Nate Allen: The Small-Town Chef Award 2011

Taking big ideas to a little place
Robin Bashinsky

While almost every ambitious urban chef in the country bangs the farm-to-table drum, much of small-town America—i.e., the part of America that is generally closer to farms—is starved for interesting, young cooks who work that angle. That's changing, however, particularly in the South—with its long, rich cooking heritage—as evinced by Nate Allen. In the summer of 2009, Allen followed 10 years of big-city cooking in L.A. with a return to his home state of North Carolina and a small town called Spruce Pine (population 2,175), poised on the banks of the Toe River up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. There, he and wife Wendy opened their 35-seat Knife & Fork. Now the locals are munching local rabbit, barbecue sweetbreads, and unexpected treats like French breakfast radishes with edible flowers and lemon vinaigrette.

Allen's relaxed Appalachian eatery strikes just the right notes along the local-regional-inventive spectrum. That's no surprise to Suzanne Goin, Beard-nominated chef/owner of Lucques, The A.O.C, and Tavern in L.A., who employed Allen.

"He was always obsessed with the local markets, with finding the best and most interesting regional ingredients," Goin says, "and with the idea that cooking can be such an important part of the community."

After L.A., Allen says he felt the need to get closer to the "natural cycles and the seasons." He arrived in a 1979 VW Bus sporting California tags, and soon scouted out a space across from the train tracks (he's a train freak) on Spruce Pine's charming, if somewhat bypassed, Locust Street.

Allen does not say it is easy making a go of it in a place this small, but he is deeply committed to the "extremely local" ethos, which includes "helping local agriculture interests, local commercial interests ... and [ultimately] drawing people back to the quaintness of what America's small main streets are all about."

And his food gives him a fighter's chance. We ate there this spring, when the menu was dotted with Carolina staples like trout (house-smoked to sweet perfection with a dill-flavored beet salad) and the afore-mentioned rabbit, served with pea tendrils over gold rice. There are playful notes (buffalo "rabbit wings") and of-the-moment ingredients (ramps, corn shoots, mulberries), but Allen's food is built on a comforting base: grilled meat loaf, savory waffles, shrimp over cheddar grits. It's just a real nice place. Yes, Allen bangs the farm-to-table drum, but charmingly.