An hour northeast of Asheville, N.C., up a winding mountain road across from the North Toe River lies the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Spruce Pine. It’s home to only 2,000 souls—and one very special restaurant. Knife & Fork specializes in seasonal terroir-driven flavors. People come from all over the region to dine here. They come to drink here too.
Nearly a decade ago, Los Angeles chef Nate Allen had become disenchanted with the city’s food scene. He moved his family back home to Burnsville, N.C., just west of Spruce Pine, where he had been rehabbing a house purchased a few years earlier. It seemed the perfect place to open his dream restaurant in the mountains.
Mitchell County had been dry since Prohibition. But in April 2009, Spruce Pine passed legislation permitting the sale of alcohol within the city limits. It was just the opening Allen needed.
Rum muddled with nasturtium flower leaves and mixed with wild-ginger-infused simple syrup (image: Beth McKibben)
He bought an old building across from the railroad tracks, and Knife & Fork opened in July 2009, dedicating itself from day one to hypersustainable, local food and classic cocktails with a regional focus. The restaurant grows a lot of its own ingredients, and what doesn’t come from the garden is sourced from within an hour of town.
“After I opened Knife & Fork, I was on fire for five years,” says Allen. “But something was missing. I had all of these beautiful things growing in the garden and brought to me by foragers. I opened Spoon in 2014 on Memorial Day weekend.”
Spoon was Allen’s bar version of Knife & Fork. It offered guests a list of 10 to 12 classic cocktails that changed daily to reflect what was harvested from the garden or had come in from mountain foragers. Herbs like thyme, wormwood, gentian root and ginger, along with nasturtiums, bee balm and green coriander seed, are grown in the restaurant’s garden and incorporated into cocktails. The bar’s drink menu was seasonal and sustainable on an epic and often unmanageable level.
Dry-hopped gin with blue basil tincture and plum juice, left; and tequila, bee balm water, wild ginger syrup and sweet pea flower (image: Nate Allen)
Spoon sadly closed this August. The cost of and work involved in creating cocktails daily with ingredients harvested in the moment yielded mediocre profits and had become a liability. “Spruce Pine is only home to 2,000 people,” says Allen. “It was novel for a bit. We had a good three-year run.”
Undeterred, Allen cut the cocktail list in half and rolled the drinks into the beverage offerings downstairs at Knife & Fork. At Spoon, he was able to curate a daily cocktail menu and live in the moment with the ingredients. The move to Knife & Fork has meant Allen must balance both ingredient creativity and seasonality with what he knows he can sell.
The cocktail list at Knife & Fork now changes weekly but still includes the freshest harvested and foraged ingredients. “Wild ginger is being foraged heavily right now,” he says. “I love working with it. It’s like if jasmine and ginger had a love child. It’s so beautiful and aromatic.”
Ginger root and local turmeric will soon be available for harvesting. Elaeagnus berries, otherwise known as autumn or Russian olives, have begun to bud on the trees in the region. The astringent, wild berries are a rich magenta color with silver specks. Allen describes them as “bright, chewy and excellent for making syrups to pair with gin.”
He adds savory herbs from the garden to pair with Elaeagnus like tarragon and rosemary to play up the terroir in the cocktails. The berries also make for a stunning garnish.
“I’m really looking forward to fall,” he says. “I take winter squashes and save the seeds, roast them and make orgeat syrup to create a twist on the classic Mai Tai with a pepita base in place of store-bought almonds.”
This ambitious cocktail concept is difficult to sustain alone. Allen employs one bartender who works on Friday and Saturday evenings so the chef can focus on his dishes. The pair sit down weekly to discuss the ingredients harvested from the garden and brought to the restaurant by Allen’s team of foragers. The two work through their ideas, taste-testing flavor combinations to develop the final cocktail menu for the weekend.
50/50 Martini made with equal parts gin and dry vermouth and garnished with African blue basil (image: Beth McKibben)
Four years ago, the chef planted hops around a small archway in the restaurant’s garden. Today, it is dripping with flowers and has Allen wondering how they’d pair with rye whiskey or if they’d work ground up and sprinkled on cocktails or muddled into spirits or made into syrups.
Allen realizes he’s fortunate to have the time and space to create these flavors. The cocktails at Knife & Fork are difficult to achieve in higher-volume bars. The constant changing of drinks and use of hyperharvested, local ingredients means being unable to print menus for the week or post them to Instagram.
He offers this advice: “Play with flavors of ingredients brought to you from the kitchen or from foragers each day. See what you come up with. The cocktail is a one-off, but it throws you into another realm of flavor creativity.”
These cocktails and ingredients may not be available tomorrow. So Allen says it’s best to let go and “find Zen with nature’s randomness.”