North Carolina chief recognizes importance of failure :: WRAL.com
ASHEVILLE, North Carolina – Steve Goff’s career trajectory – from homeless dishwasher to glorified executive chef – is as unlikely as it is a beautiful story.
Once a gutter punk, Goff stopped on his way to Asheville in 2003 to protest for gay rights.
Visible target with his pink leopard polka dot mohawk, Goff was apprehended during the protest and ultimately pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. Although he continued to try to leave Asheville after this inauspicious start, he was never able to escape.
Meanwhile, he slept in the woods of Charlotte Street, across from a building that would change his life.
Three months later, Goff learned from a man on the street that Zambra was renting a dishwasher. This man knew because he had gone out for a smoke on a grueling shift and never returned.
Goff, who had experience in corporate restaurants, scoffed. “I said, ‘No dog, it’s not doing the dishes at your place’, and I came and applied. “
Zambra’s chef was reluctant at the time as Goff’s experience was exclusively in corporate restaurants.
Goff, who recently signed on as Jargon’s executive chef in West Asheville, said his time in these systems-driven spaces gave him the tools to be successful. “I didn’t have the creative art yet, but I enjoyed the drive, the speed you have to have,” he said.
Being a professional cook can seem like a paradox to the uninitiated. This sometimes requires giving up creativity for urgency. “First you have to know how to turn it off,” Goff said. “If you can’t cook a ton real fast, you’re in trouble.”
At Zambra, Goff soon did the work of two dishwashers and still had the energy to do more. He was promoted to prep cook and quickly started running the lunch service.
After briefly moving to Durham, where he worked simultaneously at Fowler’s Food Store, a pizzeria staffed with punk rock waiters, and as a barista at a nearby cafe, Goff returned to Asheville to find his prospects had dried up, even at Zambra.
Unable to find work in local restaurants, he went to Labor Ready, a now-closed temporary service and a source of cheap labor. There he failed a personality test. “I was shot,” he said. “It was the final reprimand.”
Despite this, he doubled down on the idea of being a professional chef and enrolled in the Culinary Program at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in 2006, while simultaneously working at Jack of the Wood and The Laughing Seed.
“I realized that I liked being in the kitchen all day, every day,” he said. “It was punk rock – it’s loud, everyone’s brooding.”
From there, Goff’s cooking led him to intern with Gabrielle at the Richmond Hill Inn, destroyed by the fire, and return to Zambra, where he worked for five years. He also worked at Ben’s Tune Up cutting meat and making pastries and pickles.
By this time, Goff was developing an identity, which Rhubarb boss John Fleer pointed out while politely declining to hire him. “He said, ‘You already have your own thing,'” Goff recalls. “You are not malleable; you already have one thing you’re doing.
Fleer was right, and Goff was quickly recruited as the partner and executive chef of a new project called King James Public House, located across the woods where Goff once slept on a filthy mattress. The restaurant opened in early 2014 under the ownership of Peter Slamp from Zambra and a group of investors.
It was the perfect fit – at first.
THE RISE AND FALL OF KING JAMES
It was King James that Goff really won. It was a kitchen where Goff could indulge his love of British cuisine and his fascination with the kind of culinary history found in Escoffier’s “The Culinary Guide”.
He also accepted his new status as Southern Chef and began to delve into Southern history, devouring the work of Toni Tipton-Martin and Michael Twitty and browsing the Foxfire series, a collection spanning the legacy of the Southern Appalachians.
In Zambra, Goff said, nothing pre-fabricated crossed the kitchen threshold – no mayo, no sour cream, nothing. At King James, Goff tried to figure out how to go further. “I was thirsty to be the most local, and I also researched all the menus in town to make sure we had things that no one else had when it opened,” he said. -he declares.
At King James, Goff created dishes like duck wings and fried chicken and crumpets. He fermented and marinated everything and wasted virtually nothing, earning a reputation with some customers as a guy who made weird food out of pieces and chunks others might throw away.
But he also created an audience and customers got the restaurant logo tattooed. Food & Wine magazine appeared. Goff has become a harsh critic of himself, and a harsher critic in the kitchen too, he said.
Meanwhile, investors in the restaurant pushed for more steakhouse vibes. Goff pushed back.
In the spring of 2015, Goff was fired in a property dispute which, as he told the Citizen Times at the time, carried the pain of “a thousand girlfriends breaking up with you all at once.”
Although he was offered $ 3,000 as a farewell gesture, Goff refused. “Pride just wouldn’t let me take it,” he said.
Without Goff at the helm, King James Public House closed shortly thereafter. “It just broke me to lose this,” he said.
Goff’s next two jobs in the restaurant – chef butcher at Standard Foods in Raleigh and partner and chef at Aux Bar in Asheville – also collapsed. The first came after Scott Crawford left The Standard, the second after Aux Bar suffered complications from a pandemic surgery.
Brine Haus, a food truck that Goff started with his wife Samantha Goff in Raleigh, just wasn’t the right idea at the right time. “We were cooking ramen broth in a metal ball in a parking lot in Raleigh,” Goff said. “It was so hot and humid that we took turns getting out of the truck without getting sick. It was really stupid.
This truck is retired at the moment, Goff said.
It was an incredibly bad streak for a talented chef who said he kept ending up in the wrong place. “If your business fails because you’ve failed financially, that’s one thing,” he said. “I haven’t done it yet, but I still put myself in the dumbest positions ever.”
Goff said some may see a record of failed projects, but that’s not his reading.
“They gave me extremely valuable knowledge, knowledge that can only be acquired through blood and sweat,” he said. “No amount of education could have given me the skills to face all of these obstacles.”
ONE MAN’S WASTE IS ANOTHER’S TREASURE
There are also experiences Goff wouldn’t trade for anything like the Wooden Nickel program at Aux Bar, which he opened in 2018 with his wife and partners Mike and Darlene Moore.
There, diners could pay $ 5 for wooden nickels to give to others in need of a meal. Anyone who entered the restaurant with a wooden coin would be fed.
“And if you didn’t have a wooden nickel, you would be fed anyway,” Goff said. “I will never forget the looks on the faces of the homeless who knew my van and clapped as I passed.”
Goff said his familiarity with homelessness and hunger influenced his work as a chef as much as anything.
“We sit in these great restaurants and cook and throw food while people are starving,” he said. “Waste bothers me a lot, so I spend hours thinking about how to turn something into something else. “
At Jargon, he works to create as much wasteful cooking as possible. This means drying the lines of fish to do something similar to bottarga. He makes condiments and pickles from cabbage stems and Swiss chard.
“It’s so much texture and crunch you just throw in the trash,” Goff said.
He smokes trout bones and simmers them in leftover homemade ricotta whey to make a tasty sauce. It caramelizes whey for desserts and fermented whey.
“There is something you can do with everything,” he said.
This extends to parts like the neck, liver, and feet that start to pop up from time to time, mostly as specialties, on the Jargon menu.
He has heard complaints from customers about “weird” food in the month since taking up his new role. Despite this, Goff said he prepared the servers well by taking a look at his philosophy.
“I don’t care if it was a plant or an animal, something gave its life so that we could eat in this lovely restaurant,” he said. “We owe it to this creature to use every bit and make it the best it can be all the time. When we don’t eat something, we are disrespecting the animal and the farmer.
Goff said foods that others consider strange or even sassy often have their roots in traditional peasant dishes.
“At King James, some people would say ‘Steve Goff just cooks weird stuff,’” Goff said. “But there’s tons of great food out there if we just couldn’t look up.”
Jargon is at 715 Haywood Road. More at 828-785-1761 or jargonrestaurant.com.