus check in a couple times to see how I’m doing, and ask if I need anything else…
“How’s that chicken sandwich treating you, Stu?”
“Jehhhhst right!”
“Thought so. More water?”
“Yes, please. Thanks.”

“Did you save room for pie?”
“(heavy sigh) No… but I’ll have some anyways.”
“Good man.”
“You’re The Devil.”
“Here’s your check, Stu, no rush, whenever you’re ready.”
Each and every word of that shit is absofuckinglutely crucial to great table service, and the folks at Buxton Hall do it all, pretty much just like that, every single time. They are 100% pro and on-the-ball, with just the right amount of friendly.
Past & Current Stoobies: Best Sandwiches 2015, Sandwich of the Year nominee 2015, Best Lunch Nominee 2015, Best Deep Fried Thing nominee 2015, Restaurant of the Year nominee 2015, Best Burger 2016, Best Hot Dog 2016, Best Lunch Nominee 2017, Sandwich of the Year nominee 2017

Aaaand the winner is…

THE ADMIRAL!!!

ADMIRAL, you basically snatched this one away from the other contenders by falling somewhere in between the two, in a classic “Goldilocks” play! ie: The table service you provide is jehhhhst right, for just about anybody! The other two contenders shouldn’t change a thing in my opinion, what they’re doing is perfect for them and what you’re doing is perfect for you! It ain’t about them not being awesome, it’s about you being super-awesome! When it comes to GREAT food, you’ve got that nailed down. The bar service is pro and we enjoy that very much, but when we want to feel like VIP’s and sit at the grown-up’s table, while still remaining casual in our attire and demeanor, there’s nothing quite like the upscale-yet-down-home hospitality that your servers provide! A smile, a joke, a recommendation off the menu, a shared opinion on a specific dish all make the interactions with your staff easy and enjoyable, but the professionalism, the ability to read the customer’s mood, never over-doing the banter to the point of being intrusive or unctuous, as well as appearing to be clean, sharp, awake, and enthused, all those things came together to make you a contender for this award, and in the end, just like Baby Bear, you weren’t too this, nor too that, but you were just right, and that is why you win the 2017 Stoobie award for Ashevill’e Best Table Service!

Sorry, no pictures of our actual Admiral servers, but here’s a delicious pork belly bao bun that one of them brought me. – photo by Stu Helm

Next category…

This year,Bar Service,” can mean any bar. An actual bar, with cocktails and such, or a “Chef’s Bar” with cooking going on behind the bar rather than drink-mixing. Even a juice bar, kava bar, or coffee bar might qualify… but didn’t. Here are the three top nominees for best bar service in Asheville…

Imperial Life – This is the third year in a row that the good folks who work the bar at Imperial Life have been nominees in this category, and last year, they took home the Stoobie. What makes the bar service so good at Imperial Life? The people of course! Individually, they are some of our favorite service industry people, and collectively they are a kick-ass team of mixologists, food servers, menu and cocktail advisors, and light conversationalists. Always ready with a chuckle for my lamest jokes, an informative chat with Dawn about why certain gins are better than others, and / or a some mild bonding over favorite doom metal bands.
“What do you think of the new Electric Wizard?” (https://youtu.be/fI9zFaJuWoM)
“Pretty standard stuff from them. I loved their last one.” (https://youtu.be/O3OX7xw4nRg)
I agree
It’s like every other album blows my mind.”
Conversations like that, in the chic, modern setting of a high-end craft food & craft cocktail bar in the middle of oh-so-trendy downtown Asheville are part of the equation for the stellar bar service at Imperial Life.
Past & Current Stoobies – Best Late Night Small Bite 2014, Server of the Year 2016, Best Late Night Bite nominee 2015, Server of the Year nominee 2015, Best Drinks 2017

Cucina 24 – 99.999% of the time that Dawn and I are eating at Cucina 24, you’ll find us sitting at the chef’s bar, and hanging-out with Chef James Albee, who is not only a kick-ass cook who is fun to watch in action, but he’s also a really nice person to chat with, and a pleasure to be around. The food at Cucina is insanely good, and watching it being made is entertaining, and can even be instructive… note to self: Do not skimp on the olive oil! Sometimes, Beard-nominated Chef Brian Canipelli himself is behind the Chef’s Bar, and it’s very cool to be in such an intimate setting with such a renowned chef. This chef’s bar is sometimes referred to as the “pizza station,” or “pizza par” BTW, because the li’l wood-fired pizza oven is right there, which makes it extra cozy on a chilly night!.

