Written by Marie Bartlett | Photos by Sadrah Schadel & Anthony Harden
What does a venture capitalist know about estate planning?
Chef and restaurant owner Adam Wilson is a lucky man. He’s lucky not only because he has a beautiful wife and two adorable young boys (which he does), but also because he is one of the fortunate few who have known exactly what they wanted to do from an early age. It was all about food; cooking it, eating it, experimenting with it, and then savoring every morsel. He loves food so much that he eats and sleeps it—literally.
“I keep a pad on my nightstand in case I have an idea during the night about how to prepare a new dish or modify an old one,” he says. “Or I’ll be sitting at home having dinner and something comes to mind. So I’ll write it down. I’ve always had a passion for food.”
And that passion shows. Walk into either one of Adam’s The Square Root restaurants—one in Brevard and the other in Hendersonville—and watch as loyal patrons enter, order, and gleefully greet the beautifully presented food when it arrives—a large platter of Braised Pork Shank soaked in a rich bell pepper sauce; the Five-Spice Seared Tuna served with wok-fried kale and creamy coconut rice; pan-seared sea scallops (Bacon Gastro Scallops as listed on the menu) served with a sweet corn succotash that melts in the mouth and topped with powered bacon, no less.
When the dessert menu is presented, it’s almost agonizing: Will it be the waist-expanding Chocolate Tower Cake, the smooth-as-silk Key Lime Pie, or the Salted Caramel Cheesecake?
But it almost doesn’t matter what you choose from The Square Root’s American, Mediterranean, Italian, or Indian-style fare, for as one customer was heard to say: “You can throw a dart at anything on the menu and whatever you hit, it’s going to look and taste great.” In one regional publication, The Square Root was voted first place among restaurants in Brevard from 2010–2014.
All of which makes Adam Wilson break into a satisfied grin. His passion, like many great loves, began early and strong; a zest for food and cooking that sprouted and grew as he worked alongside his mother in her kitchen. Born in Portland, Maine, Adam moved with his family to Atlanta when he was still a youth, where he watched his mother experiment with food colors, textures, tastes, and seasonings. “She enjoyed playing with different foods and flavors, so I learned a lot from her. She’s a great cook.”
What sealed the deal for Adam was getting a positive reaction from those on the receiving end whenever his culinary feats came to fruition. “That’s really where my passion comes from,” he says. “When someone tries your dish and you watch them smile, it makes the effort worthwhile. That satisfaction continues to drive me today.”
Even the restaurant’s name is food-based. “It pertains to root vegetables, not math as some think. Our tag line, ‘Relaxed American Cuisine with a World View,’” says Adam, “just means I’ve had a lot of experience in different places and like to play with a lot of different fusions.”
Indeed he does. Among the more exotic foods on The Square Root menu: Roasted Bone Marrow, a beef dish seasoned with lemon, thyme, a red onion marmalade, and a black and red Hawaiian sea salt; a Tuna Lollipop Trio; Jalapeno Smoked Salmon Dip; and an authentic South Indian curry served with chicken. (Curry, he adds, is a direct result of his wife’s ethnic influence.) He uses edible flowers for garnish—colorful pansies dipped in powdered sugar “for a hint of sweetness,” pink carnations, nasturtiums, Blue Stars, and marigolds.
His more traditional foods also bear his unique stamp. Working in Atlanta, he acquired an appreciation for Southern cooking. “I love Southern foods and learned how to take some of the homier dishes and turn them into upscale favorites. Shrimp and grits, for example, is one of our signature appetizers. We do it a little different though, using a smoked chorizo sausage topped with Cajun sauce.”
In a nod to his adopted South, he offers Fried Green Tomatoes drizzled in a creamy Dijon sauce, a Sweet Tea Brined Half Chicken, and a Hickory Molasses Pork Rib eye served with Pretzel Breaded Fried Mac and Cheese. His bacon-wrapped meatloaf is a popular special on the weekly menu, for as Adam points out, “who doesn’t love bacon?”
“I appreciate all the different parts of an animal,” he says, “and have worked with quite a few unique foods, from sea urchins to braised lamb cheeks. Here in the United States, people are accustomed to only the prime cuts they see in the grocery store. I like to experiment with a little of everything.”
That includes seafood, once hard to get in the mountains. “Today, you can order good seafood overnight from just about anywhere in the world, so fresh seafood is no longer strictly a coastal commodity.”
Adam doesn’t come from a family of chefs, but he does come from a family that taught him the value and importance of hard labor. Once the family had relocated to Georgia, where Adam’s father worked as an air traffic controller at the busy Atlanta airport, Adam knew it was time to step up his game. “Dad instilled a strong work ethic in me and told me that since I loved cooking so much, I should go out and pursue it.”
