Stu Helm’s 2020 Food Fan Awards Pt 3: People, Places, People

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The 3rd installment of Stu Helm’s annual Food Fan Awards! See the 2020 nominees for Food Person of the Year, 2020 Pivot Master, New Restaurant of the Year, Restaurant of the Year and Chef of the Year.


Hey, y’all. As I write this we’re just a few weeks into the Biden admin, and so far, the radical, left wing, socialism doesn’t feel all that much different than the cutthroat run-away capitalism that we had before it, but what do I know? Nothing. I mean, I know about food, but even then, I really only know what I’ve tried. That in mind, when I do these “Best of” awards every year, I am very aware that I have not tried all the food in Asheville. I wish I could! I absolutely want to, and one day I will. Until then, my experiences with food are limited to my own human capabilities, and unfortch, they were more limited than ever in 2020, because, y’know… The Thing happened.

I only ate “X” number of burgers, and “Y” number of breakfasts, and it is only from those actual experiences that I am able to dub anything as “the best.” That is also true when it comes to people, so, please forgive my limited knowledge of, and interaction with the individual people that make up the food scene this year. I’m usually out there, meeting, greeting, talking, seeing, being part of a physical scene made up of actual people. Now days I have Zoom meetings, imaginary friends, and if I’m lucky, there’s a tea party with my dollies and stuffed animals. (It’s up to them to organize it, and they suck at that, so no awards for them) Anyhoo, here are my nominees in the final categories for 2020 Food Fan Awards: People, Places, People


FOOD PERSON OF THE YEAR

This category is always difficult, because I feel like every single person involved with the food scene deserves an award, but in a shit year like 2020, it’s even harder. If you’re at all connected to the food & beverage industry, just getting out of bed in the morning makes you a fucking hero, so give yourself an award. Here are my nominees for 2020’s Food Person of the Year…


Jane “AIR” Anderson

Photo provided by AIR

My first nomination is straight from the “well, no duh” file. AIR is the Asheville Independent Restaurant association, and the rock-solid individual at the heart of it is my good friend Jane Anderson, known affectionately all over town as Jane AIR. I had several meetings with Jane in 2020, and let me tell you, she deserves all your praise, gratitude, and possibly 1/3 of your crops and cattle as tribute, because she was your effing hero this year, and maybe you didn’t even know it. That’s because Jane is a very private person, a very humble person, and a very understated person, who worked harder than just about anyone I know to keep this independent food scene rolling. I don’t want to give up too many of Jane’s secrets, but I just want you all to know that dealing with every single shitty thing happening to the restaurant industry in 2020 was on Jane’s “to do” list every single day. She’s my friend, she’s your friend, she’s a pillar, and she’s the obvious first nominee for Asheville’s Food Person of the Year 2020.


Flori Chastain Pate / Food Connection

Flori Pate is another person who works behind, adjacent to, and along side the local food scene as the singular driving force behind Food Connection, which has always been a wonderful organization, but in 2020 when the multiple crisis hit, Flori and Food Connection stepped-up and started to feed more and more and more people. I partook in some of the free meals myself in the beginning, and they were great. Fighting food insecurity has always been Flori’s mission, and when so many local folks were put out of work by the pandemic, I watched her recognize and embrace the moment, take it seriously, and expand her operation to meet it. She’s a tireless worker, a super nice person, and one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the local food scene I’ve ever met, and she is an easy choice for my second nominee for 2020 Food Person of the Year!


MANNA Foodbank

Photo provided by MANNA

MANNA is the food charity organization that I personally donate to and raise money for during a typical year, and that is because they are the difference between food security and insecurity for thousands of people all over WNC. I have not always been the well-fed hobbit that you might know me as today, so I have sympathy, empathy, and experience when it comes to not knowing if you’re gonna make until payday. That’s real to me, and it’s reality for more people around here than you might even know. MANNA is there, always, in both the “good” years and the bad, and last year, when things got ugly, the people who work at MANNA triple-dippled their efforts to meet the increase in need. Their warehouse workers literally risked their lives to keep things going, and every single person who works or volunteers for MANNA was called upon to do double duty, and they did it. And they continue to do it. And they will do it for as long as we need them, which is forever. Thank you to all the good people at MANNA, you are collectively my third nominee for 2020 Food Person of the Year!


