Letting It Fly: Jargon executive chef Ryan Kline thrives in West Asheville

Crispy pig ears aren’t for everyone. But a surprising number of people have a fondness for them and will be happy to know they can almost always be found at the top of the menu at West Asheville restaurant Jargon, thanks to executive chef Ryan Kline.

“We do a lot of those,” he says. “Sometimes we might have tails or trotters, but usually it’s ears. There’s always an offal thing on the menu.”

Since Jargon’s previous executive chef, Steven Goff, bought Tastee Diner in February 2022 and passed the baton, Kline has shaped the menu, which is printed anew every day.  While it’s not Kline’s first executive chef post, it is the one where he feels most aligned with the personality of the restaurant. 

He also receives full creative freedom from owners Shelly and Sean Piper, who carved the intimate, vintage-inspired space from a condemned historic building, opening in May 2017. The thoughtful renovation earned a Griffin Award for Adaptive Reuse by the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County in 2018. 

Kline appreciates the small restaurant’s brevity of seats — just over 30 inside and nearly 40 in the tucked-away, heated, and covered courtyard. Most of his prior positions were in larger operations in more tourist-trod locations. 

“Being in West Asheville, we don’t have a lot of that walking foot traffic and are pretty destination based,” he says. “The reservations we have on the books are pretty close to what we do. The menu is not large format so can be more hands-on and crafted. People who dine here are usually more adventurous.”

There was not much adventurous dining in Kline’s rural hometown an hour outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Hastings had a population of about 1,200 people, and he played sports to stay busy. His paternal grandparents had a dairy farm, and he spent a lot of time there. He doesn’t consider himself a country boy, but he appreciated the garden-to-table food, he says.

“My mom and grandmother were great cooks, and we always ate from the gardens. There was a lot of preserving and canning.”

There were not many options for dining out in Hastings either, so Kline started working in restaurants as a young teen in slightly larger Evansburg, bussing tables, washing dishes and doing a little cooking. When he graduated high school, he went to the University of Pittsburgh and earned a two-year degree in criminology. “To this day, I can’t tell you where that came from,” he admits with a laugh. “When I finished, I had no idea what to do with it. My father suggested culinary school.”

Father knew best; Kline enrolled at IUP (Indiana University of Pennsylvania) Academy of Culinary Arts in Punxsutawney — home of famous groundhog spring prognosticator Phil — later landing his post-grad internship at the Biltmore Estate.

At the Biltmore, Kline rotated through all the dining facilities on the property, was hired to help open Cedric’s Tavern, and finally became demi chef at the estate’s Bistro. There he met his mentor, Mike Gonzalez, but found the overall situation was not a good match. “The Biltmore was my first experience in a corporate setting, and I found I wasn’t into the white coat, tall hats, ‘yes, chef’ thing. It just didn’t fit my personality,” says Kline.

Searching for direction, he staged at restaurants in Charleston, Atlanta, New York, Washington and Nashville, before finding a great fit under chef Owen McGlynn at Storm Rhum Bar in downtown Asheville. There he met other young, ambitious, freewheeling chefs in town and was invited to participate in the secretive Blind Pig dinners.

A brief stint doing double duty as chef and GM at the now-closed Haywood Road restaurant Buffalo Nickel convinced him to step away from management and go back to cooking. In 2016, he took the executive chef job at Zambra, a popular downtown restaurant specializing in small plates. “The place is a monster,” Kline says. “High volume, big menu of 15-20 set items that changed seasonally, and a 20-item specials sheet every night. I learned a lot about organizing your day and your team. You have to be really tight to be in control of a situation that seems out of control.”

No matter how tight, nothing prepared any restaurant for Covid. Yet Kline says it was during that time of uncertainty that he was able to center himself and put a workable plan in place for the restaurant. “I took the opportunity to condense the menu, add some large format items, and focus more on Spanish food. When we came back, we were really focused, and we did a great job.”

But after six years, he was ready for a change. He left Zambra and launched a well-received Tex-Mex popup concept, Toro Furioso. But when Sean Piper texted him to ask if he knew anyone who might be a good fit for the executive chef position at Jargon, Kline asked for a meeting. “It went well, we had a good synergy, and it felt right,” he says.

Jargon’s menu of snacks, smalls, mains, and desserts is not lengthy, but covers a lot of global ground and is tweaked on a daily basis. “We probably change one or two things every day, and the entire menu ends up getting switched over the course of three weeks or so,” Kline explains.

There is always an exception to the rule and at Jargon, it’s the crispy smashed fingerling potatoes. “They’re just a banger, and we keep them on. We keep at least three vegan items in some way – right now a beet salad, a mushroom dish, and the chickpea tagine in some form. The protein format is consistent, we switch up the sets. We always have a Sunburst [Trout Farms] trout, always a steak from Hickory Nut Gap, the spring lamb will probably switch to pork, but people here love duck so we’ll stay with that.”

Kline has strengthened relationships with local farmers and foragers, and he and his staff get enthused with gastro-science endeavors, like making a batch of umeboshi (for cultured butter) with green strawberries rather than the traditional leftover sake plums. He has a whiteboard for tracking short-term projects, long-term projects, and things to change up. He encourages his staff to write ideas on the board.

“I want everyone here to feel like they’re in a creative environment and have a say in what’s going on the menu. If it’s a good idea and you execute it the right way, we do it,” Kline says. “We’ve been letting it fly and it works. I love being in this part of town, there are a lot of great, young chefs over here. We’re all doing something a little different, but it’s not competitive. I’m a big believer that chefs and restaurants rise with the tide.”

For more on Jargon, visit jargonrestaurant.com.

Written by Kay West
Photos courtesy of Jargon