At the end of a long dirt driveway off Reems Creek Road in Weaverville, North Carolina, Evan Chender waves to me. Here, on four acres of land he purchased in 2016 in the shadow of an unnamed mountain, Chender—aka The Culinary Gardener—cultivates a staggering assortment of vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers.
I barely have a chance to shake his hand when a little brown Dachshund, the farm mascot, bounds through the grass to greet me. Chender scoops three-year-old Maple up in his arms and carries her along for our tour. Before we start, however, I must meet Maple’s new brother, an adorable 10-week-old black-and-tan Dachshund named Lile, who is curled up in a blanket on the back stoop of Chender’s house.
Celtuce, tetragonia, agretti, Korean perilla. Evan recites the names of some of the more esoteric among the 80–100 crops of 200 different varieties that he sells exclusively to area restaurants. Neat rows of fava beans, artichokes, cardoons, Chinese broccoli, alpine strawberries, and radicchio—all of which he grows from seed—line up in his 48-foot-long greenhouse, as well as in a high tunnel and four smaller caterpillar tunnels. These structures, and growing cold-tolerant crops such as baby turnips, radishes, and greens, enable him to farm four seasons of the year.
Chender’s fascination with farming began with food. “I’ve been in love with food for as long as I can remember,” he claims, even though cooking was not something to which his family was particularly drawn. “I was always experimenting with cooking when I was very young. I didn’t read cookbooks; it was a process of exploring flavors and trying to understand what tasted good together and how to prepare something.” That hands-on trial-and-error method is the same technique that has proven so fruitful for him in farming.
From cooking, his interest blossomed into growing food. At age 18, he dug a 30-by-30 foot garden in the yard of his family home in a suburb of New York City, where he grew tomatoes, onions, eggplant, peppers, beans, and potatoes. “I always wanted to have as many different things as possible so I’d have a bunch of fresh things to cook with” is how he justifies his first experiments with growing food. “Most of what I’ve learned is from very closely observing things and making connections, then understanding how things work.”
Food for Thought // Evan Chender holds his Dachshund, Maple, in a 48-foot-long NC-based greenhouse where he grows vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers year-round for WNC chefs, and now Husk in Greenville. Chender has worked with Chef Dan Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, as well as in the kitchen of the world-renowned Copenhagen restaurant Noma.
Although his early summer jobs were in restaurant kitchens, the professional side of cooking never appealed to the budding farmer. He earned a BA in food culture and sustainable agriculture at Vassar College, where he wrote an in-depth analysis of four-season farming for his senior thesis. After college, he managed the greenhouse at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, a non-profit farm and educational center co-owned by Michelin-starred chef and sustainable-farming advocate Dan Barber in Pocantico Hills, New York. It was at Stone Barns that Chender picked farming as his vocation and learned many of the techniques he uses today.
Next he took off for Europe to manage a half-acre biodynamic vegetable garden for Agriturismo La Petraia in the hills of Tuscany, and then did a month-long stage in the kitchen at Noma in Copenhagen—ranked among the best restaurants in the world.
Evan moved to Asheville six years ago, drawn by the small city’s natural beauty and quality of life. He worked in a Weaverville café until he obtained access to an 800-square-foot plot of land on which his adventure in full-time farming took root.
The first three Asheville restaurants he brought samples of his products to—Cucina 24, Bull and Beggar, and Table—remain some of his best customers. “Matt Dawes, the chef at Bull and Beggar, immediately saw what I was trying to do, and for those first six months he single-handedly prevented me from quitting because he bought everything that I had every week,” Chender recalls. His local restaurant roster has since branched out to a dozen, and he recently started supplying Husk in Greenville. Thanks to his restaurant experience, Chender possesses a rare understanding of the food industry from the perspective of both chef and farmer.
Though many equate the Culinary Gardener with arcane produce, he insists his focus is on “highly selected and well-grown varieties of crops that people are familiar with.” When choosing seeds, he considers size, flavor, color, and shape. Finding different things to grow inspires the young farmer and staves off boredom.
“This farm is a real expression of myself,” he tells me, intensity smoldering in his dark eyes. “It’s a passion project, a constantly evolving process of learning new things and experimenting. I put everything within myself into this. Sometimes that’s extremely painful and challenging. But the highs are so high—the thrill of succeeding in growing something and the reaction I get from chefs—that’s what keeps me coming back and knowing that I never want to do anything else.”