Asheville Strong

Photo provided by Asheville Strong

Full disclosure: Asheville Strong is run by a bunch of people I know and love personally. They are like a super-hero team, made-up of some of the staunchest, and most loyal members of the food and beverage industry, and they are dedicated to helping the other people in the food and beverage industry. When the shut-down came, some of these folks lost their jobs, some took a massive hit in their small businesses, but not one oof them hesitated for a moment to bond together to form a coalition with the mission to feed the food scene. That’s so beautifully meta I wanna cry. For real. When I say I love these food people in this town, I mean these specific people and so many others like them. The scene at large has suffered one kick in the ribs after another, but has come together like the true family they always claimed to be. (Hey, families fight, but for the most part we love each other!) After being sent home without pay, then denied employment, then forced back to work in an unsafe environment full of hostility, disrespect, and an ever-changing playing field of rules and restrictions, which half the public didn’t want to follow, the F&B folks needed love. And we all know that when I say “love” I mean food. For all they did to take care of the people in the local food scene, Asheville Strong is collectively are my fourth nominee for Food Person of the Year.

Photo provided by Asheville Strong

Anonymous Donors

When I started raising money for MANNA last year, the largest individual donations were from that most shy and elusive species called the “Anonymous Donors.” Who are they? Nobody knows. One of these rare creatures gave $500 to one of my MANNA fundraisers! I’ll tell you what… If I’mma donate $500 to something, my virtue-signaling gonna shine so bright, y’all gonna go fucking blind. Five hundred dollars?!? That’s a ton a mun in my world, Yo. In addition to the hefty anonymous donations that came through my Facebook campaigns, a friend who works at MANNA told me that they received many super-generous anonymous donations in 2020, more than ever! So, it ain’t just my unseen friends and bashful social media followers, obviously, but lots of you out there are donating gobs of money while cloaked in the shadows. Oh! You may have also read in the newspapers that an anonymous donor gave $200,000.00 to Food Connection last Summer. Are. You. Fucking. Kidding. Me? When I heard that it made my throat get all lumped-up, and one single tear was squeezed out of my face. Thank you, Anonymous Donors, large and small! Your generosity and humility are unmatched in this town and for that you are ALL my fifth and final nominees for Food Person of the Year, 2020.

Next category…


PIVOT MASTER

In 2020, most of the people I know in the food biz had to at least attempt, if not achieve, a half-to-full-pivot in order to grasp at even a hope of making a living. I myself lost my excellent job as a food tour guide, and then my even more excellent job collecting unemployment, and then I got panicky and wrote a job description for myself, sent it to KickbackAvl.com and was fortunate enough to get hired, wher eI remain happily ensconced t this day. I half-pivoted. I’m still in the food biz, I’m still in touch with the restaurants directly, and I’m still well informed about what’s happening around town, it’s the same, but different. Yay for me! It was probably easier for me to be flexible, because I’m just one person, but what about the rest y’all out there? How many of you also pivoted? Full? Half?  I watched the restaurants pivot, (or not), and from among the many who did so, here are my nominees for 2020 Pivot Master


Manicomio

Photo from March 18, 2020 provided by Manicomio

To paraphrase my friend and former co-owner of Manicomio, Chef Michael Napelitano, “When the world went to shit, the cash register at Manicomio never stopped ringing.” He said this to me as he was handing me a GIANT-sized box of free food for myself and my elderly neighbor. I remember sitting in Manicomio with Mike in March of 2020, it was pre-shut-downs, but we all knew what was coming, and he said to me, (again paraphrasing), “Fuck it, Stuey. I’ll shut the fucking doors, move the fucking register to the fucking front, and start selling fucking slices out of the fucking window if I fucking have to.” And that’s exactly what he did. Slices, pies, entrees, and eventually the entire menu became available via take out and delivery. As soon as 50% capacity came along, Mike and his partner Jon Leibowitz opened the patio, and kept it strict. (You do not want to break Mike’s rules.) Mike decided to retire fuh real fuh real recently, but he and Jon and the skeleton crew at Manicomio pivoted beautifully and kept on providing their customers with the comfort of pizza and pasta at a time when we needed comfort for sure, and that’s why they are my first nominees for Pivot Masters 2020.

