They call it Lonesome Valley. You know why when you set your eyes on the stunningly beautiful and remote canyon in Cashiers, North Carolina, where Richard Jennings Jr. settled in 1947. In the 1950s, Jennings began mink farming and raising trout to feed the small mammals on his family’s 800-acre property. When mink fell out of favor with consumers, he turned to trout farming as his livelihood.
Country Boy // The chef’s Southern roots are reflected in the homey prose describing his courses on the ever-changing menu: Pull Up a Chair introduces a small salad, like the watermelon basil (right); starters fall under Now Yer Just Pidlin’; and Dinner Bell limns the entrées, like the pork belly (left). Supper Ain’t Supper Without Dessert features decadent sweets like the dacquoise, with dark chocolate ganache and praline crunch (below). Chef Adam Hayes (middle) was a winner of Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen in 2014.
Today, the trout farm operates in Canton, North Carolina, and the mountain valley enfolds a residential agrarian community developed by the Jennings family a decade ago, now complete with a restaurant, a spa, and rental cabins tucked into the woods.
Got the Chops // Canyon Kitchen’s menu changes frequently based on the seasons (and what is growing in the on-site garden). Expect dishes like the Wam Bam Lamb, with tomato braised carrots, toasted cumin, and green coriander pesto.
Housed in a barnlike building at the community’s heart, Canyon Kitchen shows off post-and-beam construction, with massive oak ceiling beams and two wood-burning stacked-stone fireplaces. The restaurant opened on Memorial Day weekend 2009 with celebrated chef John Fleer at the helm. In 2015, Fleer left to concentrate on his new Asheville restaurant, Rhubarb, and passed the reins to Adam Hayes, former executive chef at the Grand Bohemian Hotel, also in Asheville.
For someone who grew up in a small North Carolina town on steaks and barbecue, Hayes has stepped away from his meat-and-potatoes box with riffs on traditional Southern Appalachian fare. As a boy, he worked alongside his grandmother in her bakery in Asheboro, North Carolina. Consequently, his approach to food is driven by the question: “What would Grandma do?”
While Grandma would certainly have pickled watermelon rind and fried shrimp, would she have thought to pair them with corn soubise and strawberry sofrito? Hayes would. He whimsically deconstructs a Caprese salad into its taste elements: heirloom tomatoes, mozzarella panna cotta, and a basil macaron. On any given night, he may tickle succulent sous-vide lamb ribs with a Kentucky soy miso glaze, or fire up a Gulf snowy grouper with a Fresno chile beurre blanc.
The inviting garden right behind the restaurant defines Hayes’s culinary focus. Here lettuces sprout from metal troughs, tomatoes redden on the vines, and the stalks of a Cherokee corn varietal train up a wire fence on the plot’s perimeter.
Hayes prides himself on crafting dishes from locally grown and foraged ingredients, and describes his improvisational cuisine as “a hodge-podge of styles,” ranging from Appalachian to Asian. “It’s not just me,” he claims. “I have a solid team behind me. I create the inspirational channel we all get behind.”
As arresting as Canyon Kitchen’s food is, the restaurant’s view of the rolling shamrock-green Great Meadow framed by the towering granite face of Cow Rock rivals it. On warm summer nights, accordion doors across the front and back of the dining room open to welcome in the mountain breezes.
Canyon Kitchen closes for the winter months, giving the chef license to hunt quail in Texas, help a friend vint wine in Napa Valley, and take tasting trips across the country. The seasonal closing also allows Hayes more time to spend with his wife and their two young children. As he puts it, “I’m living the chef’s dream!”
Canyon Kitchen, 94 Lonesome Valley Rd, Sapphire, NC. (828) 743-7967, lonesomevalley.com; open for dinner only, May–Oct, Wed–Sun, 5–9pm