Nate Allen, head chef and owner of Knife & Fork, a big-league restaurant in small-town Appalachia, sees poetry in biscuits: When hand-made, each one is as unique as a snowflake. It is his grandmother's philosophy and it centers him. "You can get angry at the fact of just turning on the lights, walking over to the kitchen, and doing this," he tells me one recent morning. He's standing over a hot griddle, preparing a pork sausage, egg and cheese biscuit sandwich, with Father John Misty crooning over the sizzle. "It can get repetitive enough that it can drive you crazy. But what I continually go back to is the ways my grandma taught me: how to infuse everything with love; the ritual and intention behind cooking; why you cook as opposed to how you cook."
Allen, 39, is in a good mood. The last year saw a windfall: He was nominated for a James Beard award; Knife & Fork, which opened in 2009, moved into a new, better location; he ate at Gaggan in Thailand; he fell in love. Everything is in its right place. "It's not this nebulous thought or idea anymore. Now it's like, 'OK, we're in this space. We can start at the beginning of the season doing everything exactly the way that I want to, or at least working closer toward it.'"
It is probably true that Allen, who has a penchant for obscure, often foraged ingredients, is the best chef in Spruce Pine, North Carolina, the tiny mining town in which his small eatery sits. You could never say that of his previous life, when he worked in the uber-competitive culinary world of Los Angeles. Before relocating here with his then-wife in 2009, Allen cooked for ten years in high-end restaurants like A.O.C. and also privately for celebrities. (He declined to reveal their names, though he did speak longingly of the paychecks.) Spruce Pine, a hilly town of around 2,000 people surrounded by grey-blue mountains, is like another world. "Welcome to the cultural center of the universe," he quips. Bearded, tattooed, wearing a t-shirt, faded jeans, black apron, and a torn flat-cap, his tone was jocular but without bitterness. Allen says he adores it here, this "sleepy town where everybody keeps their doors unlocked."
Spruce Pine, "The Gem of the Mountains," is the world's foremost supplier of high-quality quartz, which is found in the processing chips of nearly every computer on earth. While there are few items more valuable, the town itself is in a bit of a slump. It suffers from the same ails as elsewhere in rural America: people moving out, few moving in. Factories have shuttered. And in 2008, right before before the financial crisis, Spruce Pine suffered a bizarre but debilitating arsonist attack.
On a single night, David Kenneth McCall, a loner who lived above the town's Mexican restaurant, El Ranchero, set fire to several downtown businesses–a thrift store, an historic train depot, a garage, an office building that held a church. Some were torched to the ground, though nobody was hurt. His method involved pushing lit fodder through mail-slots. In the aftermath, federal officials declared the area a disaster zone. "It really set town back," laments Linda Dellinger, owner of the Christian bookstore up the street from Knife & Fork. "It was such a neat little town—it still is, if people can just get their feet back on the ground."
Cindy Lindsey, an advertising representative at the Mitchell News-Journal and three-decade long resident of Spruce Pine, was more optimistic. "We're not gonna get industry back. But we have some empty buildings that we're hoping to fill with entrepreneurial-type businesses," she says. Lindsey sees an upward trend with those kinds of businesses, and Allen's restaurant is a key part of that movement. "He did an awesome job bringing people, exposing Spruce Pine as a place to come to," Lindsay says.
And indeed many do come to Spruce Pine solely for Allen's dishes. Part of the attraction is the novelty of his menu. He is a pathological experimenter, and because he relies largely on seasonality, the menu is constantly morphing with dishes like flan with candied violets; trout marrow with trout roe, radishes, natebasco, and lemons; and braised rabbit vol-au-vent with rabbit sausage, rabbit rillettes, stonecrops, and ramps. They are the sort of odd, unique plates that would stimulate the salivary glands of the hipsters of Asheville, the Millennial hotspot 50 miles northeast, as well as those of any American foodie, from Brooklyn to the Bay Area. His dishes are experiences.
Allen grows several of the smaller ingredients in a garden behind the restaurant, including thyme, sage, cardoons ("Strip the leaves off, you can braise the stems and it tastes like artichoke"), parsley, mint, cascade hops ("We make hops syrup for the bar; I use hops with rabbits a lot"). Allen also sets out into the mountains to forage, a skill learned from locals. He collects such obscure edibles as wild Indian cucumber root, buds of the white pine, sassafras, and spicebush berries ("We introduce that into coffee; we make desserts out of it; I put it into brines; I use the wood from the bush to smoke things"). Findings differ by the season, which Allen loves. "The great thing about having distinct seasons is that it gives you a reason to celebrate each one. There are different things that grow, different things you eat at different times of the year and they all make perfect sense," he says.
Allen has also struck deals with a number of local farmers who now sell almost exclusively to him. Often he requests them to grow or raise specific crops or animals, such as shiitake mushrooms or rabbits. When he first approached them, saying he'd take nearly everything they grew, they were doubtful. "They're like, 'Ah yeah, here's this guy from California driving out in a jelly-bean blue VW bus and he thinks he's going to make this great restaurant, this big statement, here in the middle of nowhere," Allen remembers. "About a year later they all started taking me a lot more seriously."
In the spring and summer months, when Knife & Fork kicks into full gear, reservations can be hard to come by. It is a small space with a meager staff. But on this grey morning, a week before they will open full-time, it feels like any small-town diner. A handful of middle-aged locals–Allen knows each by name–sit at small tables chatting softly or reading the News-Journal with coffee and breakfast sandwiches. With the mist outside and the railroad tracks, the mountains like a dark wall, it is pleasant in an old-fashioned way. What sticks out is the indie playlist and the gourmet origins of each ingredient. These are high-quality eats.
Warm and beaming, Allen sets down my breakfast sandwich. It is quite possibly the tastiest I've had, with a crunchy soft biscuit blackened just right, a sweet sausage patty, and a sharp cheese. I remember what he said about the individuality of biscuits, his grandmother's cooking philosophy. It explains so much of Allen's approach—the perpetual experimentation, the intense pride in the bespoke dish, the obsession with "from scratch." It's the grandmotherly reminder that the tastiest things are those of which there are only one.