Photo provided by Manicomio

Biscuit Head

Photo provided by Biscuit Head

I don’t know exactly the entire story of Biscuit Head’s pivot, I just know that on Saturday mornings KickbackAVL.com delivers more motherfucking biscuits than I would have ever imagined possible. 100% true story. My boss, Jennie told me, “Saturday mornings are crazy, and it’s mostly Biscuit Head,” and I at first I was like, “ohhhhkayyyyy…” and then I saw it happen with my own eyes. Order after order after order after order… it… doesn’t.. stop… Until it stops, of course, around 2pm. We are essentially a non-stop biscuit delivery service on some Saturday mornings, and that can be true on Sundays, and even Thursday and Friday mornings. It wasn’t until later that I found out that Biscuit Head had wisely switched very early-on to a take-out and delivery only model. So smart. They trained their customers to adapt to the new world quickly, they streamlined their operation until it was a well-oiled biscuits-to-go machine. (Or maybe I should say well-buttered. Wakka wakka.) When I finally grocked the big picture of Biscuit Head’s pivot, I was real impressed. They’re still crushing it, providing comfort and sustenance, and doing it all during the danged apocalypse, and for all those reasons and more, they are my second nominees for Pivot Masters 2020.

Photo provided by Biscuit Head

Twisted Laurel

Photo provided by Twisted Laurel

I had watched Twisted Laurel struggle to find itself in Downtown Asheville for a couple of years, cycling through several chefs and even suffering an identity crisis, briefly calling itself “Daphne” or “Daphne at Twisted Laurel” I was never quite clear on which it was, they were at sea in my opinion. All that changed when they hired Chef Tom LaFauci, dropped the name Daphne, went back to being Twisted Laurel, Downtown Asheville, and fully embraced making what I call “food that people like.” I was pretty familiar with this story of struggle and triumph, because I regularly brought food tours into Twisted and had become friendly with the GM and staff. As such, I was in a position to watch Chef Tom get them on track with burgers, ribs, pasta dishes, steeeeaaaakkkkks… such good steaks.

From where I was sitting Twisted was just getting its shit together, and poised to have a great year, when COVID hit, the shut-downs happened, and a black cloud of doom settled in over the food scene. I stopped doing tours, and was wishing for the best for Tommy and the crew at Twisted. Well, lo and be-fuckin-hold, if really was the best. They literally had their best year ever, despite, or perhaps even partially because of the pandemic. A lot of things were working in their favor. They have a TON of space, enough that even at 30% capacity they were able to seat a lot of people and social distancing was never an issue. They have a large outdoor seating area, and access to a street that the city opened up for even more outdoor seating. They implemented very strict adherence to the rules and regulations of COVID, so that they never had a case in-house, and they never got called-out on social media by locals for breaking the rules, while also protecting their staff from abuse by rude or unruly guests. They have cool owners, who weren’t complete dicks about everything the whole time. That’s all good stuff that definitely puts them in a great position to survive, but from what I know of these folks, the real deciding factor in their COVID times success story is perseverance, a rock solid work ethic, and a well-proven ability to meet adversity, and adjust their operation to overcome it, and that is why they are my second nominee for 2020 Pivot Masters!

Photo provided by Twisted Laurel

Pachimama5

I love these two chefs. When I look at them I feel warm-and-fuzzies. We friends. They also kick so much ass, and pivoted like MFers when the pandemic came to WNC. Chef Ricardo Carrasco (right) was running Polanco, the Mexican restaurant on Market Street downtown, and Chef Santiago Vargas (left) was running the award-winning Out of the Blue food truck. Both of these Chefs have very loyal followings, and when it came time to pivot, they teamed-up, formed Pachamama5, and started attacking this problematic time with innovation and self-reliance. One of their missions was to feed people as cheaply as possible right when everybody lost their jobs, but unemployment hadn’t kicked in. They made awesome family meals, and sold them out the window of the otherwise shuttered Polanco storefront. Chef Ricardo and his wife Victoria doubled up their catering efforts with Carrasco catering, and Chef Santiago sold his truck, and began working with them more closely and more often. They all began doing private dinners for his loyal followers. As I said, we are friends, and we also worked together in 2020, on a socially distanced 12 course “seated food tour” dinner that was so amazing it would have absolutely won my “Fancy Meal of the Year” award if it wasn’t my own dang project! Not kidding, it was that good. Because they never stopped cooking, or caring about other people, and because they enhanced their own lives, and kept the money flowing when that was a hard row to hoe, and because their food is bangin’ and their ideas rock, Pachamama5 is my fourth nominee for 2020 Pivot Masters!


