Q&A: Chef William Dissen

The chef from the dinner talks about his experience with Outstanding in the Field, and how the farmer is the chef’s best friend.

Tell us a little about your restaurant, The Market Place, and its commitment to farm-to-table.

I bought the restaurant two years ago. This July we will celebrate our 32nd anniversary. We are the oldest restaurant in Asheville. And farm-to-table is our mission. We’ve been practicing it since Day One.

Why is farm-to-table such a trend in Asheville?

We were definitely a trendsetter, and we continue to be. But a lot of people nowadays are doing it. You see a Domino’s Pizza commercial, and they show the pizza and then they cut to a picture of a tomato field and a farmer, and then they say, “We know where our tomatoes come from.” It’s the hottest food trend in 2011. So it’s something that we really celebrate, because of the accessibility here in Asheville. There’s just a very unique growing climate here.

Is that what made Asheville such a perfect place for a restaurant like yours?

I do feel that that’s part of it.  But, I think a lot of it is also just the kind of Appalachian mindset. We are smack flat in the heart of Appalachia, and most Appalachians are not rich people. The mantra has always been, “Live off the land.” Take everything and utilize everything and make something out of it.  Because that’s what you have to do to survive.

Is that lifestyle in your background?

My grandparents owned a large farm in rural West Virginia. And yes, they did live off the land. They were country folk and they raised livestock, they raised a garden. Everything they produced, they canned, they pickled, they froze, and they preserved. I watched my grandmother do this for years and years, and she did it with a lot of love for her family, and respect for the land. It was empowering to see, and I think it definitely struck me and enlightened me, and I decided a career path in cooking was just a natural evolution.

For me, farm-to-table is more than just using fresh local produce, it’s being a part of the community, bringing people together. And on top of that, you’re getting this great fresh produce as well.

How much of what you serve in the restaurant is sourced locally?

It’s definitely very seasonal. Obviously, we’re in Appalachia, so it’s not like Southern California, where there’s a year-round growing cycle. So, we do our best. In summertime, I’d say we’re probably at 90 percent local.

Wow. What is the inventory process like? Seems like it would be so much easier if it all just came on one truck.

Oh, it’s a lot more legwork. I spend a lot of time on the phone. I could very easily call up one of my major [food service] reps and say, “Okay, here are my lists. Plug it into the system, and I’ll see you tomorrow.” But, the flavor’s not there. The color, the freshness, the ripeness is not there. And, I think everyone in this recession is talking about  value, and it’s value that we’re passing on to our customers. Because we’re giving them a healthier, brighter, more flavorful, tastier product.

How many farmers do you work with?

That’s really hard to say, because we get so many farmers, because of our heritage, that just show up. Recently, we were looking to change corporate checking accounts, and one of the banks we were speaking with said we could only write 250 checks a month. I said, “Unfortunately, that’s not gonna be enough.” They said, “Well, what do you mean? How can you write more than that, that’s just an obscene amount?” But because of the amount of farmers that we go through during the summertime, we sometimes write over 300 checks a month.

How do you make those connections?

I frequent the tailgate markets here in Asheville. In season, there are six tailgates a week in Asheville. Like I said about the community thing, I get to know my farmers, and know them beyond just somebody who’s a purveyor. We get to become friends.

How did you get involved with the Oustanding in the Field Dinner at the Robertson place?

When I was chosen to host a dinner, I immediately knew the farmers I wanted to work with. I knew [the Robertsons] raised lamb, rabbits, chicken and trout. So, I said, “Well, there are four center plate items that I’ll be able to work with right there.”

So, as the host chef, does Outstanding in the Field leave the menu up to you?

They pretty much leave a large amount of it up to me. They’re like a bunch of culinary carnies. They travel all over the country in this bus with trailers behind them, and pull up to different places and then just unload, set up tables, set up a makeshift kitchen very quickly, and they say, “Okay, here you go.” Then, you go to town.

What did you think of the set-up at East Fork Farm?

Oh, it was great. It really was the most perfect dinner I’ve ever done. In the restaurant business, Murphy’s Law is an understatement. Something inevitably goes wrong. You’re always having to make a quick decision on your toes. But I’ll tell you something: That night, everything just was completely perfect.

Really?

Oh yeah. We had this great reception above the trout pond, and they did the tour of the farm, and then everybody ended up at the field, where we were having the dinner. As people who were descending into the field to find their seat, the sun crested over the top of the mountain, and cast a  shadow over the table to cool the table off. As soon as the dessert course finished, and people were finishing up, the sun set and then a full moon rose up over the top of the pasture. It was just one of those days that was like, “This is really too good to be true.” It was almost eerie, it was so perfect.

And that is some farm, too.

I really enjoyed working with the Robertsons. They were very gracious hosts, and they did a wonderful job of bringing my team and my restaurant onto their farm and their home, and opening their lives and house up to us, to let us create this wonderful dinner. It was definitely one of my top culinary experiences of my life.

Go to The Market Place website for more information about the restaurant and Chef Dissen.

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