Cúrate – The bar at Cúrate is famous for being THEE best seat in the house. Rare is the time that I opt for  a table — although table service is exemplary — whether I’m alone or with Dawn or on a business lunch, I prefer the bar. Both cooking and drink mixing go on here, so that’s really fun to watch, and the service is really quick, friendly but efficient, and pro AF. Ain’t nuthin’ gonna get forgotten, ain’t no screwed-up orders, everything is just right, and every player on the bar-service team knows their role and plays it to a tee. Well choreographed is always a phrase that comes to mind when I’m sitting at the bar at Cúrate, but that isn’t entirely apt, because it is also free-flowing, ad-libbed at times, and certainly doesn’t seem stiff or “practiced.” It just seems like things naturally run smoothly at Cúrate’s bar, which I know takes hard work and excellent training.
Past Stoobies – Best Coffee 2013, Best Service 2013, Late Night Small Bite nominee 2014

Aaaaand the winner is…

CUCINA 24!!!

CUCINA 24, you became a Dawn and Stu favorite in 2017, and we sat at your Chef’s bar more often than any other bar in Asheville, for dinner and drinks, coffee, desserts, to meet friends or just for a night out for the two of us! We loved it!!! As mentioned above, Chef Jimmy is a pleasure to spend an hour or so with over dinner, and the somewhat sphinx-like Chef Brian has even been known to warm up in front of that pizza-oven and crack a smile every now and again! I actually found out what a great sense of humor Chef Brian Canapelli has by sitting at the Chef’s bar. True Story: One night I was there with Dawn and a friend, who were having dinner, whereas I was fresh from a Food Tour, so I was just having coffee and dessert. I had more or less ignored the printed menu in front of me, which Chef Canipelli apparently noticed, because he came over and insisted that I look at that dang menu. When I did scrutinize it, I suddenly noticed that every other word on the entire menu was an eff-bomb, and that other words and phrases that I’m well known for using were peppered liberally throughout, such as, “fucking awesome white anchovies,” and “slow fucking-roasted carrots,” etc etc on the entire menu!!! It was the best thing I’d ever seen! Okay, I love that story, but that’s not why I’m giving Cucina 24 the 2017 Stoobie award for Asheville’s Best Bar Service, I’m giving them a Stoobie because every single time we’ve asked to be seated at their Chef’s Bar it’s been a unparalleled dining experience that was made memorable by great food, of course, but also great service, that is 100% pro, friendly, efficient, and awesome. The whole crew there is excellent, from front to back, top to bottom. Thank you, Cucina 24, you’re fucking awesome.

I regret that I left without taking a hard-copy of this menu with me. But that flower was tasty as fuck. – photo by Stu Helm

New Category!

I always try to treat the “back of the house” with respect, and pay homage to them when I can. The people who cook our food are some of the hardest working people I know… except that I don’t actually know a lot of them, because they are in the back of the house, and / or they are busy as fuck, so I don’t get much opportunity to interact with them, but I am aware of them, and want to give all the kitchen workers all over Asheville a shout-out. Now, there are a few places in particular, where I am slightly more aware of the kitchen crew, because it’s an open kitchen and I can see them with my own eyes, which is the case with all three of my nominees…

Cúrate – I don’t know the kitchen crew at Cúrate. Their backs are always to me, and for real, they are busy as fuck. No time for chit chat. Can’t talk, chopping. As mentioned above, when I sit at the bar, I can watch the crew at work, and they move like a synchronized, clockwork ballet… with knives. The kitchen vibe is quick and bustling, without seeming rushed or panicky. Ain’t no yelling. Ain’t no anger. Ain’t no goofing around. From where I sit, the kitchen staff at Cúrate appears to operate with all of the emotionless efficiency and deft expertise of an all-Vulcan star ship cruiser. I like that. I find it… fascinating… to watch, of course, but it also inspires confidence in the food, and offers a peek into the way one of the best restaurants on the country runs the “back of the house.”
Past Stoobies – Best Coffee 2013, Best Service 2013, Late Night Small Bite nominee 2014

