BLACK HISTORY MONTH
ASHEVILLE’S RESTAURANT INDUSTRY IS AN ENGINE OF ECONOMIC GROWTH AND OPPORTUNITY. RESTAURANTS ARE MAJOR CONTRIBUTORS TO JOB CREATION, TAX REVENUE, AND OUR COMMUNITY’S UNIQUE IDENTITY. IN CELEBRATION OF BLACK HISTORY MONTH, MEET SOME OF THE MANY AFRICAN AND AFRICAN-AMERICAN RESTAURANT OWNERS, CHEFS, AND WORKERS WHO HAVE MADE THIS ALL POSSIBLE.
ESTHER JOSEPH PHOTO CREDIT: ASHEVILLE CHANNEL
Five years ago, Esther Joseph had never heard of Asheville. The native of the Caribbean island of St. Lucia turned New Yorker was considering changing her entire life – her location and work – to relocate to an undetermined destination when the Internet led her to Asheville. CONTINUED ON PAGE 5
PHOTO CREDIT: ASHEVILLE CHANNEL
PHOTOS CREDIT: ASHEVILLE CHANNEL
She now owns and operates Calypso, Asheville’s only St. Lucian restaurant. “I had been in New York for over 25 years and was looking for a slower pace, something different, a better quality of life,” says Joseph. After suffering abuse and poverty as a child, Esther moved to New York in search of a better life, intending to leave her pain and past behind on the island. For her, the opportunity to move to Asheville and open a restaurant was as much about connecting with her culture and past, as it was a business opportunity. “Asheville reminds me of St. Lucia in a lot of respects. I like the small feel of the community. I like the greenery, the slow pace compared to New York, the mountains, and even though there is no ocean, there is always water.” For Joseph, opening Calypso was about regaining something she had lost – to reconnect with her childhood and culture – something she had forgotten during her decades in New York. She began to reflect on her childhood, the pain she had endured and the memories – both good and bad – she had left behind. “In trying to recapture that, I realized there were good memories as well,” says Joseph.” “We were poor growing up, but there was always an emphasis around food. All of the
good memories I have were centered around food and centered around the recipes that I love.” If you’ve never heard of St. Lucia, you’re not alone. Joseph enjoys the challenge of educating people on the island’s food and culture. “When people hear Caribbean, most people think of Jamaican,” she says. “Few people have actually heard of St. Lucia.” So what’s the difference between St. Lucia, Jamaica, and any of the other Caribbean islands? “I think it’s something small,” says Joseph. “I think it’s differences in the history of the peoples who were there before. St. Lucia has the English, the French, and African influences. With the English also came the Indian influence, which I think the curries come from. The blending of the people who occupied those islands made a difference in the culture and the cuisine.” For Joseph, the food she’s creating at Calypso aren’t just dishes, they’re pieces of her. “Every item on the menu is a memory to me,” she says. Her favorite item: The Salt Fish Suzanna, which she named to honor her mother.
PHOTO CREDIT: ASHEVILLE CHANNEL
NEERAJ & VICKI
Addissae owners Neeraj Kebede and Vicki Schomer have been serving up Ethiopian food in Asheville since 2014. The husband and wife team tell us what they love about the restaurant business and Asheville below. What brought you to the United States? Neeraj: Like any Ethiopian, being able to come to America is a dream come true. After finishing my college education in India I was able to come to the US. Iâ€™ve been here nearly 40 years. How did you two meet? Neeraj and Vicki: We met in the San Francisco Bay Area where we lived for over 20 years before we moved to Asheville in 2006. Why did you decide to open up a restaurant in Asheville? Neeraj: Since we moved to Asheville, people were always asking when I would open a restaurant. We have been running a B&B since we moved here, and that was keeping us plenty busy. But three years ago we were financially able to consider opening a restaurant and decided to jump in and give it a try. CONTINUED ON PAGE 7
What’s the story behind the name ‘Addissae?’ Is there a special meaning? Neeraj: Addissae is my Mother’s name. It means ‘new.’ Food is a great way to learn and experience other cultures. What does it mean to you to be able to share Ethiopian culture with the people of Asheville through your food? Neeraj: One of the most important reasons for me to open our restaurant is to be able to share my culture. Ethiopia is an ancient and rich civilization, a country where mankind developed along the Rift Valley, and where coffee was first discovered. I am always delighted to see the smiles on people’s faces as they eat our unique cuisine.
