Quality Establishments || Asheville, North Carolina
You'll find Asheville's best locally-sourced, handmade food in the last place you'd look.
Aaron is from Miami. He's been "in the kitchen" since he was four, went to culinary school in San Francisco, and has worked as a chef for the 12 years since. In Asheville, he operates the Hi-Fi Café, a space the length and width of a comfy RV behind a corrugated steel counter, in the hallway between Downtown Market and Hopey & Co.
I've passed this spot more than once, and the enlightened vibe attracted me back. Nonetheless, woeful experience has taught me that even places who do their coffee well tend to serve Nestlé-tinged versions of my favorite drink. I lowball my expectations and order a tea.
And that's when I notice the menu board--advertising locally sourced chicken, roast beef rubbed in cocoa and powdered espresso, housemade chimichurri. Feeling some misprision over my choice, as Aaron passes my tea over the counter, I throw out my standard café quality challenge--"How do you make your chai?"
"We do it ourselves," Aaron answers; his eyes spark with the satisfaction of a master swordsman challenged to a duel. In fact, he adds, he nearly volunteered this information before I ordered. "I should have trusted my instinct," he shakes his head. "I almost always do."
His operation has the neat efficiency and perky esprit of a nouveau food truck, and I ask if he's into that whole thing. (I immediately feel guilty, like I've become one of those people who tells me that I should turn this site into a vodcast.)
Aaron doesn't take it amiss. He's fine with the idea of food trucks, in general. In Asheville, though, the trucks are way overpriced. This is, in his view, against law of nature.
"The point with food trucks is that they're supposed to be cheap! There's no reason they shouldn't be, since you've done away with most of your overhead."
By and large, the restaurants in Asheville charge way too much for their food--tourist prices, he says. He doesn't fucking understand it. It shouldn't be that way.
"Look at my prices," he says, and I look. "I keep them low." Amazingly low, when you consider the local cred and labor behind everything he serves. They get their flour from Carolina Ground, their meat from Chop Shop Butchery, their coffee from Mountain Air Roasting. They fry their own chips, make their own pizza dough, and prepare their own coffee bar syrups. The only things not are homemade are the cheese and pepperoni.
"And I'm not stupid about business," he continues. "The numbers are right where they're supposed to be."
A big-deal restaurant consultant visited his culinary school in San Francisco to drill the students in cost-to-profit standards for running their business. The lesson stuck with him, more than anything he learned in the school kitchens; he hits those numbers every month, often improves on them.
Which leads him back to Asheville's penchant for playing to the tourists by pricing out the locals--he can't understand it, not on financial grounds and certainly not on moral grounds. For his part, Aaron says,
"I just want people to be able to eat the food."
He read a comment on Chowhound that said, "You'll find better food on the tables of Asheville homes than in Asheville restaurants." This he's found lamentably true, and barbecue is no exception to it. The ribs at 12 Bones are decent, but beyond that, even the barbecue in his hometown is better. (Having no wish to smirch the sublime memory I preserve of Delaney's Briskettown, I change my lunch plans for the afternoon.)
The problem isn't so much taste, but inconsistency. At any given local restaurant, he says, it's good when it's good, but you could go back the next night and have it be really terrible.
I ask Aaron where he does go to eat, when he deigns to.
- Zambra, for Spanish tapas. "I don't even know how they do half the things they do over there."
- The Admiral, in West Asheville
- Bouchon. Half the entrees are hit-or-miss, he tells me, but the mussels are always great and their French fries are fantastic.
- Chestnut, but only for the really great cocktails they make.
"The one thing I learned at CCA that I wouldn't have learned elsewhere, as quickly, is that every rule in one cuisine is broken by another."
What that means, he says, is that there are no hard and fast rules in cooking. He throws his hands forward in a shooing motion.
"Do what you want."
And, he allows, there was one more thing they taught him: the principle of Chinese cooking that every dish is perfected by the balance of the four flavors--sweet, sour, salty and spicy.
What about umame, I ask, feeling very smart for doing so.
That comes, he says, from having the other four in balance. And if you have them all in perfect balance and whatever you're making still feels like it's not there, what it needs is time. Like the potato soup he made for his Wednesday special. He made it, and it was very good, and yet it was missing something. But from experience, he knew to just let it sit. Today is Thursday, he says, so they're special-ing it again.