Buxton Hall Barbecue – One of the most open kitchens in Asheville, all of the eaters in the massive dining room can see all of the cooks and chefs doing their thing from our tables. We can see the prep, the deep fryer, the big ol’ hog, everything. It’s all right there for the world to scrutinize, and it runs like a top, even when that gigantic dining room is jam-packed with hungry hungry hippos, which is most of the time, all Summer long… and also in the Fall, Winter, and Spring. Yeah, Buxton gets SWAMPED by ravenous eaters just about every day and night of the year, and the kitchen crew keeps the kick-ass grub coming and coming and coming, and it never stops, and I respect & admire the fucking shit out of the folks who work in that kitchen.
Past & Current Stoobies: Best Sandwiches 2015, Sandwich of the Year nominee 2015, Best Lunch Nominee 2015, Best Deep Fried Thing nominee 2015, Restaurant of the Year nominee 2015, Best Burger 2016, Best Hot Dog 2016, Best Lunch Nominee 2017, Sandwich of the Year nominee 2017

Cucina 24 – As I wrote in the previous category, Dawn and I like to sit at the “Pizza” bar when we eat at Cucina, which not only gives front row seats to whoever is in charge of the wood-fired oven that evening, but it also gives us a side-view of the main kitchen area, and a good look at who’s running the show back there, and how that show runs. HINT: They are super-stars and the show runs smooth as fuck. Even when Chef Canipelli is not in the house, the star power in the kitchen is undeniable, with each member of the team being a past, current, and future standout on their own, or in other venues and arenas. When they come together at Cucina, and combine their super-powers, it’s like the motherfuckin’ X-men or some shit! Serious.

Aaand the winner is…

CUCINA 24!!!

CUCINA 24, you just won two Stoobies in a row! WTF?!? Well, I’ll tell ya WTF: At the beginning of last year, I made a promise to myself that I would eat at Cucina 24 more often in 2017 than I had in previous years, and Dawn was totally on board with that. Our enthusiasm is based in no-small-part on the kick-ass people who are working in the kitchen there. Of course, there’s Chef Canipelli himself, a semi-finalist for a James Beard Foundation award in 2016, but this particular Stoobie award is not for him, it’s for his kitchen crew: Sous Chef Erik Kang is like the Cyclops to Chef Canipelli’s Professor X. Second in command, mister nice guy, clean-cut, friendly, smiles a lot, deadly as fuck. By which I mean he totally slays it in the kitchen. Add to that the super-talented and creative Chef Sara Cousler, formerly of Buxton Hall, as well as pop-ups like Girls on Deck, Dive, Punk Wok, and Thunderbird just to name a few, currently killing it at Cucina 24. There is a very bright future for Chef Cousler, and seeing her at Cucina made Dawn and I real happy! Of course, I always mention Chef James Albee when I write about Cucina, because he is well known and loved by local food fans as a great chef and very charming person, and it’s really nice to visit him and watch him do his amazing work in the cozy alcove by the pizza oven. I don’t know the rest of the Cucina 24 kitchen crew by name (except for Nick, hi Nick!) but I know that every single person on that crew contributes to the awesomeness of every meal, and together, in my opinion, they make up Asheville’s Most Kick-Ass Kitchen Crew of 2017!

Again, I don’t take pictures of people while they are working, so the best I can do is pictures of the food the make and bring me. This food was fucking awesome. – photo by Stu Helm

New Category!

Y’know, there are a lot of people who don’t work in restaurants, but make this food scene go around, and I want to pay a little bit of attention to those folks with this next category. Anyone in the food biz, who is not working directly for a restaurant can be eligible for this award. A farmer? Yes, I suppose a farmer would be eligible. A delivery truck driver? Sure, why not. A food writer? Fuck, no, Stu, you ain’t gonna win your own award for Food Person of the Year, you idiot. Damn it! Well, in that case, let’s get to the three nominees…

Kelly Denson: All American Food Fights – Who can turn the world on with her smile? Who can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worth while… because… chicken wings… and cheeseburgers. That’s right, Kelly Denson is the producer of two major annual local food events: The Asheville Wing War as well as the Asheville Battle of the Burger. In my opinion she’s a miracle worker, to pull these events off every year, and to improve upon them year after year. Both events are really coming into a golden era right now, gaining in numbers and excellence, nearing epic proportions, and Kelly herself is approaching an almost god-like super-hero status to me. I exaggerate. #ImNotExaggerating