Sunny Point

Photo provided by Sunny Point

The folks at Sunny Point Cafe in West Asheville have pivoted again and again and again in this pandemic and have not made even one mis-step as far as I can tell. Sunny Point has always been a very smart business, in my opinion, run by smart people making smart decisions. I’ve watched them grow and expand, without getting obnoxious about it. I’ve watched them deal with crowds before the pandemic, not by treating them like cattle, but by offering them coffee, biscuits and a place to sit while they wait. And I’ve watched them during this pandemic, making the adjustments needed, opening up their garden for outdoor seating, stepping up their takeout and delivery game, offering family meals, always plugging forward, never stopping, They kinda just kept on doing what they’ve always done: Modify their business in ways both large and small, innovating within limited physical space and fluctuating regulations, to meet and surpass even the most grave new challenges and difficult circumstances. I have long admired there business model and approach, and they really solidified that opinion with me during these, the shittiest of times, and for that they are my fifth and final nominee for Pivot Masters 2020!

On to our next category…


NEW RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR

I was unable to visit most of the new restaurants in 2020, or even try their food, and there are several I only tried once an/or in a very limited way. I’m just going to list all of the restaurants I can think of who opened in 2020 in this intro, because they ALL deserve an award. If I missed one or more, please forgive me, and add them yourself in the comments.

All Day Darling, Asheville Proper, Biryani Express, La Bodega by Curate, Centreville Luncheonette, Griff’s Kitchen and Bar, Grind Coffeehouse, Home Ground Coffee Bar & Deli, Iconic Kitchen and Drinks, Jettie Rae’s Oyster House, Leo’s House of Thirst, The Madness Sushi & Burger Bar, P B & Jay’s Cafe, Rye-Knot, La Semilla food truck, Session Cafe in Citizen Vinyl, South of Philly, Sweet Southern funk Food Truck, and Umami Mami Food Truck, y’all got some set on ya. You can decide what it’s a set of depending on your identity preferences, but whatever it’s a set of, it’s made of cast iron and I fucking commend you ALL for opening up in a pandemic, and still being here now as I write this. I will do my best to eat at your establishments soon and often, but until that time, below are my three nominees for Best New Restaurant 2020…


Nani’s Rotisserie Chicken

Graphic provided by Nani’s

Holy fucking shit with these folks. And by “these folks” I mean the whole Chai Pani Group. Everything they fucking do is 100% bomb-titty-ass-bomb, and the very definition of success. They have assembled the smartest team of food industry visionaries I’ve ever seen in action, and they never stop, constantly outdoing themselves, year after year. There’s Chai Pani, of course, and Buxton Hall, here in Asheville, plus Boti Walla 1 and 2 in Georgia, plus Spicewalla spice company, and whatever the fuck else, I can’t even keep up. For real. It came as a total surprise to me when their latest venture, Nani’s Rotisserie Chicken, opened their doors in the in the middle of you-know-what (2020 shhhh! It might hear you.) I was broad-sided, and felt kinda left out of the loop, but when they extended an invite for me to try it, I cheered-up, and boy fucking howdy, Chai Pani Group has done it again. I’ve already raved about the food in past reviews, so I just wanna rave about everything else now. The business model is brilliant. A very limited menu of very accessible food, including “family meals,” made up of a whole chicken and four sides with a salad and bread. Holy fuck, Y’all. That’s not just perfect, but it’s perfect for the present times, BUT, it’s not just perfect for the present times, but it’s FUCKING PERFECT for all time! In addition to the wonderful food, the graphic design is excellent, the level of service is on point, the social media campaign is clever and effective, the prices are accessible… every aspect about this business is a nail being hit on the head over and over again. I know they are already popular, they regularly run out of chicken by the end of the night, so even their food waste is tiny. For all those reasons and the more, they are my first nominee for New Restaurant of the Year 2020.


