An Uncommon Chef

It was 11am on a Wednesday and I was knocking on the locked door to the darkened restaurant that Roger and I visited 3 times since moving to Asheville. This visit was going to be very different.

A lean, fit Jason Sellers opened the door to his all vegan restaurant PLANT. He greeted me with a huge smile and I immediately understood where the energy in the restaurant emanates. I was here to interview this uncommon chef, coincidentally one day after his 44th birthday.

He’s lean because he takes great care of his body, inside and out. His exercise regimen every morning is body-weight focused and, you know what he doesn’t eat. He’s vegan, so his cooking and his diet do not include traditional dairy or any animal products. The booze he enjoys is just an occasional cocktail. He sleeps well, but admits to waking up with ‘aha’ food moments! This is a diverse, well-rounded and balanced individual who speaks from both head and heart in a most articulate manner.

I first ask Jason about his mentors. Without hesitation, he says “the good people of Candle 79”, where Jason worked during culinary schooling in New York. He tells me he quickly realized the similarities in their thoughtfulness about food, and says “I felt confident that I could play in the vegan fine dining arena”.

According to Chef Jason, the standard chef profile includes: motorcycle riding, tattoos, and booze.

Chef Jason Profile: all the above with a few caveats: he owns 4 motorcycles, and restores old ones. His several original tattoos, include a trio of what looks like tools you’d keep in the garage, and are all strategically placed with obvious great thought.

Now here is where it goes diametrically different.

This diverse chef tells me his career highlights include getting his job at The Laughing Seed, where he spent 5 years honing his vegan food creativity and skills. The owners gave him the opportunity to become the head chef and ultimate control of the administrative and managerial duties of the kitchen.

I asked what his favorite dish was; and then in unison we both answered…”the next one!”. He loves pouring over the next creation and his restaurant menu selections are put together with serious consideration. Some dishes include current trends, always seasonal offerings, and much past experience.

He will also ‘tweak’ a dish now and again to garner feedback from his customers, but Jason has a firm handle on the cost vs. payback ratio of the restaurant business. “Food costs are what they are”. PLANT uses only the highest quality and organic ingredients in it’s preparations. “However, the majority of the restaurant expenses include labor”. Jason has an incredible team of devoted individuals, several of whom have been with him since the beginning.

What challenges does PLANT experience? Because his vegan restaurant is considered fine dining, this unique combination renders many Asheville residents unable to frequent his business. PLANT relies on their regular diners and the summer influx of visitors.

Jason considers what he and his team at PLANT are doing is “beyond the curve” for vegan/vegetarian restaurants. After eating Jason’s food several times, I wholeheartedly agree, and add that he is also setting a new bar to which innovative, open-minded and health conscious chefs must rise.

Jason’s advice to new chefs is to “take the profession seriously because it takes a lot of ‘you’. It’s not just a trade. An engineer coming out of school doesn’t say they love engineering. They find their own path to use their engineering skills. However, being a chef and cooking is a much more personal journey that involves magical, investigative skills”. Take heed, culinary newbies.

I asked Jason how I can contribute to Asheville’s community with the Edible Musings blog. To my surprise, he thinks I am already doing so, and believes I may be the only plant-based home cook in Asheville with this type of inspirational blog. He adds that continuing to spread awareness and education is key. I’m going with that!

Of course, I also couldn’t pass up an opportunity to taut a couple of my food creations of which I’m especially proud! So, we talked about carrot dogs (yum) and oil-free salad dressings and sauces to die for!

Jason playfully talked about including his own carrot dog recipe on the menu as a fun and inexpensive surprise for guests. I love that thought, and can see it as a mini-carrot dog appetizer with sampler toppings! You’re welcome, and I’ll be the first in line.

Jason closes our conversation by telling me he wants to establish a legacy. There are several definitions to this word ‘legacy’, but the single best synonym I come up with is gift. I wonder if Jason knows that he’s already providing us an amazing gift every time he enters the kitchen.

Note to all who read this: when in Asheville, run, don’t walk to PLANT restaurant for an all-sensory feast you won’t forget!