Leah McGrath: Ingle’s Dietician / Radio Show Host – Leah McGrath is keeping it real. If you follow her on social media or on the radio, you know she’s not some freaky-deaky, hippy-dippy, diet-trendy, food-as-medicine, let’s all eat air and quinoa and live to be 150, magical, mystical, mumbo-jumbo mumblin’, floatin’ five feet off the ground, fanatical, “follow-me” food guru! No. She is not. Leah is very down to Earth. The voice of reason. On Twitter, on Facebook, and on her weekly radio show, “Ingles Information Isle” (570am) Leah is doling out some very even-handed advice and information about food and nutrition, and she’s got the letters RD, LDN after her name, along with over 20 years experience, to back up her no-nonsense approach to food and health.
HERE’S A FUN GAME: If you ever have the pleasure of meeting Leah, and you wanna watch her left eye start to twitch, just casually mention that you saw a post on line by David Wolf about preventing Alzheimer’s by eating nothing but papayas for an entire year. Then tell her you think it’s working! Twitch. Twitch twitch.

Danny Keaton: Danny’s Dumpster – Danny had a dream… and a dumpster. And a truck, and some know-how, and tons of help from his wife and family, plus a couple of grants, and the brains & foresight to capitalize on some green legislation, as well as the heart & character to do something that’s good for the environment, while also helping restaurants (and others) reduce the amount of landfill they create. Danny is a composter. He owns and operates a composting service and facility. He works with about 130 businesses & institutions and composts over 40 tons of organic waste* every week! Daaaaang, Danny! That’s pretty fucking awesome.

* source – https://mountainx.com/news/local-companies-lead-the-way-as-asheville-considers-composting-service/

Aaaaand the winner is…

KELLY DENSON!!!

KELLY DENSON, let’s face it, you are my fucking hero. I worship you and I think that you’re the best person ever. Seriously. Mother Theresa could come back from the fucking dead tomorrow and start curing the lepers in Pritchard park, and I’d be all like, “Yeah, no. Kelly is way better.” I mean, not to piss anyone off or anything, but y’know, c’mon… Jesus made some wine & fishes & unspecified “loaves,” or whatever. Kelly Denson provides us with chicken wings, and cheeseburgers, and then of course beer happens, so, again, not to make enemies of his many many followers… Jesus is super-great and everything, but — if we’re picking messiahs to follow — I’m in Camp Kelly… over here… eating my 20th chicken wing. As I mentioned above Kelly Denson is the creator, producer & promoter of the Annual Asheville Battle of the Burger and Asheville Wing War, which are two phenomenal food events, that contribute to the fun-factor of our local food scene in huge ways! Basically, the public gets to engorge themselves on local wings and burgers, then cast votes for their favorites, all while chugging down local beer, listening to live music, mingling with friends, and meeting new people. Me? Sometimes I get to be a celebrity judge at these things, and when I do, I take my duties seriously. As serious as a heart attack. Well, actually, let’s hope I don’t have a heart attack… but if I DO die at the Wing War, I will die a happy man, with a lemon-scented wet-nap in one hand, a prize-winning wing in the other, and a blissed-out smile on my be-hot-sauced face. That smile will be there for, and because of Kelly Denson, my pick for Asheville’s Food Person of the Year, 2017!

Finally, a picture of a people in it! Sorry about the fool in the foreground, that’s Kelly Densen in the Background. – photo by Stu Helm

Next category…

The requirements for nomination in this category are pretty basic: Own at least one restaurant, and be awesome at doing that. Now, a lot of people in this town qualify, and the fact that there are only three nominees does not mean that there aren’t many more folks who could have been on the list. I based these three picks largely on things like recent accomplishments, longevity, contribution to the neighborhood, charitable stuff, and about a thousand other factors. It was very tough to pick just 3, and, actually, there’s like, 8 people on this list in total…

