One of a Kind: At Tastee Diner, Steve Goff honors a local landmark and keeps Asheville weird
Steve Goff is a talented chef with a commitment to local farmers, a heart for doing the right thing, a steadfast respect for time-tested cultural landmarks, and a way with words.
The first two have informed the menus and labor practices of the kitchens he has led and restaurants he has owned. The third was not insignificant in his decision in 2022 to buy Tastee Diner, a West Asheville restaurant serving the neighborhood since 1946.
As for Goff’s words? Let’s just say he would give a bleep button a workout. But some Goffisms are worth sharing:
“When you’re hopping on a freight train, you’re going where there’s no roads, so you see lots of cool ****. One thing you don’t want to do is get ******* drunk before you hop on a freight train.”
“If North Carolina had a spirit vegetable, it would be the sweet potato. I ******* love sweet potatoes.”
“I’m a very Asheville person. I mean, look at me, I’m the most Asheville ******-****** you’ve ever seen.”
“I’m a super pessimist but I’m also super ******* positive, so I guess I’m positively pessimistic.”
“For a ******* homeless punk rocker, dishwashing in a restaurant was a good way not to panhandle.”
Goff has been hopping on and off freight trains since he was a young teen, determined to get out of Greenville, S.C., by any means possible. His family moved there from California’s San Francisco Bay Area just before he started middle school, and it was a crushing culture shock. He gravitated to the punk rock scene, which introduced him to squatter punk kids who were hopping trains and invited him to come along. At 15, he dropped out of school and immersed himself in that tribe.
For more than 10 years, Goff crisscrossed the country by rail, basically homeless, picking up money by handing out flyers for restaurants and washing dishes, occasionally jumping on the line when a kitchen was shorthanded.
That runaway train eventually derailed in Asheville when he was passing through town on his way to California. While participating in a gay marriage rights rally, Goff got on the wrong side of a cop who hauled him to jail.
“A man I didn’t know paid the bail for 11 of us who got arrested for no reason. That really showed me how nice Asheville could be,” he remembers. “After I got out of jail, I couldn’t leave because I didn’t want him to lose his money, and that’s how I ended up in Asheville.”
Goff got a job as a dishwasher at Zambra, and after his court date he moved to Durham for a bit. When his girlfriend got pregnant, the couple moved back to Asheville, and he went back to Zambra. When his daughter, Emma, was born, he committed to food and at age 26 enrolled in A-B Tech’s Culinary Arts and Hospitality program.
“I had worked in nice restaurants for three years by then, and Zambra offered me the executive sous chef job. But I couldn’t do both [school and the job], and I wanted to do something to make my daughter proud and be a great chef. I felt like a culinary degree would take me further.”
Goff is very clear that as much as he is a proponent of culinary school it did not teach him to cook. “Culinary school is not about learning to cook,” he says. “You can learn the basics and terminology, but cooking great requires ******** of repetition and you won’t get that in culinary school, you get that on the job.” What he took away from culinary school aside from the degree, he says, was knowledge of how to manage numbers, how to manage people, and how to lead.
After graduating, Goff took a job at the old Richmond Hill Inn’s fine-dining restaurant, which was by reservation only and served seven- and nine-course dinners. “I wanted the hardest job I could possibly get because I felt like if I could do that, I could do anything,” he says.
When Richmond Hill burned down in 2009, Goff went back to Zambra with the stipulation that he be allowed time to do events and competitions. Altogether, Goff was there five years when he accepted an offer to be chef/managing partner of a new restaurant on Charlotte Street, King James Public House, which opened in early 2014.
“I had never been an owner, but as a chef, I always ran things as if I was the owner. I tell people, if you think you want to own a restaurant, you’d better act like you do in someone else’s first. Treat it like it’s your own baby and your own money,” says Goff.
When that partnership ended not entirely amicably, he took a break from Asheville and moved to Raleigh for the head butcher position at Scott Crawford’s Standard Foods. While there, Goff also launched his food truck, Brinehaus Meat & Provisions. “We had a really stupid tagline: Internationally Inspired Southern Cuisine,” he says. “Nobody knew what the **** that was. The great lesson I learned was that food trucks should do one thing and the name should say what that is.”
He also learned it was time to go home. “I needed Asheville,” he explains. “There is so much creative freedom here that isn’t anywhere else. I like weird funky hippie ****, and that’s Asheville.”
So in 2017, he came back pulling his food truck, and when a space opened at the site of a former punk club he had frequented called Vincent’s Ear, he followed fate right into a lease. In 2018, Goff opened AUX Bar, which he describes as “a Southern restaurant that made love to a bistro and had a dive bar baby.”
AUX had a tremendous following until COVID shut it down. At that point, Goff put away his knives for a bit, working in a comic book store, teaching at A-B Tech, and cooking restaurant amounts of food at home for his wife, Sam, and daughter, Emma.
In the spring of 2021, he assumed the executive chef position at Jargon; it took about a year for him to accept that he could not work for an owner but had to be an owner.
About that time, Tastee Diner came up for sale. “I had always appreciated Tastee,” he says. “It was so cool that they were open like 75 years. But it had to change to make it work — you can’t keep doing $8 cheeseburgers and take care of farmers and staff. And I wanted to do something weird.”
Goff signed the lease in March 2022, and did catering while the building was repaired, repainted, refurnished, and Goff-ized — from the art, dishes, and memorabilia to the menu. In September 2022, he opened for lunch four days a week, in December added breakfast and went to seven days, and in May 2023, he launched dinner. “Dinner is where I have fun,” he says. “I’m not against breakfast and lunch, but my joy lies in making dinner things. And I’m a huge wine nerd.”
Yes, you can get steak and eggs and chicken and grits for breakfast, and for lunch big fat sandwiches — including smoked bologna, beef chopped cheese, and the renowned AUX burger. On the dinner menu, Goff reprises AUX Bar’s beef heart tartare and introduces a whole fried fish, roasted marrow, braised chuck roast, and a roasted North Carolina spirit vegetable — aka sweet potato — with tahini, pomegranate, and herbs.
Goff expects to add late night dining — a service AUX Bar was well-known for — when he can staff up to manage it. Everything at Tastee is based on his conviction that in Asheville people want really cool food that’s locally sourced, priced affordably, and filling.
He is also vocal about the role his wife has played in the Tastee story. “None of this could have happened without Sam,” he says. “She is the mother of Tastee. She makes us happy when we’re sad and digs us out of whatever ditch we’ve fallen into.”
One more thing Goff is known for is his red plaid cap. “It was something I always wore and now people don’t know me without it,” he says. “The other day in the dining room an older guy told me he loved my hat and wanted to know if he could buy it. I said no and gave it to him. I have plenty more.”
For more on Tastee Diner, visit tasteedineravl.com.
Written by Kay West
Image courtesy of Mari Peterson (Marketing Outpost)