knife & fork
GraciousRoots dropped by for a sumptuous meal and a chat with James Beard nominated Chef/Owner of knife & fork nestled in the mountains of Spruce Pine, North Carolina. Nate and his team are true purveyors of “localfore”. See what all of the buzz is about and make reservations NOW!
knife & fork - Opened July 2009 in downtown Spruce Pine, NC.
Nate: I bought the current building in 2013, built the gravel lot into a patio, but we were still renting and operating the adjacent building. 2016 I was more or less the construction manager while I rushed to complete the new space. We are thrilled with the new space with smaller projects here and there. Now we can concentrate on growth and creation of new strategies.
Nate: First, I wanted to reach out to the guys in Asheville. I really admired a lot of the work that was happening down there, and just because I was an hour north [now], I wanted to be still seen as part of this collaborative community. I was welcomed with open arms and started doing a lot of community events withElliott Moss and Meherwan Irani (Buxton Hall BBQ) Mike Moore (The head of The Blind Pig Supper Club, Brian Canipelli (Cocina 24) Matt Dawes (The Bull and Beggar), and Justin Burdett (Local Provisions). I'm just so proud of the national recognition that's been on some of the work that's happened in the Asheville and the Western North Carolina region and hope people are paying attention to what we're doing down here, because it's worth noting and a model that could be replicated in other places.
Sustainability, community, innovation
Why Spruce Pine, NC?
As people see the viability of moving into smaller areas and doing what I did - I'm certainly not the first person to do this, but I wanted to be where the "product" was. And of course we have some lifelines - the Blue Ridge Parkway is three of four miles away, Penland School of Crafts is just down the street, there is a hospital in town that boosts the economy and also brings in transient medical professionals. Foremost, we have a culture that brings people to the area if not just for the five month season but year round for business and other reasons. I just wanted to take the first step in the revitalization and the renaissance of a crumbling, kind of decrepit old town that was abandoned by the mining industry and try to revive the town by pointing it into another direction. I just kind of did it on my own and wasn't approaching the town and the economic development commission. I thought I could do it by teaming up with the local community and then see if we could bring in the people. I'm right in the back yard of the growers. For example, the people who were growing for me previously were driving down to Asheville three times a week to the tailgate markets, and that was their sustainable model. Some of them have completely given up the tailgating to sell to me, and some are only occasionally driving down.
We've seen the expansion and growth of all of the farms that I work with. As they continue to grow with us, it's really, really exciting. Our goal is to bring attention to the area, not just to myself, but to the area - as a reasonable, viable, bedroom community to a larger metropolitan area; where as, when I lived in L.A. and other parts of the country, people would commute an hour to work every day easily. Here people don't think about it that much. We are a hub for growing cities like Asheville, Morganton, and Hickory. It would seem like a more sustainable model in a five to ten-year window where people would think of relocating to an area because of its charm, the growth potential, because of the real estate value, et cetera. They could invest in a five to ten-year plan while being able to access the surrounding metropolitan areas rather easily. So, I just kind of made a bet on that about eight years ago, and it's still in its infancy. For me, I've been able to develop this community that I wanted to live in, and I didn't exactly find what I wanted to live in so I had to create it.
Where are your Roots?
Nowhere - my family historically is from central NC. My father's family was a farming family in Smithfield, NC and they had been in that area well before the Civil War. He was in the NSA and then the DOD, so we moved every two or three years around the country. That allowed me to feel comfortable in new environments, and able to talk to people, as well as developing strategies to talk to people that work. So I grew through those experiences.
I was in Los Angeles for ten years before moving here. I lived in Maryland, The Virgin Islands, Colorado, just all over the place. The last five years in L.A. I was working as a private chef, so I was flying and boating all over the world; which allowed me to study many cultural relationships with food that helped me form my own approach.
When I found the place I wanted to settle, I wanted it to be a promised land of agricultural biodiversity and availability with four distinct seasons, seed saving, heirlooms, and this area just shouted to me. I've been in love with the mountains of N.C for a long time, but have not been able to call anyplace my home for a while. I may consider this my home, but the people who have lived here for generations do not consider me as this being my home. They still welcome me, but I can't say that I'm from here.
When did you know you wanted to be in the kitchen, to be creating?
