Eric Scheffer arrives at the North Asheville Tailgate Market in a blue pickup truck with a crew of staff right behind him. The owner of Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian restaurant is here to cook for market-goers who will arrive in just a few minutes. But first, he needs ingredients.
“I want to look for some squash blossoms if we can. Some squash blossoms and I want to get some beets,” he says.
Sheffer wanders through the market, ready for inspiration to strike. He doesn’t have a menu in mind or even a shopping list. Instead, he’s looking for the freshest seasonal ingredients he can find on this bright morning in early summer.
“Let’s see what Uncle Paul has over there in the way of mushrooms,” Sheffer says. Paul Littman of Ivy Creek Family Farm stands behind a table full of produce. As Sheffer picks up a handful of mushrooms and puts them in a paper bag, he asks the farmer how the mushrooms were grown. Littman explains that he grows the mushrooms behind his house below a majestic old beech tree.
Mushrooms in hand, Sheffer walks through the market, stopping to pick up some honeycomb, goat cheese, purple cherry tomatoes and a dozen other ingredients, chatting with farmers and customers along the way.
Back at the Vinnie’s station, the staff is scurrying to put up tables and spread out tablecloths. Chefs in white coats stand behind four portable burners. The morning is hectic, but Sheffer doesn’t seem phased.
“I’ve been doing this about 17 years, since the market started up in North Asheville,” he says. “I got to know almost all these farmers pretty intimately in the beginning, just grabbing whatever anyone wanted to give me or we would buy and just cook in the moment and just put out really great food. I love watching people’s faces when they’re trying something new and they realize it all came from the market.”
Sheffer and his team prepare today’s produce and place it on thin slices of ciabatta bread. People crowd around, waiting for each new breakfast bruschetta to arrive on a wooden cutting board. Staff from Vinnie’s restaurant tell customers where each ingredient came from today. The sauteed shiitake mushrooms are a big hit.
A customer asks for advice on how to use the Turkish Delight goat cheese she bought this morning from Three Graces Dairy. She’s never tried this rosewater goat cheese before, and is curious about what to pair with it. One taste of the sauted apples and radishes served on top of the cheese has her group raving.
Shay Amber has watched customers respond to these chef demos during her five years as the director of the North Asheville Tailgate Market.
“Doing these chef demos is really important to me because it’s teaching our customers how to cook with maybe some of our more unusual foods that are being offered, like kohlrabi or bok choy,” she says. “They can come out here, see these demos, taste the food and get inspired to buy it and try some recipes at home.”
Eric Sheffer is back behind the burner, tapping each tiny quail egg with a knife. The eggs sizzle the pan as he talks about why he’s done these demos for the past 17 years.
“It’s camaraderie, it’s community, it’s family and friends, and so it’s really very rewarding. When you can have a community like this and everyone’s together and supporting each other it means an awful lot,” he says.
Chef demos are held at farmers markets throughout the season, along with live music like you’re hearing now. Find a calendar of market activities on ASAP’s community website, www.fromhere.org