And I never get tired of answering questions about Ethiopia and its diverse people. For example, did you know that Ethiopia has over 70 unique languages? What is your favorite part about your job? Neeraj and Vicki: For both of us, our greatest joy is to share Ethiopian food with our terrific customers - those that are first timers and need help learning how to eat with our injera bread and their hands, and our wonderful regulars. What’s your personal favorite dish at Addissae and why? Our favorite food changes from day to day. Vicki: Right now I’m really enjoying our local Smiling Hara ‘Tempeh Tibbs’ dish – sautéed spicy with lots of onion,
ginger and garlic. Neeraj: I’m always ready to eat a plateful of our spicy red lentils and gomen - Ethiopian collard greens. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as restaurateurs? Neeraj and Vicki: Neither of us had any restaurant experience, so our learning curve was pretty steep at first. We quickly learned how important it is to develop those good relationships with local suppliers and how to multi-task at an incredibly fast pace! We’ve also learned what an amazing community Asheville is with the many wonderful friends we’ve made who have supported us through our first 2 years.
ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT REASONS FOR ME TO OPEN OUR RESTAURANT IS TO BE ABLE TO SHARE MY CULTURE. ETHIOPIA IS AN ANCIENT AND RICH CIVILIZATION, A COUNTRY WHERE MANKIND DEVELOPED ALONG THE RIFT VALLEY, AND WHERE COFFEE WAS FIRST DISCOVERED. I AM ALWAYS DELIGHTED TO SEE THE SMILES ON PEOPLE’S FACES AS THEY EAT OUR UNIQUE CUISINE.
Gene moved to Asheville as a young child and grew up in the Southside neighborhood. As a young man he began committing crimes to make money. “I started selling drugs when I was 13 years old, got shot when I was 15 – got shot 9 times over in Hillcrest in ’92. One year later I was incarcerated. I went in when I was 16 and came home when I was 22, so I did 5 years and two months.” When Gene got out of prison he started working in fast food restaurants as a fry cook – his first exposure to the restaurant industry. While he enjoyed the opportunity for legitimate work, he wanted something bigger and was worried about paying bills. Gene’s mom was a single mother and had a strong work ethic, but Gene saw CONTINUED ON PAGE 9
how hard she had to work to scrape by and didn’t want that to be him. “Naturally I started gravitating back toward the streets again. I was incarcerated by the age of 24.” During that year back in prison, Gene’s first daughter was born. He realized that he needed to make some changes so he could support and be there for her. When Gene got out again, he started selling shoes and other goods on the street, which he saw as a more legitimate business than selling drugs, even though the practice was illegal. Still, he knew he could use his natural entrepreneurial skills to become successful eventually. Gene was incarcerated for the last time in 2006. During that time he had another daughter and his mother was diagnosed with cancer. His mother encouraged him to make something of himself. “She was telling me everything is going to be okay – don’t worry about her, just get myself out of
prison. I stopped thinking about crime at the time and started thinking about how I could change my life. I didn’t have any job skills per se, I just knew that I could create something.” While in prison, Gene got a job with a restaurant through a work release program in Forest City. His talents were quickly noticed. He was promoted to line cook after 3 months and was eventually asked to start writing a menu. With eight months left in Gene’s sentence, his mother finally succumbed to cancer. “My mother’s last words to me were ‘make me proud.’” That’s when Gene became laser-focused on making a career for himself in restaurants. “I had a chance to go down to see her and took her some banana nut bread that I had made in the kitchen. They said that she hadn’t moved out of bed in weeks and that she wouldn’t eat anything. When I got there she ate for me. She ate some fried chicken and
I WORKED FOR FATZ FOR TWO YEARS STRAIGHT NEVER TAKING A DAY OFF JUST BECAUSE I WAS THAT DETERMINED. I WANTED TO BE SOMETHING, YOU KNOW? some bread. I knew right then this was what I was going to do. I came back (to the kitchen) and busted my tail to learn all I could possibly learn.” When Gene was released from prison, a friend eventually helped him land a job at Fatz Café. “I worked for Fatz for two years straight never taking a day off just because I was that determined. I wanted to be something, you know?” Gene was eventually working several jobs at the same time when he realized he needed to get more training to move his career forward. He attended A-B Tech for culinary school and got good jobs in Asheville restaurants after
graduating. Deciding to follow his passions for entrepreneurship and giving back to the community, he started his own catering business on the side and volunteered at GO Kitchen to train students who were working to turn their lives around. Today, Gene is operating his own food truck – J. Lee’s Chicken Shack - and is still working to train culinary students at GO. He serves as an example to his students that if you’re willing to do the right things and work hard, anyone can turn their life around and make something of themselves.