I've been cooking my entire life because it's just part of my family's culture. The food was the center of everything. I grew up Southern Baptist, so supper on the grounds Sundays, Potluck dinner on Wednesdays and of course if someone had a baby, or there was a loss, you made a "dish." My father always cooked. One or two nights a week he made dinner. I just took to it and enjoyed cooking.
I initially went to college for Jazz Composition at East Carolina University. While there I went into credit card debt feeding all my friends because everybody was eating so terribly. Again, I had come from a family where we always had dinner together as opposed to the college life of everyone living off of cheap beer and chips. So when my parents bailed me out of credit card debt, my mother said: "We'll help you, but you need to turn this into a career." I recall thinking that's no way to make money, Jazz is the way to make money!
Following my mother's suggestion, I moved up to Providence, Rhode Island to attend Johnson and Wales University. They had a cool program, where you could apply on line for what they called Advanced Placement, and sent a Proctor to my house so they could test and assess. I placed out of the first year because I was already bartending and cooking to pay my way through school and I had an understanding of a lot of things related to this industry. A friend of mine gave me a text book of his from CIA (Culinary Institute of America), and I crammed it for about seventy-two hours before taking the test at my house. Aced the test and went to school about a month later, jumping directly into my sophomore year. The funny thing is that my final credit for graduation was a Math class that was always scheduled when I had to work. So I just decided to split. I attended two colleges and didn't finish at either one.
[Nate Allen] Possibly because the menu can be a bit daunting with names of dishes, and sauces derived from French and other languages. The first two years we lured people in with meatloaf and other "gateway foods." But now we feel we've entered an area where we've gained the trust of a lot more people, even if they don't understand what's going on they know that it's going to be good.
You would never have guessed
What is your “last meal” choice?
I would make a mole chicken, a whole roasted chicken in like a "black mole," fresh tortillas and salsa that would just scorch the Earth and a really fantastic margarita.
Tell our readers one quirky thing about you or something that may surprise them to know?
I was hired to make pancakes for [the late, great] Prince. Here's the story:
I was doing work as a private chef, and I had almost more work than I could handle with requests from folks in the Hollywood Hills around 2008. Somewhere along that same time, Prince was doing a month long residency at the Roosevelt Hotel on Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles. His manager called me up to ask me if I would make pancakes for Prince and his band at the end of the show. So, I said I would be happy to as long as it didn't interfere with any of the work I was already committed to. Prince was playing every night, so the manager said: "Okay, pick a night, and we'll find chefs for the other nights." Here were the criteria they gave me:
Must have tons of Aunt Jemima syrup
Ten different fruit compotes
Place a powdered sugar stencil of his production company - 3121 on each pancake
Most importantly, I had to be ready at any moment because he might take a fifteen-minute break backstage and be like "Pancakes everybody!"
What actually happened is I showed up at the show at 7:00 O'clock. The set started about eight thirty. Four of my friends I hired to come with me for the night came, and we set up in the big commercial kitchen. The doors to the kitchen opened up to the convention room; which was where the show was happening. Well, we just opened up the doors, and we were instantly sitting at the side of the stage watching the three hour Prince show. It was amazing. He smashed all of the hits and then I was looking at his manager as the show started wrapping up and asking what's happening? He said I don't know he may want pancakes now. About five minutes later he informed me that the band was going to the lobby to play a Jazz set. In fact, the whole band did move to the lobby, and this was a little after midnight. They played a Jazz set until five thirty in the morning!
Nothing but instrumental Jazz during which time Prince took turns playing every band member's instrument solo. I'm telling you, Prince was "crushing it." He saw a guy taking a Vogue photo shoot in the Lobby, because the Roosevelt Hotel is swank, and Prince put his guitar down without the photographer noticing and walked up behind him, tapped him on the shoulder and took his camera out of his hand. He told the photographer "No, this is how you do it." Then he told the models "Go back up stairs. Now come back toward me" while snapping tons of shots. He hands the camera back to the photographer and says to him "Okay, your set now, you don't need anymore."
Prince went back onstage, picked up his guitar and started again playing a solo. I'm looking around, it's five thirty in the morning and no-one is there except a few entourage people. The manager walks over to me and says "You know what? They're done, and I think they're just going to go home and go to sleep." Then Prince paused while walking by me and said "Thanks" and left the hotel.
I was paid $2,500 NOT to make pancakes and watch a show. I would be remiss if I didn't say that I had many experiences in the Hollywood Hills working as a private chef that were crazy.