Chef Gavin Baker visits Marshallberg Farm in Lenoir as he sources sturgeon for a dish on the menu at the soon to open Noble Cider’s The Greenhouse. Angeli Wright, firstname.lastname@example.org
Opening a restaurant in three parts
- Introduction, What makes a good menu? We spent 4 months in Noble Cider’s new restaurant finding out
- Part 1, With sturgeon on the menu, Noble Cider’s restaurant attempts to tackle a niche
- Part 2, ‘Close-your-eyes delicious’: Prehistoric fish is crafted for new downtown Asheville restaurant
- Part 3, ‘From kitchen to working restaurant: The doors are open. What do diners think?’ will be released in June, shortly after the restaurant opens. Please stay tuned.
ASHEVILLE — It’s nearly feeding time at Marshallberg Farm’s Lenoir outpost, and the livestock are getting restless, splashing the water with their armored tails.
This is not traditional Western North Carolina farm stock.
Marshallberg Farm is the largest U.S. producer of Russian sturgeon, the prehistoric fish that yields Osetra caviar, with premium eggs netting nearly $100 an ounce.
Gavin Baker, chef of The Greenhouse, a forthcoming restaurant from Noble Cider, is determined to have all of it, from caviar to sturgeon steaks, on his menu.
“I think they’re beautiful, and they’re less than two hours from our house, which is stunning,” he said, reaching into one of the tanks to touch a fish’s leathery hide. It’s so strong, archery enthusiasts seek it out to make bows.
This mighty aquatic beast can live to nearly 50 years old and, in the wild, it’s also critically endangered. Farm-raised sturgeon, however, is a sustainable product. Although its caviar is prized, the fish’s remarkably firm flesh seems to scare American chefs.
“I’m going to figure it out,” the chef will say later, working his third portion of freshly cut sturgeon over an induction burner he hauled from Asheville for recipe testing.
A modern-American bistro
On June 21, Baker will open The Greenhouse in a 3,500-square-foot space fronting Rankin Avenue. The restaurant is owned by his brother Trevor Baker, who founded the Asheville-based Noble Cider with wife Joanna Baker and Lief Stevens. They, with Steve Stinnett and Robin Stevens, are also co-owners.
Plans are for an ambitious cocktail program, with a strong focus on craft cider. Gavin Baker’s charge is crafting a menu to match, one that also makes use of Noble’s nearly endless supply of applewood.
The Greenhouse will be a modern-American bistro, an innocuous term Baker admitted really means nothing at all.
“But it also means everything. It’s difficult for me to sum up my food philosophy and ethos, because I’ve tried to get away with saying ‘my food’ for so long. Nobody’s buying that.”
It means a sophisticated yet casual restaurant that bears no allegiance to Asian, Middle Eastern or European flavors, though those cultures’ techniques and ingredients will be represented.
“The world is a melting pot,” said Baker. And so is Asheville, with local miso, tempeh and even rice and ginger.
This will be a place where you can get a locally raised, wood-grilled bone-in ribeye, served with beef-tallow butter and simply dressed greens. You might find a simple frisee salad with warm bacon vinaigrette. Or a whole 7-pound North Carolina black drum, kissed with a touch of smoke from apple-orchard wood.
Some dishes will be intricate and involve tweezers, and some will be plated in a more organic and intuitive fashion, he said.
“I’m looking to bring out the best for each dish,” he said.
At the foundation, that means top-notch ingredients, sourced locally — like this bedeviling dinosaur of a fish. It means discovering, slowly if necessary, the best way to cook them.
A fascination with sturgeon
Baker has opened a dozen restaurants around the world. Fresh from receiving a Masters in Anthropology of Food from the SOAS University of London, his resume is wildly diverse.
The A-B Tech culinary graduate has cooked for famed British chef Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck, and also learned from Balinese natives how to hunt and prepare wild boar in the jungle.
Given this background, you wouldn’t expect menu sourcing to happen solely at the kitchen table. It’s best in the presence of the farmer, Baker said, peering into a tank of fish the size of greyhounds, asking the farm manager the sorts of questions a culinary anthropologist might ask.
“One of my goals in this restaurant is to find people like Marshallberg Farms, people who are raising animals with integrity,” he said. “Certainly if it’s a sentient being, I have to meet the people. I have to look you in the eye and make sure we’re on the same page.”