Pie.Zaa

Photo provided by Pie.Zaa

So, one day shortly after the first “GO THE FUCK HOME” order that the government gave us back in March of 2020, I was walking through a largely abandoned South Slope, when I noticed that that someone seemed to be actively opening up a brand new pizza shop. “Good fucking luck,” I muttered to myself… out loud, because who the fuck gonna hear me the Earth-after-people scenario I was living in. I was curious for sure and normally would have approached and asked about the doings, but back in those early days, we didn’t know what the fuck was up with this dang virus, so I wasn’t going anywhere near them to ask anything. POISON! Also, it seemed to be called PIe.Zaa, and I honestly wasn’t sure how I felt about that. LOL Also, I heard later that the pies were fucking enormous, like 30 inches? 40? The size of a satellite dish? WTF? Okay, now I was real curious, so deadly virus or not, I had to see this for myself, and I did! As soon as they were open they invited me, and went down and had some slices. Fucking good, Man. Real fucking good. And fucking huge. They invited me back recently, and it was confirmed: This pizza is great, and very huge, I give it my approval and thumbs-up. Oh, one more thing: I also heard that they are open until, like, 4am, and I thought that was fucking crazy, until a person about half my age was like, “Have you heard of that new pizza place on the South Slope? It rules! They’re open hella late!” And I was like, “Oh, yeah. The youths. I once was one, but alas, no more.” So for opening during a fucking pandemic, staying open late, serving giant pizzas, having a questionable name, and STILL crushing the shit out of it, Pie.Zaa is my 2nd contender for New Restaurant of the Year 2020.

Photo provided by Pie.Zaa

Thai Pearl

Photo montage provided by Thai Pearl

Thai Pearl opened their doors on March 9th, 2020 and Buncombe County issued it’s first stay-at-home order, what, like 5 days later? How shitty is that? Ooftah. I know it’s not a unique story, or this category wouldn’t exist, but Thai Pearl seems to have been, all, like, “Fuck it, we’re doing this, and we’re going to CRUSH IT, and no one can stop us.” Before coming to the States,  Chef May cooked in the royal palace O _ O in Thailand, so y’know, I’m sure she wasn’t going be like, “oh well, dream over! I came all the fucking way to Asheville, WNC to cook for these yokels, but it didn’t work out exactly how I hoped, so I guess I’ll put down my knives and  sell real estate now.”  Nope. Instead of her knives, she put her head down, and got to cooking. And cooking. And cooking and cooking and cooking! She’s approaching legend-status already in my circle of friends for her work-ethic, as well as how fucking goooood the food is. I’ve already nominated Thai Pearl for “Best Lunch,” so I won’t go on too much about the food again here, I’ll just say that it’s excellent, it’s consistent, it’s both creative and traditional, and it comes out of that kitchen at a pace unmatched, and for all those reasons and more Thai Pearl is my 3rd nominee for 2020’s New restaurant of the Year!

On to our next category…


CHEF OF THE YEAR

In a normal year (how most sentences start these days), one of the factors I use to figure out which Chefs to consider for Chef of the Year is: Who had a GREAT year? Well, 2020 was more or less a shit year for most of the chefs I know, but not for all of them! And even for those who had a tough time after the pandemic hit, they rose above that and remained active and in the public eye. While there are many more chefs, and cooks, who deserve my praise than those listed below, here are my top four nominees for Asheville’s 2020 Chef of the Year award…


Chef Tom LaFauci

I just went on and on about Chef Tom LaFauci at Twisted Laurel a few scrolls up from here, so I won’t go over all that stuff again. Instead I’ll talk about him as a person. He’s nice. He’s real. He’s down to Earth. He gives 110%. He gives a shit. I watched Tom interact with customers, and staff, and he always looks you straight in the eyes when he talks to you, and he never bullshits about anything. I watched him take a young Sous Chef under his wing last year, and that Chef was GLUED to Chef Tom’s side. When we would bring tours in, Tom would always come out with the food, present it out loud (sous Chef at his side), then he would come back and “touch the tables,” ie: visiting every patron, looking them in the eye and asking, “How was the food?” And the food! Hit after hit after hit after hit, with me, with my tour patrons, and with the other customers, residents of, and visitors to Asheville. He (along with GM Vince and the rest of the crew) saved their restaurant. It wasn’t necessarily going to make it, even before the pandemic, but as they say, hard work pays off, and now Twisted is having their best year ever despite the pandemic. I can not tell you how much I respect and admire Chef Tom, and that is why he is my first nominee for 2020 Chef of the Year!