In a city of transplants, Chef Hanan Shabazz has been a mainstay in the Southside neighborhood for most of her 67 years on this earth, providing good food, as well as words
of wisdom when needed. While sheâ€™s been cooking in the city for years, Shabazz is best known for her work with Green Opportunitiesâ€™ Kitchen Ready program, a three-
month class which prepares students for work in the food industry and sends graduates to restaurants all over the city. In a room full of young people, she CONTINUED ON PAGE 12
PHOTO CREDIT: MAX COOPER PHOTOGRAPHY
commands the respect one would expect of someone with her experience. Chef Hanan credits her mother and grandmother with giving her the skills that she is now passing down to the next generation of Asheville chefs. Her grandmother had 16 children and her mother had 10 children, so there were many mouths to feed and ample opportunities to learn how to cook. “There was always some cooking going on around our house. Plenty of people all the time and plenty of food,” says Shabazz. For Chef Hanan, her desire to cook begins with the community she loves and the desire to meet its needs. “All things that I touch begin with love. You have to love to be able to do things like this. I never really thought about being a chef, I just always knew that I could make food
taste good. And that actually has come from people that have enjoyed my food at some point and having them say, ‘hey, I want you to fix this for me.’” “My community matters to me, and I’ve been here for many years. Anything that happens in the south, east, west or north side of town, I’ll help somebody when I can. And the majority of the time it’s definitely with some food,” says Shabazz. Whether it’s feeding people or passing on her skills to the next generation, Chef Hanan focuses on nutrition and providing nourishment. “Nutrition is the nourishment to the body, mind and soul,” she says. “I’ve taught a lot of people how to eat some of the best food they could eat, especially vegetables. Most young people never like to eat vegetables, but I’ve actually been able to
help a lot of people learn how to eat to live and not live to eat, and take natural, good things and make good things happen with them.” Aside from a few years in New York City right after high school, Shabazz has spent her entire life in Asheville, and has seen its rapid transformation from sleepy mountain town to world-class destination complete with a worldrenowned food scene. “Asheville is home and wherever I’ve been I’ve always come back. It’s where my roots began, and I’m here now,” she says proudly. “As a matter of fact I live in my grandmother’s house where she lived from 1966 until she died in 1996. Nothing could be finer than to be here in Asheville, North Carolina. That’s what I feel each and every day.”
PHOTO CREDIT: ERIC ‘BIG E’ HOWARD
For Marie Johnson, a line cook at Green Sage Café, her job is all about making people happy. “I love to see the smiles people give when they eat a good meal. That’s basically what keeps me in the restaurant. As long as people appreciate your food, it’s the best feeling ever. It’s just amazing how food just brings smiles to people’s faces.” Originally from Sumter, South Carolina, Marie moved to Asheville several years ago to be close to family. After working several odd jobs, she discovered Green Opportunities’ Kitchen Ready, a culinary training program that prepares graduates for jobs in the food-service industry. Green Sage immediately hired her upon graduation. Marie plans on staying in the food industry and aspires to one day open her own fresh seafood market.
PHOTO CREDIT: ERIC ‘BIG E’ HOWARD
NO MATTER HOW MUCH PRESSURE COMES UP, I CAN LOOK BACK AND SAY ‘I DID THIS.’
Octavius grew up in Charlotte and moved to Asheville with his girlfriend when he was 23. Jobless and in need of a way to support his young family, Octavius decided to follow his passion for cooking and become a chef. He turned to Green Opportunites’ Kitchen Ready program, a non-profit in Asheville that trains people for jobs in the restaurant industry. Upon graduating from that program, he got a job as a dishwasher at The Bull and Beggar. “Every great chef starts off as a dishwasher. It makes you learn the pace of the restaurant… if you have cooks on the line and we run out of pots and pans, then you need to step up.” Octavius moved from dishwashing to
shucking oysters at Bull and Beggar before being hired as a fry cook at Juicy Lucy’s. Here’s what Octavius has to say about working in Asheville’s restaurant industry: What is your favorite thing about the restaurant industry? “It’s the people; it’s the feedback that you get once you serve a dish… I try my best to give it all I have. It’s just like art, but it’s cooking.” What skills have you developed working in a restaurant? Octavius says he developed great skills with GO Kitchen Ready and is continuing to build on those skills as he works in the restaurant industry. “I found myself within GO Kitchen Ready. It taught me self-discipline.” Octavius says his passion for cooking, his desire to make something of himself and provide for his family, and the skills he learned at Kitchen Ready helped launch his career. His father was killed when he was young and Octavius is happy that he has the opportunity to be there for his kids. “I can be that father that I never had in life.”
Octavius says he’s learned countless other skills in the kitchen. “Oh man! Time management, discipline, the list goes on. Patience is definitely one. No matter how much motivation you have you cannot receive everything at once. A lot of people come into this industry wanting to be the head chef now. They have to work from the ground up. I’m still building. I’m forever building. The learning process never ends. Each and every day I’m learning more.” How do you think those skills will help you throughout your career? Octavius credits the confidence he learned in the challenging environment at GO Kitchen Ready for preparing him for a life-long career in the restaurant industry. “No matter how much pressure comes up, I can look back and say ‘I did this.’ What is the best advice you ever received or lesson you learned in the restaurant industry? “No matter what you have going on outside of this kitchen, don’t bring it into this kitchen. The main focus is the food. The main focus is the service.”
Celebrate Black History Month and meet some of the many faces of Asheville's restaurant industry