Chef Jacob & Alicia Sessoms, Table / Imperial Life / Tod’s Tasties – These two high-quality people own and operate three of the most high-quality eat-and-drinkeries in Asheville, and have done so for a very long time. Table celebrated their 12th year in 2017. Tod’s opened in 2008, and Imperial Life followed in December of 2012. All three venues are absolutely great at what they do, and Tod’s is a mainstay for the Montford neighborhood, which is lacking in eateries. Even if you’ve never lived in Montford, many Ashevillians have woken up there once or twice, and… well… the only good part about that scenario is going to Tod’s to get a great cup of coffee and an amazing house-made breakfast treat for the walk of shame home… or to your car… parked wayyyy over near Scandals. While Tod’s is a homey staple of Asheville livin’, Table is the very picture of high end dining. A clean, spare but not sparse decor, impeccable service, and some of the most refined and delicious food I’ve personally ever eaten in my life. Upstairs from Table at Imperial Life you will find a more relaxed, even more stylish atmosphere, along with an excellent “bar menu,” an amazing staff, and Asheville’s Best Drinks! Along with providing great fare and service to Asheville both downtown and in Montford, the Sessoms also provide service to the community in general, and the world at large. Over the course of 2017 they hosted, promoted, and put on some incredible dinners that raised money and awareness for several great causes. I was fortunate to attend one at Table, and one at Tod’s. Both were great meals, but more importantly, they were wonderful experiences, in support of good causes.
Past & Current Stoobies – Best Shrimp ‘n’ Grits nominee 2017, Best Drinks 2017

Chef Peter & Martha Pollay, Posana – Talk about successful. Holy crap, these two people are the picture of successful restaurateurs. They own one the best, nicest, cleanest, classiest, and most beloved restaurants in downtown Asheville, and Chef Peter has been tapped by both the AC and the Arras hotels to create menus and more for their restaurants. Capella on 9 is already open and rocking with craft cocktails and tapas, and entrees on the 9th floor of the AC hotel, located atthe corner of Broadway and College. I just featured their Winter Menu on my Instagram Page. The Arras will have two restaurants when they open in late 2018. I’ve been eating at Posana for the entire time they’ve been open (even when they were mostly a cafe) and I’m here to tell you that the food was excellent the first time I ate there, and it was excellent that last time I ate there, and every single time in between. Everything about Posana is top notch, from Decor to service, to the food of course. Peter and Martha Pollay have done great things with that corner of Pack Square, and I have the utmost respect for their sense of style, their commitment to quality, and their place in the ever-changing, and in my opinion, ever improving Downtown Asheville food scene!
Past Stoobies – Best Bachelor Chow 2013, Peter Pollay Chef of the Year nominee 2014, Restaurant of the Year nominee 2014, Meal of the Year 2016, Best Brunch 2016, Best Brunch Item nominee 2017

Button Family, Heirloom Hospitality (Cúrate / Nightbell) – Holy shit with this family. The talent, the drive, the nicenesses. They have it all. I am so impressed with everything they do, always. They own and operate two of the best restaurants in Asheville, or depending on who you’re talking to, the two best restaurants in town. They work with charities and churches to help combat hunger in WNC. They have hired and trained some the most efficient, intelligent, and talented teams — both FoH and BoH — in the restaurant industry. They have recently started leading food tours… in Spain. The tours are lead by Felix Meana, Chef Katie’s Button’s husband, who is an integral part of what makes this company so awesome, and what makes this family so deserving of all the attention they get, not just from me, but from the nation and the world. When Dawn was in Spain last year, she met a bunch of people who knew Felix, and he’s even more of a super star over there than he is here! Some aspects of our humble little food scene are truly international in quality and feel. The Button family are major players in that regard. The bring a level of class, sophistication, amiability, and savior faire to this little ol’ city n Appalachia.
Past Stoobies: Chef of The Year 2016 Katie Button; Nightbell: Best Late Night Bite 2015, Best Late Night Small Bite nominee 2014, Server of the Year nominee 2014, Best Date Night 2017; Cúrate: Best Coffee 2013, Best Service 2013, Late Night Small Bite nominee 2014

Aaaaand the winner is…

CHEF KATIE BUTTON & FAMILY!!!