Chef Melissa Gray

Photo montage provided by Pie.Zaa

Some people are workhorses. Some people are creative as fuck. Chef Melissa Gray of Rosabee’s is both of those things. Very early on in the pandemic, I started watching how the various restaurateurs around town were acting and reacting during these insanely difficult times, and right away I recognized a high level of grit and determination possessed by Chef Gray. So much so, that when I was invited by Revolve Studios to do a Zoom meeting about adapting to COVID times, she was the first person I thought of to co-host with me. She and I talked and texted with each other fairly often throughout 2020, and I have come to regard her fortitude as highly as her culinary skills. With everything changing day-to-day, week-to-week, month after month, Chef Gray has put her head down, wrapped her hands around the situation, and met every challenge like an immovable object AND an irresistible force. We still text about all this bullshit and how to fucking deal with it, and she admits that it’s been a struggle and still is, but I don’t see this Chef stopping anytime soon. I do believe that there are better days ahead, and I’m more hopeful than I’ve been in a long time. People like Chef Gray give me that hope, and not for nothing her food is tasty as fuck too, and there simply ain’t nothing else like it, or her, in this town, and for those reasons and more, she is my second nominee for 2020’s Chef of the Year award!


Chef Paty Saenz

I have been very fortunate, I would even say lucky, to meet Chef Paty Saenz from Pupuseria Patty’s Asheville. I say lucky, because we don’t even speak the same language, and it’s just difficult to meet people when you don’t speak their language, but fortunately Chef Saenz and I have a mutual friend who is literally an interpreter! And a foodie. His name is Luis, from the online multi-cultural publication, Descubre Asheville, and he brought me to the newest Pupuseria location, and introduced me to Chef Paty and her food. I’m telling you what, as soon as she sat down with us, I could see that she has “Super Star” written all over her. She shines. She has an awesome personal story of how she got to Asheville from El Salvador via NYC, and how she went from cleaning hotel rooms to owning two restaurants, where, in my opinion, the food fucking rules. For all those reasons and more, Chef Paty Saenz is my third nominee for 2020 Chef of the Year!


Chef Sujitra Chubthaisong aka Chef May

I think the words “power-house” should have a picture of Chef May from Thai Pearl next to them in the dictionary. Full-name Sujitra Chubthaisong, Chef May handles a tremendous number of orders and customers for lunch and dinner service, 7 days a week, and she does it all while being short-staffed, during a pandemic. One of my roles with KickbackAVL.com is doing what we call “dispatch support,” AKA calling in orders, and handling customers service. This role places me in a unique position to see just how much business this chef handles, and just how willing people are to wait a half hour, 45 minutes, an hour, or more to get her food. On a Friday night, forget about it, Thai Pearl is SLAMMED. Orders are coming in through our app like crazy, plus they do take-out, and limited in-house dining! The phones ring and ring, and the food gets cooked, bagged or plated and sent out into the world at a furious pace. “Fire times” (the amount of time it takes to cook something) can get cra-cray, and I sometimes have to call the Kickback custys and ask them if they want to cancel their orders, or if they wanna wait. Most of time, they’ll wait. I wouldn’t say they’re happy to wait, but they wait. I know I would. I’d just be like, “okay, I’ll just have another cup of coffee for dinner, and then hoover down several pounds of Thai food at 9:30 pm.” Seriously. 100% realistic scenario. For building such a loyal audience, in such a short amount of time, during such difficult times, and working her ass off to do, Chef May Sujitra Chubthaisong is my fourth nominee for Chef of the Year 2020!


Chef Eric Morris

In January, February, and part of March 2020, Chef Eric Morris and his crew were CRUSHING IT at the new Cultura restaurant. I have always been a fan of this Chef, whom I first met while he was at The Nightbell, one of my favorite restaurants ever, and a past winner of my “Restaurant of the Year” award. When Nightbell closed its doors, I was a little worried that Chef Eric might leave town to find greener pastures elsewhere, but when I asked him if he was staying in Asheville, he said something like, “Dude, I just bought a house, and my wife had a baby. I’m not going anywhere.” Yay! When I heard he was one of the chefs opening Cultura, I was excited! I ate there a handful of times, and loved it! Then I started doing “Night Tours” on Wednesdays, and Chef Morris was kind enough to let us come in to Cultura, where he started feeding our groups from their “FEASTS” menu. Holy shit. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like the feasts that this kitchen fed my groups. Piles and piles and piles of fantastically good grub. Like, not kidding, it literally came out in piles. Chicken, turkey, duck, sausage, bread, fish, cheese, taters, veggies veggies veggies. Fucking incredible. Eric was all smiles, and so engaging with the tours. He was a great host, in part because he is a solidly good person, with a good heart and soul.

