On the Avenue: Chef Jennifer Cole brings her Haywood County garden and a taste of Spain to North Asheville’s Avenue M

“Farm to table” describes many restaurants in Asheville. But not many menus feature products picked fresh from the chef’s farm.

In August, diners at Avenue M who ordered the tomato and okra salad were eating directly from chef Jennifer Cole’s garden. That dish came off the menu when she pickled the remaining okra, but she then added an end-of-summer salad with her own tomatoes, cucumbers, and basil. Also, the squash on the fried North Carolina catfish entrée is hers, as are all the peppers.  What Cole isn’t growing and harvesting herself, she’s sourcing from local and regional purveyors, like Black Trumpet Farm for mushrooms, Anson Mills for heirloom blue corn grits, and various products from Old North Farm in Shelby and the Waynesville Tailgate Market. “I live in Haywood County, so it’s closer to me,” she says. “Plus since the county lost the mill (the century-old Canton paper mill closed in May), I try to support those folks.”

Though Cole took a long, circuitous, international route to get to Haywood County, it’s not surprising she ended up there; it’s where she first learned cooking and eating from the earth as a young girl spending summers at her paternal grandparent’s home. “I was their only granddaughter, so I was there a lot,” she says. “My grandfather always had a big garden, and my grandmother was a great, traditional cook in the best way, and what she didn’t cook, she canned. She loved to bake, and at Christmas, she made about 8 million cookies for everyone.”

Even so, a culinary career didn’t initially occur to Cole. After graduating high school in Winston-Salem where she grew up, she went to UNC Chapel Hill, with the goal of eventually attending law school.

But the hospitality business threw down a detour, one she took to her ultimate destination.  Waiting tables part time while in school — at Spanky’s and Squid’s, among other restaurants — she occasionally was called upon to help out in the kitchen. “At Squid’s, I worked the sauté or broiler station if they needed a pair of hands,” she remembers. “The Catering Company of Chapel Hill taught me food could be beautiful.”

By the time she graduated, Cole knew she didn’t want to study law, and that she didn’t want to spend any more time in school. Instead, she sought an apprenticeship at a restaurant and found one under chef Heinz Schwab at Atlanta’s Hedgerose Heights Inn. “He was a classically trained Swiss chef who ran a very disciplined kitchen,” she says. “He had me washing pots when I first started. By the time I left, I was doing the shopping for the restaurant at the DeKalb Market. It was a priceless experience.”

Cole also nods to that period in Atlanta, from the late 1980s to early 1990s, when the city not only had an electric restaurant scene but was also a gay mecca in the South. “So many gay and lesbian people in the restaurant industry gravitated there,” she says. “It was always assumed kitchens were a ‘man’s world,’ but in my experience, at that time in Atlanta, there were a lot of women in culinary.”

Seeking her next career step and a great food city, she found both in New Orleans where she fulfilled her goal of getting her foot in the door at chef Susan Spicer’s Bayona restaurant. “I was her chef de tournade (the chef that can work any and every station) for a while, then her pastry chef left, and she asked me to cover that,” says Cole. “I took it kicking and screaming but ended up doing it for a year and a half”

She decided to take advantage of New Orleans’ slow summer season to spend a couple of months in Spain, a country she had long wanted to visit. But two months turned into 12 years, spent primarily in Madrid but also other regions of Spain, plus 18 months in Paris. A position at now-closed Madrid restaurant Cornucopia evolved into a chef/ownership situation. Cole also worked for notable Spanish chefs at three Michelin one-star restaurants and was named Best Female Chef in Madrid by El Pais during her time as executive chef at Ene.

Though she recalls that when she arrived in Spain in 1996, she “couldn’t speak a lick of Spanish,” by the time she returned to the U.S. in 2009, she was fluent in Spanish and proficient in French. New York, she decided, was the next logical career step. There she was the chef/owner of La Mujer Gala in Brooklyn and helped open Taberna, another tapas restaurant, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

New York winters sent her back to New Orleans in 2015, first answering Spicer’s call to be Bayona’s chef de cuisine, then CDC positions at Bacchanal and Toups Meatery, plus her own Spanish tapas popups and contract consulting work. When Covid-19 shut down New Orleans, Cole retreated first to Charlotte, N.C., where her brothers were living, to do research and development work for a restaurant group. From there, she moved to the family farm in Haywood County.

“I was burned out and needed time to think,” she explains. “Covid taught me I no longer wanted to work 80 hours a week and doing R&D showed me how much I missed cooking, working with my line cooks, and talking to customers. What I wanted was a place with a scratch kitchen where I could take advantage of the amazing agriculture in North Carolina, where I could have the freedom to do food I enjoy and be respected for what I do.”

A touch of perfect timing brought her to Avenue M, the 13-year-old North Asheville restaurant owned since 2019 by Ralph Lonow and Tony Creed. Having parted ways with their executive chef just as spring sprung in 2023, the partners had put their culinary program on pause, determined to find just the right fit. With Cole looking for the same, it didn’t take more than one tasting and a frank conversation for both parties to say “I do,” and Cole accepted the top chef position the last week of April.

Because Avenue M was in a transitional period, Cole was able to craft the menu to suit her taste, vision, and commitment to regional and seasonal foods, and to complement the restaurant’s award-winning wine list. “I started with a blank slate but didn’t want to scare customers, so we’re slowly adding things and seeing how people react,” she explains.

She describes the menu she’s built over four months as Mediterranean with a heavy emphasis on Spanish as well as Southern with some twists. “The menu will change in some way every day,” says Cole. “I want everyone and anyone to be able to come in and feel comfortable with and excited about at least a few things on the menu. I feel confident we’re achieving that balance.”

For more on Avenue M, visit avenuemavl.com.

Written by Kay West

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Cole