In the cool, dark tank shelter, Baker listed the things he loves about this sturgeon: Incredible fat content; a tendency to hold up to even aggressive cooking methods; the fact that it’s being raised in Western North Carolina.
Sabine Mader, Marshallberg’s farm manager, said Baker was the first Asheville chef to show real interest in her products.
“I do find it odd you don’t see them (on menus) more often,” Baker said.
He would learn the reason why rather quickly. That meat would prove to hold mysteries that seemed appropriate for these odd giants: Instead of becoming something sumptuous in his pan, it remained tenaciously firm.
“I really honestly mean this,” Mader told the chef. “If you can tackle this thing — because many chefs go in, try it one time and give up — if you can tackle it, you have a niche.”
In Russia, it’s a delicacy, she added. “They eat it all day long. It’s like their pork.” They boil it, grill it and roast it over slow heat. They serve it marinated, as kebabs.
Americans? They don’t tend to go for it. “Because you can’t fry it,” she said.
But Baker figures the fish will be perfect for his wood-fired Josper oven, which he describes as “not too dissimilar to a house fire in a concrete box.”
‘I went on this killing spree’
The killing and gutting happened before Baker arrived.
He was presented with a 10-year-old male sturgeon, and he would learn how to process its fat-striated body in a sterile room. These fish are so weirdly cartilaginous, so without traditional bone structure as to be rather alien, that even for a veteran chef it was a learning process.
After a quick lesson, Baker set up his induction burner, covering a stainless steel table with an array of sides and sauces hauled the hour and a half from Asheville: various fats, chimichurri, a sort of choucroute and a vegan stand-in for sour cream made from cashews.
Baker pressed into a nearly smoking sauté pan a portion of flesh so fresh it twitched and tensed in the extreme heat. It simply would not yield.
“I enjoy the challenge of it,” he murmured, covering the pan and removing it from the burner to let the fillet rest in the residual heat. Perhaps the rich, yellow fat would begin to melt. Perhaps the muscles would relax.
“You want to have to work for it a bit so it will yield itself in its best format,” he said without looking up from the challenge before him. “Otherwise, anyone could do it. It’d be on every menu in town.”
Challenge is practically a pastime for Baker, who once walked from London to Scotland in the dead of winter on a whim. But he will not gamble with the life of an animal.
Thomas Keller, in The French Laundry Cookbook, tells a memorable story about killing rabbits for his menu.
The first one struggled, screamed, broke its leg. Keller was quicker with the remaining rabbits, but the experience never left him: “Because killing those rabbits had been such an awful experience, I would not squander them,” the chef wrote.
Keller’s lesson has stayed with Baker.
“I went through a phase as well. I reached a point in my career where I didn’t want to cook any more meat unless I killed it, so I went on this killing spree,” he said, days before this trip to the sturgeon farm. “I decided that, if I couldn’t take the life of this animal, I couldn’t cook it. And it was a game-changer.”
Wild boars and blood
It was that sort of ethical deep dive that landed him in the jungles of Bali, hunting wild boar with Torajan natives and learning to prepare a traditional minced-meat and pig’s blood dish cooked in bamboo over fire, usually reserved for funeral feasts.
“We got a wild boar, and I stabbed it in the heart in the jungle, and we broke it down and wrapped the meat in banana leaves,” Baker recalls, recounting the village women singing and pounding spices gathered from the jungle, while the men broke down the animal and harvested the blood, using every last part.
That sort of experience is far removed from the relatively sterile environment of the modern kitchen, but it’s an indelible part of Baker’s food philosophy.
You can see it in the commitment to using every part of this local sturgeon, said Noble co-owner Joanna Baker.
“It’s his dedication to his ethos. It’s this full circle coming around of I’ve been in the kitchen for so many years, and I’ve seen mistakes, and I’ve worked with enlightened chefs as well,” she said. “Now, he’s come full circle and said, ‘This is how I want to make my food. This is what’s important to me. This is me’ — and that’s amazing.”
But Gavin Baker said he’s certainly not immune to mistakes, which is one of the hardest parts of recipe creation. You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.
“What do I do with dishes I don’t think are worthy of the dining room?” he said. “Because that’s been created out of ingredients that someone toiled for, or where a life was taken.”
After a day on the farm, puzzle not yet solved, it was time to head back to the drawing board in Asheville.
This is part one of a series following chef Gavin Baker as he creates a single dish, from idea to execution on his restaurant’s opening day.