So he took as many culinary classes in high school as he could, worked part-time in a number of Atlanta restaurants, and then entered The Art Institute of Atlanta, graduating in 1999 as a certified culinarian. That led to jobs up and down the East coast in an effort to gain as much experience as he could from the best and brightest chefs. He quickly worked his way up the hierarchy. (There are more than a dozen positions in the kitchen, including pantry chef, roast chef, grill chef, sauté chef, and sous chef—second in line before one becomes an executive or head chef).
“You don’t just ‘become’ a head chef,” explains Adam. “You must work your way to the position.”
In 1999 he joined the kitchen staff at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Atlanta and two years later was transferred to the Ritz in Palm Beach as a chef. At times, he had Secret Service in the kitchen, well-known sports figures, musicians, and celebrities. It was exciting at first; however, before long he learned they were “people like everyone else,” but with more money and off-the-wall requests than the average person.
He met his wife, Cindy, at a country club event in South Florida where she, too, was working in the kitchen, preparing cold foods. She had come to the States on a culinary work program from the coastal town of Durban, South Africa.
The attraction was instantaneous. “He tried to date my best friend first,” Cindy recalls, “but I knew it was his way of getting closer to me. I liked his personality and the shared passion we both had for food. He had good family values—his family meant the world to him—and good dreams.” Adam popped the question at Disney World following the nightly fireworks display, a surprise proposal that still delights Cindy in the retelling of their courtship.
[quote float=”right”]“One high-profile family had a large yacht and did a lot of entertaining at all hours of the night,” Adam says. “So when most people were asleep, I was up at 3am cooking.”[/quote]They’ve been married twelve years and have two sons, Devan, three-and-a-half, and Gavin, seventeen months. Cindy is now a stay-at-home mom, but continues to pitch in at The Square Root restaurants, baking her killer three-layer coconut cake, and handling the flower arrangements and décor for holidays.
During their dual careers at country clubs and hotels, Cindy and Adam worked for two well-known billionaire families; Adam was their private chef (and no, he won’t divulge names). All he will say is that the work was “intense and demanding,” with an implication that so were the clients. Guests often brought their personal body guards, and Adam would find himself preparing meals for them as well.
“One high-profile family had a large yacht and did a lot of entertaining at all hours of the night,” he says. “So when most people were asleep, I was up at 3am cooking.”
On a get-away visit to North Carolina in 2009, Adam and Cindy, childless at the time, discovered a place both they fell in love with—a little mountain town called Brevard.
“It was such a friendly place,” Adam says. Within weeks, Adam knew this was where he wanted to be and what he wanted to do.
Cindy is more effusive. “It was the perfect place to showcase our talents and the perfect environment in which to raise kids. We both wanted to work and to live here.”
They found a building tucked away on a small side street less than two blocks from the Transylvania County courthouse that reminded them of “Little Italy,” and opened The Square Root in May, 2010. Almost immediately, it took off, in conjunction with the White Squirrel Festival on Memorial Day weekend.
Adam’s father, Rick Wilson, was retired but came to help Adam get the business up and running. His mom contributed by growing flowers used in the restaurant’s décor and as edible garnishments. (Adam’s parents now live in Brevard, as do Adam and Cindy.)
In the summertime live music fills the alleyway and, inside The Square Root, the casual décor offers a cool, quiet get-away. Once home to the town’s local newspaper, the Transylvania Times, the renovated building features a floor of yellow pine and a bar top made from a milled slab of Ambrosia maple. Antique panel doors salvaged from a house on Main Street and door knobs that serve as hooks add a rustic look to the restaurant’s cozy interior.
“It’s a lot of work to run a restaurant,” Adam says in retrospect. “You’re spending up to sixteen hours a day in the kitchen. It’s tough to even get around to the paperwork and bookkeeping. My father gave me two years of his hard labor to help me get the business off the ground.” Though Adam and Cindy are now the sole owners, they still consider it a family venture.
The Square Root in Brevard was so successful that in 2012 Adam and his then co-owner dad decided to open a second location, this one at 111 South Main Street in Hendersonville, just down the block from the old Henderson County courthouse. They had a Hendersonville-based following, so why not provide a more convenient place to go? The space was larger, seating nearly 140 guests, about twice the size of the Brevard restaurant.