About mid-March 2020, when the world fell apart, putting the kibosh on both food tours and food service, and the Cultura kitchen closed down, Chef Eric fed me, and a bunch of other food industry people, a ton of free food from the Cultura kitchen, and as far as I can tell, he has never stopped cooking free food for people ever since. He seems to have found a new mission and meaning in life. Every time I turn around it seems as though I’m seeing another post about him feeding people free food through a church, non-profit, or some other organization. One could easily say that this Chef’s meteoric rise went from the best restaurant in town, to the soup kitchen! Not kidding. For his amazing cooking, which is only met by his generosity, humanity, and heart, I’m happy to call Chef Morris my friend, and make him the fourth and final nominee for my 2020 Chef of the Year award!

UPDATE – Look for Chef Eric’s next endeavor, Little Red Fox sandwiches and such.

Next category…


RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR

I’m capping this category at two nominees, which is unprecedented in the 8 year history of the Food Fan Awards (aka The Stoobies). The reason there are only two this time, is because… well, I really want to give an award to every restaurant out there who even survived 2020, let alone excelled, or had a “great year” which is my usual criteria. Every restaurant got dealt the shittiest of hands, and yet, against the odds and predictions of total collapse, many have survived. We ain’t outta the soup yet, not by a long shot, but if you are a restaurant owner and you’re reading this, I want to say thank you, and congratulations, despite every single thing working against you, YOU STILL ARE HERE RIGHT NOW! And that is amazing. You are all worthy of praise and recognition, I regret that I have limited time and energy to write these awards, or I would surely write one for each of you, but alas. Here are my two nominees for Restaurant of the Year, 2020…


Twisted Laurel

I feel like I kinda already said all the stuff about this restaurant above, but they really did have the best year possible under the most difficult circumstances the food industry has every faced. They served great food, that only got better and better as the year went on, and they redefined themselves, for the third time, finally finding their groove, long after many other people might have given up and shuttered their doors for good. In January 2020 they were already in contention to get this nomination, and the only thing they had to do was not fuck up. They didn’t. Not even a little bit. For toughing it out in the good times, then excelling in the bad times, for keeping it real at all times, avoiding both drama and disease during the strangest of days, while banging out delicious, accessible food, that people fucking like, and making money while the world was already digging a grave for the food industry, Twisted Laurel, Downtown Asheville is my first nominee for Restaurant fo the Year, 2020.


Vivian

Photo montage provided by Vivian

Here’s another place that I was worried about when the shit first hit the fan, and another place that rose to meet the challenge, to maintain continuity of service and quality of food in an ever-changing world. Vivian is right in my hood, so it’s as local as it gets for me, plus I honestly believe with all my heart that they serve world-class food, so it’s also kind of swank and international-feeling to me. I have given them several awards and nominations since they opened in 2018, including Best New Restaurant and Best Restaurant. My heart was breaking with the very idea that the pandemic would put them out of business. Fortunately, it has not, and in fact they seem to be thriving. Again, I watched as they developed new menus as well as new methods to deal with the new world, yet they never moved even one centimeter off brand, in terms of the quality and presentation of the food and level of service.. They seemed to almost embrace the limitations, and shine while working within the restrictions. They produced some of the best food I ate all year, from fried chicken dinners, to whole trout, to a pastry that looked just like a Hostess cupcake, but was a million times better. Shannon and Chef Josiah McGaughey did every single thing right as far as I could tell, by staying creatively nimble, working hard, making super-smart decisions, and sticking with the big plan of providing amazing, high quality food to their customers, while constantly altering smaller parts of the plan in order to adapt and evolve. Also their social media game is killer, and I gotta respect that. All of those things combined to make Vivian an obvious choice for this category, and they are my second nominee for Restaurant of the Year 2020.

Photo provided by Vivian


And that’s the third and final installment of the NOMINATIONS for the 2020 Food FanAwards! I will announce the winners soon! Stay tuned!

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Stu Helm is a writer, blogger, and social media personality living and working here in Asheville,NC.
Please follow him on FacebookInstagram, and his own blog, StuHelmFoodFan.com

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