CHEF KATIE BUTTON & FAMILY, you are not only one of Asheville’s premier food families, owning and operating two of the most exciting, well-known, and well respected restaurants in town, and not only are you all super-motivated, involved with the community, generous with your time and resources, philanthropic, forward thinking, creative, progressive, and ever improving… you’re also very nice! As I have said many times: Niceness counts. A lot! One of the first people I ever noticed in the Asheville food scene was Felix Meana. I saw him talking and interacting with the staff at Cúrate. I had no idea who he was or what his function at Cúrate was at the time, but I leaned over, and said to Dawn, “Something tells me that guy is one of the reasons this place is so awesome.” I could see from his facial expressions, body language, hand gestures, and tone of voice, that he was a nice person, who was also very much in charge of the situation. One of the very first people to ever notice ME in the Asheville food scene was Chef Katie Button herself! Whoa. True story: When I first started writing about food, someone on her kitchen staff spotted me at the bar, and moments later the Chef herself came out to say hi! She even thanked me for a favorable review I wrote of Cúrate, one of the first reviews I ever wrote. It was an honor to meet and be recognized by such a renowned chef, of course, but what really left an impression on me was that she was so dang nice! Later when I met Chef’s parents, Liz and Ted Button, I knew right away where the nicenesses in Katie comes from. But don’t let the Button Family’s nice demeanor fool ya into thinking they are a bunch of push-overs! They are tough, strong, smart, and powerful. Liz Button is the current Chair of the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association’s Board of Directors. They know WTF they are doing, and the entire family has a King Midas-like touch in every area of hospitality they take on. They never sleep, stop innovating, or creating. Last year, I gave the Chef of the Year Stoobie award to Katie Button, and you can read all those reasons right HERE. This year I’m giving the entire family a Stoobie for being Asheville’s Restaurateurs of the Year!

Background: Unstoppable culinary tour d’force, Chef Katie Button. Foreground: Unstable idiot, Stu Helm. – photo by Stu Helm

Final Categoryyyyy…

As far as Stoobie awards go, this is one of the biggest of them all. Right up there with Best Restaurant and Sandwich of the Year. I mean, yes, Best Deep-Fried Thing was a great category, and maybe I’ll bring it back next year, but Chef of the Year is the more or less the shit, y’know what I’m sayin’? Even being nominated as Chef of the Year, means that person has been kicking a ton of ass, along with cooking some amazing grub. They’ve been going above & beyond, and exceeding all expectations. Being a great chef is a requirement for the nomination, of course, but stopping there, resting on one’s laurels, ain’t gonna get anyone Chef of the Year status. Being a good person is crucial, and so is being a good player in the Asheville food scene. I take a lot of different things into consideration when doling out this award, and buhlieve me, it was not easy to pick just three chefs to consider! I do have one rule that is exclusive to this category: The winner from the previous year is not eligible to win the current year’s award. No two-in-a-rowsies. Last year’s winner was Chef Katie Button, so she’ll have to sit out this year. And just as an FYI: Chef Steven Goff won the title in 2014, and Chef Elliott Moss was my Chef of the Year in 2015. So, good company all around for this year’s winner, who will be selected from these three contenders…

Chef Jacob Sessoms, Table – I’ve already given lots of reasons above why this particular Chef rocks, but let me add to them the fact that Jacob Sessoms is just a cool dude. And, I’ll tell you what, that scores you some big points in my book, for real. Also, he cooks like a wizard, and has been personally responsible for more than one of my all-time favorite meals in 2017, plus, he’s got a great kitchen team that can work his magic when he’s not there. On top of those things, he sets the menu for the super-awesome Imperial Life craft cocktail bar, and Tod’s Tasty’s, and as if that wasn’t enough, he might be cool but he is certainly not aloof, in fact he’s very nice, always has a smile and a kind word… And he seems to hire kick-ass people, especially kick-ass women, for both the FoH and BoH… And his wife Alicia is co-owner of all three and she’s cool too — AND I’m not done yet — as mentioned above he did several special dinners throughout 2017 that honored, and raised money & awareness for various awesome causes. What else… Oh!  He’s a sharp dresser, with a good sense of humor, and one time he told me to go get coffee from High Five and bring it back to Imperial Life, because, “that’s what I do.” Ha! I love that.
Past & Current Stoobies – Best Shrimp ‘n’ Grits nominee 2017

Chef Brian Canipelli, Cucina 24 – Chef Brian is a tough read. He’s stoic, one could say, understated for sure. Quiet, maybe. I admit that I don’t know him well at all, except to say “hi,” and chat with him about food for a minute when we see each other on Wall street, and of course, to exchange a few words and, if I’m lucky, a chuckle or two while Dawn and I eat at his chef’s bar. As I mentioned already, in regards to the excellent Bar Service and amazing Kitchen Crew, Chef has assembled an A-team of talent both in the front of the house as well as in the back. That’s one of the skills of a great leader: Putting together the right people in the right jobs, and training them to do it in the best possible way, and then have them actually do it that way. From the customer’s point of view, Chef Canipelli seems to be that kind of great leader. More than once this year, we went in to eat when he wasn’t cooking, and the food was incredible, of course. Where was he? Italy, apparently, and when he came back, the food was even more incredible. This gentleman is not sitting on his laurels by any means. Every time we go in there, the menu is different, and challenging, and surprising, and awesome. From the snail toast that he prepared for us himself not long ago, to the basic Bolagnese pasta that I love and dream of, it all has the mark of the chef on it, and it’s never once let me down. Not one bite. Entrees, small plates, dessert… even the fucking bread sticks are amazing. The bread sticks.