Menus are the same as both locations, but Hendersonville has a different vibe, says general manager Kylie Williams. For one thing, it’s a little less rustic than Brevard’s restaurant, a little more geared to a diverse population. For another, there’s a Chef’s Table in Hendersonville, available by reservation only. It allows guests to be seated in the kitchen and watch the food preparation up close and personal. It’s nothing new in larger cities, says Adam, but in a small town, it’s a unique, special, behind-the-scenes experience.
Kylie, who has been with Adam for eighteen months (she was at a Brevard country club prior), says working with Chef Wilson has been “a real learning experience. He’s a perfectionist who’s very motivated, and it shows in his food. I still can’t wrap my head around how much food our two restaurants put out each year—the sheer volume of it. But I think that speaks to the quality and diversity of what we offer.”
Community outreach is an important part of the business. Artwork from local painters has a place of honor in both restaurants; fresh local produce is used, along with locally grown herbs from Lila’s Garden in Hendersonville. Roasted coffee comes from right across the street in Brevard, and local breweries provide some of the most popular beers from the bar. In addition, there’s a Giveback Thursday, a Facebook Friday, and a Media Saturday, all designed to strengthen local relationships.
“We try to do as much as we can to support the community,” says Adam, who also volunteers with the Western North Carolina Down Syndrome Alliance and participates in its annual Buddy Walk to help raise awareness. (His youngest son, Gavin, is a Down Syndrome child.)
Total staff between the two restaurants averages around eighty in the busy summer and the fall, including part-time and full-time employees.
Getting away from food is—as any foodie knows—next to impossible. For a change of pace, Adam enjoys scuba diving, and, a year or so ago, jumped out of an airplane to satisfy the thrill-seeker simmering inside him. He cooks a little at home, though Cindy says he’s more of a “salsa and beer guy” when he’s not at the restaurant, and the family does go out to eat. He’s not hard to please when it comes to dining out.
“When we go out to eat,” he says, “we do it for fun, not to critique or compare. There are many really good restaurants in the area and lots of talented people here. I’ve found that the quality of foods is amazing in this region. When I look at a menu, I look for something I’ve never had because we try to do the same thing at The Square Root—keep something on the menu that is off the beaten path.”
[quote float=”right”]“It’s hard work. There are easier jobs out there. We’re in a tight environment that involves long hours. But we have fun with each other too. You have to be able to enjoy each other’s company in the kitchen or you won’t last long.”[/quote]He prefers savory over sweet, and his guilty pleasure is cheese and a duck liver that is rich, fatty, and full of flavor. About the only food he dislikes is an exotic Southeast Asian fruit called a durian. Its thick, spiky hard crust conceals a fleshy interior that smells so bad Adam says it has been banned on public transportation in some parts of the world. “Think stinking rotten garbage,” he says.
Fearlessly creative, Adam is a chef one would think has endured his share of kitchen disasters. But other than the nightmare of running out of critical supplies on a Friday night—a big no-no, he says—he maintains that he and his staff try to stay ahead of food failures.
“We’re constantly cooking new things in the kitchen at each of our locations, and while some new dishes don’t make it to the drawing board, we find out what works and what doesn’t, so we can modify as we go along.”
He’s known as focused and driven in the kitchen by his staff. Cindy calls him “a tough boss with a heart of gold. He likes coaching people to encourage them to reach a higher level, to reach their goals.”
As for the stereotypical image of the screaming head chef throwing pots and pans at his over-worked minions in the kitchen, Adam counters, “pure theatre.” That’s also why he seldom watches TV food shows other than those which can actually teach him something. About the only time he does get angry on the job is when someone is not doing their best.
“That doesn’t happen often,” he says, “but sure, it gets intense sometimes. It’s hard work. There are easier jobs out there. We’re in a tight environment that involves long hours. But we have fun with each other too. You have to be able to enjoy each other’s company in the kitchen or you won’t last long.”
He credits much of his current success to those same people who work alongside him every day. “We spent a lot of years building to get to where we are now. It took hard work and dedication. But I think we made it because I surrounded myself with people of a similar mindset. We all want to meet the needs of our patrons and give diners an experience they might not normally get in a small town.”
Providing unique, high-quality food, attention to detail, a fine eye for colors, flavors, presentation, and, of course, cleanliness, are all part of what makes a great chef, says Adam, plus a lifelong willingness to learn.
“I’ve been doing this for twenty years and I’m still trying to discover and perfect new things. I have thought about expanding again, but you can’t jump ahead too quickly in this business. My future goals are to keep plugging away and make the two restaurants we have the best they can be, spend time nurturing the relationships we have, and be someone who cares about the community and its people. If I leave a legacy at all, I hope that I’m remembered as a kind, caring person. In fact, we’re all good people here, who just happen to really love food.”
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