Asheville’s Culinary Community

The farm-to-table movement, which has become popular in restaurants across the country, can trace its roots to the mid-2000s, when books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and The 100-Mile Diet by J. B. MacKinnon began convincing people that using locally sourced, sustainable ingredients was an attainable goal. Farm-to-table has long been a way of life in Asheville, N.C., rather than a new culinary trend, but in 2006, the movement’s traction helped the Explore Asheville team realize that the city’s culinary landscape could resonate with visitors searching for an authentic food and beverage experience. Dodie Stephens, director of communications for Explore Asheville, tells us more about Foodtopia, the culinary community that fuels Asheville’s restaurants, breweries, and farmers’ markets.

Creating Foodtopia

As the farm-to-table movement spread, Explore Asheville began thinking about ways to advertise the extensive experiences available through Asheville’s culinary community, which includes restaurants, bakeries, cafes, breweries, distilleries, farms, and vineyards.

“We’d been hearing from our visitors that we had this food scene to rival the likes of Charleston, but it wasn’t something that was known on the greater scale,” says Stephens. “We hadn’t really put a lot of effort into promoting very specifically until that point. The start of that was bringing in some culinary experts, immersing them in the food scene without any expectations of coverage, and asking them, ‘Do we have what we think we have here?’ From there it grew very organically in terms of talking about the reality of food in Asheville, and we got some great insight from them about what makes Asheville special.”

Foodtopia Smoky Park

Diners at Smoky Park Supper Club. Photo courtesy of Explore Asheville.

The Foodtopia nickname – a combination of the words “food” and “utopia” – may have been clever branding, but Asheville’s food and beverage scene, ripe with inspiration, created itself.

“Asheville is this free-spirited, highly collaborative culinary community with very deep roots,” says Stephens. “[Foodtopia] resonated with all of us, including the food community, as something that was bigger than just a creative concept. We, on the PR side, are working to tell the story [and] pull the culinary community together under this umbrella and really put some form and shape around it.”

The Foodtopia microsite, an extension of the Explore Asheville website, contains dozens of profiles of Foodtopians and the businesses they operate in Asheville.

“We’re charged with telling the story and marketing the destination as a whole – that’s what Explore Asheville does – so when we rolled out the Foodtopia microsite, we rolled out a program and opened it up to all the partners that were connected to us,” says Stephens. “We had a certain budget to do a certain number of them. There was an element of first-come first-serve, and every so often we budget and do some more, and we open it up again to those who’ve been engaged with us. We’re really looking to tell the stories of the very wide spectrum of culinary businesses that we have here, and we’re fortunate that there are so many, we could never cover them all.”

Foodtopia Chef Katie Button

Chef Katie Button (Cúrate, Nightbell, and Button & Co. Bagels). Photo courtesy of Explore Asheville.

Since 2010, Asheville has been home to James Beard Award-nominated chefs, including several nominated for Best Chef Southeast and some who are busy opening additional concepts in the area. Though the food-driven destination still has room to grow, it was dubbed a “culinary capital” by USA Today in 2016, and a 2017 Wine Mag article advised travelers not to “underestimate Asheville’s wine and food scene.”

“We still get mentioned as [an] ‘under-the-radar foodie city’ once every few months, but the special nature of this place is out there, especially in the culinary community,” says Stephens. “Foodtopia is an authentic brand and a way to talk about what’s happening here.”

Visiting Foodtopia

Like other flourishing culinary communities, Asheville restaurants serve regional fare alongside globally inspired food. Chefs in Foodtopia harmonize American, Asian, French, Indian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Spanish dishes with local ingredients and flavors.

“While we have one foot in the roots of Appalachian cuisine or ‘Southern food,’ Asheville chefs are artists and some of them have a really broad worldview when it comes to food and bring that into their menus,” says Stephens. “Some of them are just highly creative, and some of them are doing those more traditional things. We’re known more for our creativity and collaboration and our reverence for the land and the bounty that it provides.”

Foodtopia Cheese Plate

A local cheese plate at Rhubarb. Photo courtesy of Explore Asheville.

Visitors are often drawn to Appalachian areas during the fall for leaf peeping and apple picking, but Stephens offers KaTom readers “an insider’s tip” – consider visiting Foodtopia during the winter months, too.

“There’s a number of amazing new restaurants opening through the start of 2019,” says Stephens. “We also have Asheville restaurant week [in January]. In general, our chefs do some really cool things that are very representative of what happens in traditional Appalachian cooking over the winter. You’re seeing all of the fruits of the season turned into vinegars [and] all of the wonderful pickling traditions in the mountains, [and] you can try some Appalachian vinegar pie. I think it’s a great time to come because Asheville’s not necessarily blanketed with snow like other mountain destinations. It’s a really comfortable, cozy winter getaway, and one of the big highlights of visiting in the winter months is the food.”

No matter when you decide to visit Asheville, you can expect the city’s collaborative and creative culture to offer an “enriching and informative travel experience” with “hands-on” activities.

Asheville Farmers' Market

Olivette Farm offers produce at one of Asheville’s farmers’ markets. Photo courtesy of Explore Asheville.

“[Tourists and locals can enjoy] going to the local tailgate markets, which is what we call our pop-up farmers markets, or to a local creamery, or to the artisan bread festival, or out with one of the many local foragers,” says Stephens. “Especially for visitors, I think that’s something that makes our destination stand out. There’s going to the restaurant and having this amazing experience, but you could also spend the day foraging for those ingredients and then have them cooked by one of Asheville’s best chefs. There are many examples, from the brewing scene to the farm-to-table tours where you can be out in the beautiful landscape where the farmers and growers and artisan food producers are doing their work.”

To enjoy a taste of Foodtopia at home, download the free Foodtopia Cookbook, which includes recipes for Asiago truffle popcorn, spinach and split pea soup, buttermilk chocolate cake, and fried chicken.

Ariana Keller
Ariana Keller

Ariana Keller was raised on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in south Alabama, where she learned to fish and love football. She moved to Knoxville with her family when she was 12 and later graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in English. Passionate about Marvel Comics, Critical Role, and all things geeky, she spends her free time playing tabletop and video games, collecting beer caps from craft breweries around the country, and passionately rooting for mediocre sports teams. She is an advocate for animal rescue and lives in Knoxville with her husband and their two adopted pets: a hound dog named Beau and a Maine Coon mix named Vesper.

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