Rainbow trout from Sunburst Trout Farms is what’s for dinner

You can’t toss a trout without it hitting a menu in Asheville that carries at least one dish from Sunburst Trout Farms. It’s not officially a law, but it’s hard to fathom carrying any other rainbow trout when the source ofthese freshwater beauties is just 30 miles away from the heart of downtown.

Rhubarb restaurant on Pack Square, for example, puts its Appalachian take on a wood-roasted whole Sunburst Farms Trout with English pea purée, farro-turnip hash, roasted garlic, tarragon aioli, killed spring greens, benne seed mignonette and fennel pollen. Next door at Posana, Sunburst Trout is one of only two vendors who have been with them since they opened 15 years ago.

In West Asheville, Jargon’s executive chef Ryan Kline crusts his trout with quinoa and plates it with the last of the spring seasonal forage of ramps and morel mushrooms.

It wasn’t always this way, says Wes Eason, Director of Sales for Sunburst Trout Farms and the grandson of founder Dick Jennings Jr.  “Even into his 70s, my grandfather was calling on restaurants in Asheville and the area, trying to get them to carry the trout. When Corner Kitchen first opened in Biltmore Village 20 years ago, co-owner Joe Scully pushed back and said they didn’t want to do trout. Finally, Joe agreed to let his sous chef cook some filets and sit down with my grandfather to taste them. It’s been on the Corner Kitchen menu ever since.”

In the early 1940s, Pennsylvania native Dick Jennings was the owner and caretaker of 850 acres of family property in Haywood County. A WWII veteran, he loved traveling in Europe, particularly France, where he was first exposed to small trout farms. He saw similar attributes in his property back in WNC – clean water at a reliable cool temperature and a good flow. He recognized that its mountain setting meant there was nothing that would taint that water.

In 1948, he launched the first commercial trout farm east of the Mississippi, initially supplying live trout to stock ponds. His first commercial sales were to grocery stores in the early 80s, which were then selling live fish from tanks. Wes laughs to recall it. “The fish would be swimming around in a tank and shoppers would tell the fish guy which one they wanted. They’re tricky to get out and no doubt water was all over the floor.”

Building a processing facility exchanged the live fish in supermarket tanks to packages of trout filets or gutted, bone in, whole dressed fish.

Those products expanded Sunburst Trout’s reach up and down the eastern seaboard to big seafood distributors and brokers. Ingles became a customer and Jennings also began selling to the few upscale restaurants in Asheville at that time, like Grove Park Inn and Biltmore Estate.

In 1985, Frances and Dick’s daughter Sally and her husband Steve Eason came on board the company, and the product line continued to expand.

Smoked trout begat smoked trout dip, says Wes Eason. “Some pieces came out of the smoker a little too small to package so one of the employees suggested grinding it and mixing it with other stuff to make a dip. It is very popular.”

Also in the 1980s, trout caviar was a natural byproduct of the dressed filets, packaged in jars. In the early 2000s, cold smoked trout (similar to lox) was introduced, and eventually two more flavors – pastrami style and dill spiced. Later came rainbow trout jerky, then trout sausage. The most recent product is a trout burger. “We created that out of boredom during Covid and it’s become a phenomenal item for us.”

Though Wes Eason worked at the farm and processing facility as a teenager – doing odd jobs and grunt work – he had no intention of joining the family business. He majored in sociology and criminology at the College of Charleston, then found he was not temperamentally suited to work in that field. After bouncing around a bit, his father asked if he could temporarily help out a bit at the company. That was March 2001; his younger brother Ben came on about six months later and the two have been co-running it since.

And still cooking and eating trout multiple times a week.  “I like to grill it and keep it simple — olive oil, kosher salt and cracked pepper. My stepson likes trout tacos – remove the skin from the filet, season with taco spices, sauté in a pan, break it up, put it on a corn tortilla and top with some kind of slaw, pickled onions, radishes and sour cream.”

One thing Wes won’t do? “I never order trout in a restaurant. Sometimes the kitchen will send out something they’ve made with the trout and that’s great, but I’m not going to order it.”

For more about Sunburst Trout Farms, visit sunbursttrout.com.

— Kay West

Photos courtesy of Sunburst Trout Farms
First photo: Aerial view of Sunburst Trout Farms
Second photo: Wes and Ben Eason
Third photo:
 Sunburst Trout Farms products