You must have known that I'd go back for a chai.
As I fight my greedy gourmandise with a modicum of appreciative restraint, Aaron lists the ingredients on his fingers: the usual stuff--clove, ginger, allspice, cinnamon, even fennel and coriander. It also has two different types of black tea, salt..."Oh yeah, and poppyseeds."
It's unlike any chai I've ever had. (And you know I've had plenty.) Though this puts a smile on Aaron's face, it isn't news to him. The best compliment he ever got was from a woman who had traveled all over the world, India included. Not only did she assert that his was the best chai she'd ever had, anywhere; the next day, on her way rushing to catch a plane, she and her husband stopped by so she could get another before leaving town.
He's had people from New York City and New Jersey rave over his bagels, saying they haven't had anything like that outside their hometown. A friend from Philadelphia swore that the cheesesteak Aaron made for a Wednesday special was the only real deal version she'd had outside of Philly.
He brings me a ramekin of the soup to taste. Bits of charred bacon lie on the surface, along with a candied pecan that bursts like a revelation against the faintly smoky flavor of the soup. It's thinner than I'm accustomed to--definitely not mashed potatoes with some broth thrown in. The leeks are large and melty thin; I'd assume they were cheese, if I didn't know better. The Specials board indicated there is goat cheese, but it doesn't make its presence felt in pockets of insistent pungency. And there's something else that my appreciative but unschooled palate doesn't recognize...I wonder if maybe that's the taste of time.
Katie is Aaron's partner, both in business and in life. (Their relationship, she adds, is of the open variety--"first time for both of us," she admits shyly.) They met when she was a cashier at Hopey & Co., the grocery next door. They started chatting as she rang up his purchases; two weeks later, they were dating.
At the time, she worked for the Hi-Fi's previous owner. The place was going through some rough times, and the owner asked her if she'd consult Aaron on what to do. Aaron had seen a restaurant that he co-owned with a family member go downhill, despite his best counsel for saving it. Armed with the insight of not only education but experience, he took over the Hi-Fi and made it what it is today. In the three years since, the café has grown by 175%, Katie says proudly.
To some extent, he also made Katie what she is today--the strict training he gave her in cooking was a hard learning curve. She was in school full-time at UNC, in addition to her two jobs; the stress of those months still makes her shoulders hunch protectively. Nevertheless, she says, that the crunch period of turning the Hi-Fi into what they knew it could be helped her work through a lot of shit about fucking up. As tough a teacher as he could be, Aaron never makes her or lets her feel bad on a personal level for making mistakes. She looks at him warmly--"He's always the first to tell me 'Don't worry about it, just do it again.'"
"I'm not one of those chefs that needs to be mean to people," he agrees. "I don't need to walk around here telling people to call me 'Chef Aaron.' I earned the title, but I don't need to be called it."
Katie's degree is in Health and Wellness Promotion; one of her favorite things about running the café is the opportunity it affords for ground-level activism. They don't carry soy milk or diet soft drinks--when asked why not, they seize the opportunity to explain what they know. (I was unaware, prior to my conversation with them, that the chemicals in soda turn to formaldehyde in your stomach. "I won't serve something that I know is poison," Aaron states dryly.)
The day after one such conversation, Katie recalls, a customer came back and said he had given up his daily Diet Dr. Pepper. To another customer, Katie put her foot down one day and said she wouldn't serve her any more coffee until she started bringing in her own cup.
"I'd said enough times nicely," she says. And it worked. The woman always came in after that with her own cup.
"It's something we do in life in general," Aaron says. "Bringing consciousness."
I sat at the counter for a good four hours and, even with my earbuds on, kept hearing people exclaim in delight over whatever it was they ordered--roast beef sandwiches, pizza, coffee drinks. Those who didn't make a fuss over their food exchanged banter with Aaron, Katie and "Southern Belle" Leigh, who dish out diner-style sass to their regulars...and, if they like you, also let you lick the spoon when the brownies are in the oven.
Visit the Hi-Fi Café next time you're in Asheville. Go on Wednesday for their weekly special.