Chef AJ Gregson, Mojo Kitchen & LoungeWhaaaat? Curve-ball, Yo! I mean, Chefs Brian and Jacob work in two of the most high-end joints in town, while A.J. works in a fucking night club, and even though he’s been nominated for three, and already claimed one Stoobie award this year… Chef of the Year?!? Stu, Brian Canipelli is a James Beard award finalist for cripes sake! Have you lost your mind? Oy. Shut yer hole. Did you know that Chef A.J. won several important local & national competitions in 2017? Did you know that his food was named the best food at LEAF? That’s right, LEAF. That’s fucking huge. And did you know he’s the only chef in Asheville that I actually use the word “genius” to describe? If I’m lyin’ I’m dyin’. Y’see, I’m not just a fan, I’m not just a believer, I am a Belieber. Hardcore. I truly believe that this Chef has a certain genius that goes above and beyond ordinary skill, talent, and creativity. He makes the kind of food that sometimes makes you go: “fuck yasss,” the minute you see it, and other food that you think, “aw, Hell no,” when he gets done describing the 35 ingredients in it, and then, as crazy as the description might sound, it fucking rules.

Aaaaand the winner is…

CHEF A.J. GREGSON!!!

CHEF A.J. GREGSON, you already know I like your food… a lot. I am constantly talking and writing about it, and my readers, social media followers, radio show listeners on WPVM, and Asheville Food Tours people awwwlllll know that I ferkin’ lerv your cooking too. Some of my standard lines: “Chef A.J. makes food people like.” “Chef A.J. is an unsung hero of the Asheville culinary scene.” “This sandwich fucking rüles!” I don’t use that last one on the tours… much… but another one I use for both A.J. and his wife Autumn is that they are two of the hardest working people I have ever met in my life. And two of the toughest. Together, Chef A.J., Autumn, and their crew work more hours than most people I know. Cooking for their own fan-base, plus all the folks who come to hear music at the 1-Stop and Asheville Music Hall (two venues that share the building with Mojo), plus all the shows and events that they cook for with their food truck, Li’l Mojo, plus they run a catering service, PLUS they seem to compete in almost every available competition, and apply for cool shit constantly. As I write this they are on a “Jam Cruise” ship, because A.J. was selected from among thousands of applicants to be a guest chef on the ship for two meals! They also do charity events, and work to raise money for Odyssey Clay Studios. Recently Mojo started hosting special five course “Wednesdays with A.J.” dinners that show off his culinary chops above and beyond the killer tacos and burgers that he’s mostly known for in this town. I attended the first one, and it was fucking awesome. Holy shit, can this guy cook. His “watermelon poke” with ponzu sauce and chili threads was the hands-down hit at the 2017 Taste of Asheville. He’s one of the most creative chef’s I’ve ever met, and he’s also got a heavy hand for flavor, and does not ever scrimp on the yoms. For those eaters with dietary restrictions, Chef A.J. is very good at tending to your needs as well, and is among the best in Asheville at providing good, healthy, hippy, vegan, and vegetarian options. It’s never an, “oh by the way, here’s some rice and beans” thing, they have options that are standards on the menu that are great for the “V” people, as well as omnivores like me. Mojo’s jerk chicken ‘n’ waffle sandwich just won a Stoobie award from me. Their crawfish mac ‘n’ cheese is to die for. The burgers are legendary, and there’s no other “Daily Specials” board in town that I order from more often than Chef A.J.’s. When it comes to being creative there ain’t no specials board like A.J.’s specials board. Again, one of my standard lines about A.J.’s food is that, after you read or hear the extensive ingredient-list on just one dang taco, you think to yourself, “No way is this going to work.” It’s too much. Too many things going on. Too muddled! Too CRAZY!!! And then you eat it, and it’s fucking awesome. Those are just some of the reasons why, after thinking long and hard about this particular category, I have decided to name Chef A.J. Gregson from Mojo Kitchen and Lounge as my 2017 Stoobie award winner for Asheville’s Chef of the Year!

