North Carolina-raised chef Aaron Deal has spent nearly half of his 31 years apprenticing, cooking and developing a distinct culinary identity across the noisy anonymity of America’s kitchens. Cutting his teeth at Charleston’s Tristan followed by stints at Custom House Tavern in Chicago, Townhouse Restaurant in Chilhowie, Va., and Craigie on Main in Cambridge, Mass.—picking up a James Beard nomination along the way—he’s landed his way back in the South helming the kitchen at Roanoke, Va.’s innovative The River and Rail (links to http://riverandrailrestaurant.com/). Deal’s hyper-local menu shines a spotlight on Southern tradition and Appalachian heritage, executed with a twist. (Grilled beef tongue with spiced bourbon mustard and chow chow? Don’t mind if we do!). To time with the restaurant’s first anniversary this month, Paste sat down with Deal for a lip smackin’ discussion about food, fishing and foraging. Here’s some of the good stuff.
Paste: You’re from the South originally [a small town in western North Carolina called Morganton]. Who was the big culinary presence in your family?
Deal: I reference my grandmother a lot. The times in which she grew up and the way she raised my mother really spilled into my daily family life; it was one that revolved around utilizing what you had—having a small garden, being able to put up stuff if we had a surplus. We weren’t plucking chicken or anything like that, but we were using the resources around us.
Paste: Speaking of which, talk to me a little bit about Appalachian cuisine. You’ve come to be a sort of champion of it.
Deal: It all comes down to utilizing the vegetables and things that can be grown in the area. You see these small mills that are milling corn meal and flour that existed way before I ever thought about becoming a chef… that have been around before I was born. Appalachian culture encompasses not only food, but music, how people build houses, etc. At the restaurant, we’ve been able to fold that culture into our food through research. We’re reading up on the techniques people used to preserve their food and serve it; how they cooked it; equipment they used; all of these things come into play when you think about how it could apply to a restaurant. We look at those things and then ask, “How does this apply to us today?”
Paste: What has been a go-to resource for you along the way?
Deal: You know, my father had this book, The Foxfire Book. You heard of it?
Deal: You should check it out. It started as a magazine series that explored everything that was Appalachian, from wood-working and cooking to writing… anything you could imagine that embodied what this culture was, and they catalogued it and sent these magazines out. Since then, they’ve come out with these books, one of which is this condensed version, The Foxfire Book. It talks about lots of different things you wouldn’t expect. A lot of it’s interesting, a lot of it’s not practical anymore because you’re not having to build a log cabin, but it’s really cool because you get an idea of what these people had to work with and how they survived off of what was available. I remember seeing this book early in my childhood and hearing my father talk about it.
Paste: That’s cool you found your way back to it. Ingredient wise, what have you dug up around Roanoke? I know you’re committed to using hyper-local ingredients and techniques.
Deal: Obviously you can get anything you want nowadays. But, as far as being able to go out to the forest and being introduced to someone who has some land and knows where ramps grow [which are in-season now in Roanoke]... that’s pretty cool. You end up going out and foraging those and being able to research how they were cooked and talk to someone in the area about how they’ve been cooking them for 20 years. Another thing I’ve discovered is the paw paw. Have you eaten a paw paw?
Paste: [I’m picturing a muskrat or a similarly slimy rodent.] No.
Deal: I like to refer to it as the “passion fruit of the South.” It’s such a distinctive, interesting tree fruit. It has a tropical almost passion fruit taste to it and they grow here. There are a lot of things here you wouldn’t expect. Quince grows locally. I had my first experience using quince juice here. It’s really bitter, acidic. You would consider it inedible, but then when you turn it into a curd, it comes out fabulous. It’s really cool to be able to do that kind of thing and to utilize the food that surrounds you.
Paste: After all, your goal was to create a Virginia restaurant…
Deal: Yeah, it was kind of one of those things where our goal was to make sure that this restaurant didn’t exist if it wasn’t in Virginia; that we couldn’t transport it to San Francisco or somewhere like that. We rely solely on products grown and raised in the area.
Paste: Do you do any hunting or fishing?
Deal: I love fly fishing. One of the partners in the restaurant is a good friend of mine. He has property outside of Roanoke, so we’ve gone fly fishing a couple of times. It’s so relaxing. It’s one of those things that manages to get your mind off of everything else… except for catching that fish.