The Market Place restaurant owner/chef William Dissen publishes his first cookbook Thoughtful Cooking

Were it not for singer/songwriter Michael Franti, chef William Dissen might not have purchased Asheville’s pioneering The Market Place restaurant in 2009, opened 30 years before by chef Mark Rosenstein.

“I was living in Charleston and came up with some friends to see Michal Franti at the LEAF festival,” Dissen remembers. “We went to Earth Fare market to get some wine and I picked up a copy of something called the Local Food Guide. Thumbing through it, I realized ‘This is everything I am doing and all the things and people who have what I need to work with.’ ”

Dissen was raised in Charleston, WV and spent a lot of time on his maternal grandmother’s farm. Plan A was college – West Virginia University, check. But a job at a country club washing dishes segued — as kitchen jobs often do — to filling in for the garde-manger and led eventually to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

“The CIA had 13 certified master chefs as instructors – there were only 65 in the world – and then I apprenticed at The Greenbrier Resort and worked under another, Chef Peter Timmins.”

Charleston’s nascent growth as a culinary destination drew him to the low country and he landed at fine dining restaurant Cypress, stayed a while, then went back to the classroom, earning a master’s degree in Hospitality, Restaurant and Tourism Management from the University of South Carolina.

‘Now what?’ was the existential question William Dissen posed to William Dissen. “I had been cooking in other people’s restaurants for a long time and got to the point where I wanted to do it for myself,” he says. “I had lived in NY and other cities and liked it, but I also like playing outside and love the mountains. A friend who had worked at the Biltmore told me I should check out Asheville.”

And so, it came to be that Dissen came to be in Asheville, picked up that annual guide to local farms, farmers, markets, purveyors and artisan foods published by ASAP (Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project) and a week later called an Asheville realtor. “In a stroke of good timing the realtor told me there was an older, established restaurant for sale. I met with Mark Rosenstein at The Market Place, did my due diligence and in 2009, I bought it.”

He laughs when he recalls the mindset he brought to The Market Place, Asheville’s first true farm-to-table restaurant. “I wanted to do a very high end, white tablecloth, fine dining restaurant. I had my long white apron, a tasting menu and tweezer food. One of my favorite dishes was a trio of rabbit, which involved Frenching petite little rabbit racks and putting red pepper foam on the plate. One night I thought ‘Why am I doing this?’ It was an aha moment.“

The recession was hitting hard at the time, and he understood that no one was wanting to spend big dollars on fastidiously Frenched rabbits. He decided to flip the script, renovated the restaurant, moved the bar to the front room, took the linens off the tables and ditched the white apron. “We moved to refined rustic with local sourcing and people got it.”

Dissen firmly believes that chefs should also be teachers in the kitchen. “It is my job to be three steps ahead, to be a teacher, to show how to do it, how to achieve excellence.”

The publication this April of Dissen’s first cookbook Thoughtful Cooking Recipes Rooted in the New South, significantly expands the chef’s classroom to home kitchens. His goal, aside from teaching, is to encourage people to slow down, connect with ingredients and be thoughtful about their food, diving into his advocacy for sustainability, food policy and culinary cultural heritage.

Beginning with spring, the book unfolds in four primary sections through the seasons of the Appalachian region, in what he describes as a ‘meditation.’ Cooking seasonally promotes sustainability and an appreciation for what is at hand. “When I was cooking at the swanky San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara, I told the chef I needed some thyme for a stock I was making. He pointed to a basket and scissors and told me to go out to the garden and get it.”

Stepping into the exquisitely refined garden, he was thrown back to his grandmother’s farm and being sent to the field to pick corn and beans. “We’d sit on the porch and shuck the corn and shell the beans, cook them and eat them. Great food starts with fresh food.”

All cooks need the right tools, and there’s a section for that, as well as suggestions for stocking the larder. But the heart and soul of the book is expressed through nearly 100 recipes, accompanied by lush images by the stellar food photographer Johnny Autry. “If nothing else, people get a gorgeous picture book,” Dissen says with a laugh.

Thoughtful Cooking is all that and more. Spring urges cooks to revel in the ephemeral glory of here today-gone tomorrow produce like asparagus, ramps, tender new carrots, soft shell crabs, strawberries, spring peas and morel mushrooms. The latter two star in the pea and ricotta stuffed morel mushrooms with romesco sauce.

Summer showcases one of his personal favorite recipes — cornmeal fried catfish, with butter bean and boiled peanut stew, green tomato chow chow and herb aioli.

The aioli calls for a ½ cup of mayonnaise, and elsewhere in the book, Dissen unabashedly sings the praises of Duke’s Mayonnaise. “When I came to Charleston to work, everyone in the kitchen was using Duke’s, I scoffed and said no, I’m making it from scratch. Then my colleagues would take some Duke’s, add confit garlic, a little lemon zest, lemon juice and salt and I was like, oh man, that’s just as good. I’m all for Duke’s.”

That particular recipe – as humble as the ingredients are – is labor intensive and multi-stepped. At the simple end of the learning curve, there’s the country ham wrapped peaches with stracciatella and candied hazelnuts, which he says can be pared down to country ham wrapped peaches drizzled with a good maple syrup.

Fall brings pan-roasted half chicken with Swiss chard and fresh figs, and cold weather comfort can be found in pork Milanese aka fried pork chops with preserved summer vegetables.

Speaking of preserving, a section in the back of the book is devoted to pickles and preserves. “Like my grandmother always said when she was putting up summer’s harvest, it’s nice to open a jar of sunshine when the world is gray.”

For more on The Market Place, visit marketplace-restaurant.com.

— Kay West

Photos courtesy of Johnny Autry and The Market Place Restaurant
First photo: Chef William Dissen
Second photo: The Market Place Restaurant
Third photo: Thoughtful Cooking cover