Insanely delicious & complicated chicken tender taco that won the 2017 Food Truck Showdown. – photo by Stu Helm

And that’s the end of part three of the Stoobie Awards!

We are almost to the last installment! Some exciting shit has been announced for sure, and some of the best awards have already been handed out, but the last installment, The Best of the Best, is my favorite of them all, and not nearly as fucking stressful as picking my favorite people. Holy fuck. You try picking your favorite people and then publishing it on a public forum for aaallll the people you know to see. Yeah. STRESSSS! Anyhoo, the last 8 categories will be a breeze in comparison. Here’s what’s happened so far, and what’s still to come…

SO FAR!

Prt I – Sunrise / Sunset
(read here)
BEST BREAKFAST: 67 BILTMORE AVE DOWNTOWN EATERY AND CATERING • BEST CAFE: TRADE AND LORE COFFEE • BEST BAKERY: GERALDINE’S • BEST LUNCH: TASTEE DINER • BEST DINNER: ALL SOULS PIZZA • BEST DATE NIGHT: NIGHTBELL • BEST DRINKS: IMPERIAL LIFE • BEST LATE NIGHT BITE: SOVEREIGN REMEDIES

Prt II – The Specifics
(read here)
BEST HOUSE CUP: CITY BAKERY • BEST ESPRESSO: TRADE AND LORE COFFEE • BEST PASTRIES: KAREN DONATELLI • BEST CAKE: KALI CAKES’ CHOCOLATE STOUT CAKE AT BHRAMARI BREWHOUSE & 50/FITY THE ART OF DESSERT VARIOUS CAKES • BEST BRUNCH ITEM: MOJO CHICKEN ‘N’ WAFFLES • BEST BISCUITS N GRAVY: 67 BILTMORE AVE DOWNTOWN EATERY AND CATERING • BEST SHRIMP N GRITS: SUNNY POINT CAFE • BEST BURGER: BHRAMARI BREWHOUSE • BEST PIZZA: MANICOMIO • SANDWICH OF THE YEAR: MELT YOUR HEART FOOD TRUCK FIREBIRD SANDWICH

Prt III – People Power!
(see above)
BEST COUNTER SERVICE • BEST TABLE SERVICE • BEST BAR SERVICE • MOST KICK-ASS KITCHEN CREW • FOOD PERSON OF THE YEAR • RESTAURATEUR OF THE YEAR • CHEF OF THE YEAR

STILL TO COME: FINAL INSTALLMENT!

Prt IV – Best of the Best
BEST FOOD EVENT • BEST FOOD COMPETITION • MOST MISSED RESTAURANT• BEST NEW RESTAURANT • MEAL OF THE YEAR • BEST RESTAURANT • FAVORITE RESTAURANT • RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR

~ STAY TUNED! ~

From left: Chef Jacob Sessoms of Table; Chef William Dissen, The Market Place; Chef Steven Goff, Standard Foods; Chef Katie Button, Curate; Chef Joe Scully, Chestnut and Corner Kitchen; Stu Helm; Chef John Fleer, Rhubarb; Chef Karen Donatelli, Donatelli Bakery; Chef Peter Pollay, Posana Cafe; and Chef Matt Dawes, Bull & Beggar./ Photo by STEWART O'SHIELDS for ASHVEGAS.COM
From left: Chef Jacob Sessoms of Table; Chef William Dissen, The Market Place; Chef Steven Goff, Standard Foods; Chef Katie Button, Curate; Chef Joe Scully, Chestnut and Corner Kitchen; Stu Helm; Chef John Fleer, Rhubarb; Chef Karen Donatelli, Donatelli Bakery; Chef Peter Pollay, Posana Cafe; and Chef Matt Dawes, Bull & Beggar./ Photo by STEWART O’SHIELDS for ASHVEGAS.COM

Stu Helm is an artist, writer, and podcaster living in Asheville, NC, and a frequent diner at local restaurants, cafes, food trucks, and the like. His tastes run from hot dogs and mac ‘n’ cheese, to haute cuisine, and his opinions are based on a lifetime of eating out. He began writing about food strictly to amuse his friends on Facebook.

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