Written by Anna Raddatz | Photos by Anthony Harden
Three simple words are etched into the glass panels above the entrance to 48 Biltmore Avenue, home to a restaurant called Chestnut: Craft, Food, and Cocktails.
Of course, any restaurant worth its salt takes both food and drink very seriously. But Joe Scully and Kevin Westmoreland, co-owners of both Chestnut (in downtown Asheville), the renowned Corner Kitchen (in Biltmore Village), and Corner Kitchen Catering, are also very serious about the ingredient of “craft”—as it relates to the dishes they serve, the balancing act of managing their businesses, and the relationships they share with members of the community.
From disparate backgrounds, Scully and Westmoreland forged a strong friendship that evolved into a business partnership that would launch their careers as restaurateurs. Opening their first restaurant, Corner Kitchen, together in 2004, their partnership is officially a decade old this year. Over that time, they have become skilled at creating charming environments and delectable meals, all in painstaking detail and in a spirit of service to their guests.
The term “craft” has a pretty mundane definition: “an activity involving skill in making things by hand.” By this definition, almost all cooking is craft. But Scully, who is head chef at both Chestnut and Corner Kitchen, uses the term both to describe what he does and what he doesn’t do.
He compares the art of painting a landscape to the craft of tooling a leather belt. Whereas the painter turns canvas and paint into a mountain vista (i.e. more than the sum of its parts), a belt maker takes leather and turns it into a leather good. “As a craftsman,” says Scully, “I’m going to take a steak and make it a steak. I’m not going to take a steak and make it a landscape.” In other words, his food philosophy is to let the essential nature of the thing remain itself. Food and flavors that complement, but don’t disguise.
In order for this to work, he stresses the importance of starting with high quality food, ingredients with an integrity worth maintaining. As a result of this approach, his dishes are reliable and approachable. “I’m not going to be a cutting edge chef,” he says. While he respects chefs who treat cooking as an art, he warns against the business implications of doing so, giving the example of chefs who incorporate unusual ingredients into their dishes.
“You may like the taste of fiddlehead ferns,” explains Scully, “and you may want to serve fiddlehead ferns. But fiddlehead ferns don’t taste that great to most folks. They look weird and nobody will eat them. Meanwhile, they cost $16 per pound.”
This isn’t to say that Chef Scully wouldn’t know his way around a fiddlehead fern. His impressive culinary resume boasts stints at a range of well-heeled establishments from Atlanta to New York City, including the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Cherokee Town & Country Club, Indigo Coastal Grill, The Druid Hills Golf Club, and, to top it off, the United Nations.
But prior to studying cooking at the Culinary Institute of America (from which he graduated first in his class), Scully’s restaurant roots were decidedly more modest. His first restaurant job was as a host at a busy Houlihan’s Old Place in Hackensack, New Jersey, not far from where he grew up. “They wanted to train me as a manager,” says Scully. “Part of that was a rotation in the kitchen, and I never left.”
He was attracted to the team-based aspect of it. “Never having been an athlete of any real sort,” says Scully, “I didn’t really understand the concept of goals reached through concerted effort. All of a sudden I found a team I could be a part of that I really liked.” Working in a bustling restaurant that served hundreds of guests each night instilled in Scully a down-to-earth food philosophy that remains the foundation of his current approach.
His business partner underscores how important Scully’s level of craft is to their success. From Westmoreland’s perspective, in addition to Scully’s vast knowledge of food and natural flavor pairing abilities, there are two keys to successfully working a craft. First, he references Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. “We live in a time when there’s instant gratification with virtually everything,” says Westmoreland. “To be a craftsman is to understand that to be really good at something, you have to put in some time.”
In addition, while artistry is all about invention and never making the same thing twice, craft is about repetition and honing. “You’re going to have to make the same thing over and over again,” he says. “Ten thousand reubens later, it should be close to the first reuben you made because that’s what people love.”
Along these lines, both Scully and Westmoreland are adamant that their work is about serving others. If someone orders something that’s not on the menu, they’ll do their best to make it happen. If a customer is unhappy with any part of the experience, it’s their job to figure out how to fix it.
(article continues on page 2 and more photographs are at the end)