Perched high in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Spruce Pine, North Carolina, is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of place, a tiny quartz-mining town that’s seen better days. It’s not a town where, in my wildest imagination, I’d expect to find a nationally recognized chef.
Yet, at one end of Locust Street, across from the railroad tracks, a white sign hangs from a tall post, creaking when the wind blows, its black letters modestly announcing Knife & Fork. Up the walkway, you’ll find Chef Nate Allen behind the stoves inside a 1930s former plumbing-supply store.
Allen, who was nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast in 2016, owns this 50-seat destination restaurant. Here the chef designs dishes dictated by what area farmers bring to his door on any given day.
At the dawn of spring, that meant a starter of flowering cavalo nero just plucked from the garden, which Allen sautés with mild chilaca chiles and piney rosemary. A succulent whole wood-roasted Sunburst trout was complemented by a butter-enriched fumé and watermelon radish tartar sauce. Next came a seared loin of local rabbit with Anson Mills calico rice and the last Cherokee squash of the winter. And, with it, a lovely salad of cold beets, garnished with nasturtiums and plated with a purée of beet skins and silky house-made yogurt.
Allen describes his cuisine as a taste of place and time. “I don’t turn things into little cubes, I don’t stack things up in towers, I don’t put little symmetrical drops of sauces on things. I want my plates to look as if you happened upon them in a forest.”
In late spring and early summer, that’s where you might find him, foraging for morels, black walnuts, ramps, sumac, and wild mustard. His favorite plant is wild Indian cucumber root, a tiny tuber that tastes like jicama and looks like a spiny caterpillar.
How did this outstanding culinary talent end up in the North Carolina mountains? After graduating from culinary school at Johnson and Wales in Rhode Island, Allen headed for Los Angeles in 2001. There he worked for two years at A.O.C., Suzanne Goin’s second restaurant (after Lucques), before leaving to become a private chef.
Five years later, he was making plans to open his own restaurant when his partners backed out. “At that point,” Allen confesses, “I redefined success for myself. Instead of having a restaurant in one of the biggest cities in the world, I wanted to go where the agriculture was varied and the seasons were different. The mission was to source food from within 40 miles of the restaurant, immediately after it came out of the ground and was washed.”
In 2009, he heard that Spruce Pine had passed legislation to allow the sale of alcohol. Familiar with Western North Carolina from childhood visits with his grandparents, and realizing there was no restaurant within an hour’s drive where you could sit down to a well-curated meal and a bottle of fine wine, Allen packed up his blue VW bus and drove across the country.
Fast-forward nine years, and he’s still delighting diners who come to Spruce Pine just to taste his food. “When people leave my restaurant, I want them to feel taken care of,” says the chef. “I’m not trying to blow anyone’s mind. I’m just trying to get people together over good food, recognizing that it’s love.”
Knife & Fork, next to 61 Locust St., Spruce Pine, NC. (828) 765-1511, knifeandforknc.com. Lunch, Wed–Fri, 11:30am-3pm; dinner, Thurs–Sat, 5pm–9pm; Sun brunch, 11am–2pm
GET A ROOM
Nestled a few miles away from Spruce Pine is the quaint Chinquapin Inn, owned by Suzanne and Bill Ford. Here, you can enjoy coffee in the garden while Suzanne whips up a scratch-made breakfast. Peruse nearby pottery studios and visit the famed Penland School of Crafts, just down the street. 2249 Conley Ridge Rd, Penland, NC. (828) 765-0064, chinquapininn.com
Richmond Inn B&B
Occupying a sprawling 1929 country home and open year-round, this eight-room inn sits on a hill above downtown Spruce Pine, within walking distance of Knife & Fork. Attractive rooms are comfortably furnished and include private baths, TVs, and WiFi. Guests are welcome to beverages and snacks in the butler’s pantry any time of day, while in the morning, innkeeper Maggie Haskell rustles up a tasty breakfast. 51 Pine Ave., Spruce Pine, NC. (828) 765-6993, richmondinn.us