There’s a rat in the kitchen.
It’s about 10 a.m. on a Monday morning, and Chef Katie Button has said rat on a silver platter. (Or at least a startlingly life-like plastic rendition of a rodent.) She’s serving it up to Stu Helm, decked out in his basic black – black cap, black hoodie, black sunglasses.
Helm, meantime, stands motionless amid the assembled cast, which includes Button and eight more of Asheville’s top chefs. Each has their own inner monologue going for the photo. There’s Peter Pollay, chef at Posana Cafe, with the most startled countenance. There’s Jacob Sessoms of Table restaurant with a rather grim chin and blade. Take a minute. Take in each face.
It’s a fantastic, funny shot, conceived and executed by Asheville photographer Stewart O’Shields, his assistant Elizabeth Moseley and make-up artist Heather Barnett. O’Shields is a master at these type of tableaus, having shot for top fashion magazines in New York for years before coming back to Asheville to pursue a career as a commercial photographer.
Ten years ago, a photo like this wouldn’t have been possible. Asheville barely a handful of restaurants noticed, and appreciated, by foodies and cooks at large. Today, Asheville is largely recognized as an up-and-coming destination for its food and the dishes its independent restaurant owners create. The nine chefs in the photograph (from left: Jacob Sessoms of Table; William Dissen, The Market Place; Steven Goff, King James Public House; Katie Button, Curate; Joe Scully, Chestnut and Corner Kitchen; John Fleer, Rhubarb; Karen Donatelli, Donatelli Bakery; Peter Pollay, Posana Cafe; and Matt Dawes, Bull & Beggar) could easily be joined by another dozen.
In that same time, Asheville has had exactly two local restaurant reviewers who have had an impact. Hanna Rachel Raskin, a veteran critic for Mountain Xpress, wrote deliciously of what was happening on the food scene through the early and mid 2000s. Mackensy Lunsford stepped in to fill Raskin’s beat, and developed a loyal following that she translated into a job with the Asheville Citizen-Times, though in the role of food writer and not food reviewer.
The food reviewing scene has been mostly quiet since, with just a few milquetoast experiments along the way. Then Stu Helm showed up on the scene.
I knew Helm by his reputation as a graphic designer. He’d won some Best of WNC awards with Xpress, and we exchanged a couple of emails, but nothing ever came of it and we never met.
But last October, Helm emailed me out of the blue to tell me that he’d been writing some local restaurant reviews and posting them to Facebook. His friends were digging the reviews, he told me, and had urged him to see publication in a larger venue. Helm flattered me by saying the first place he thought of was Ashvegas.com, and would I be down posting a few?
I gave Helm an unequivocal yes. It would take us another three or four months to actually meet in person, but I immediately began posting his weekly reviews. They were an instant hit. Laced with profanity, Helm dished out rocks and roses. He professed his love of chicken and went off on Chick-fil-A. He talked a little smack about Wicked Weed and Lex 18 and drooled over Curate and Rhubarb. He also regularly mixed it up with anonymous online commenters who disagreed with him.
This is all a perfect recipe for website popularity, by the way. Mostly. Except for the readers offended by Helm’s liberal dose of four-letter words. But they’ve mostly either stopped reading or quieted down. And Helm’s reviews are still tops for views.
In person, Helm is slight of frame and thoughtful. He’s got tattoos on his neck and forearms. He does not own a car and rides his bike everywhere. He’s a graphic artist and he publishes a monthly paper for children full of silly characters he’s created. He lived in Chicago for several years and was a self-described “super-metal-stoner-rock guy.”
Helm also loves to eat out. Every day. He shares his experience through Facebook and his reviews. Along the way, Helm has collected some great food stories, which he occasionally shares. His “Gay Parade Hot Dog” story is a classic, as is his “Kung Fu Chicken – No Cashew” tale. Don’t forget to ask about the time he was sued by a giant corporation in federal court for “tarnishment” of a brand of cheese that sounds alot like “Velveeda,” the name of character he had developed.
Now, nearly a year after his first review ran on Ashvegas.com, Helm found himself in a room with nine of Asheville’s best cooks, posing for a funny publicity shot. He was a little uncomfortable with the newfound attention. The nine chefs – every bit celebrities in their own right, with their own followings – chatted up Stu and one another and went with Stewart’s direction.
From my vantage point, Helm is standing smack dab in the middle of an unfolding food revolution here in Asheville. I think he’s the right guy at the right time, filling a void in a town hungry for an honest opinion.
Keep dishing, Stu.
Special thanks to Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, which lent on of its industrial kitchens for the set of this photo shoot.