In designing a restaurant concept it would make sense for the focus to be on the guest experience first and foremost. What will the dining room look like? How will servers interact with guests? What menu items will be most popular? After all, even with all the upheaval and change in the restaurant industry as of late, the Danny Meyer, guests-come-first model still seems to reign supreme.
But what if a restaurant was designed for and by those who work in it? What if the food was meant to be an extension of the chef’s lived experiences, and the ethos was explicitly welcoming to employees first? Can you create a restaurant that is for you, and by extension, those like you who might not have always felt like they belonged?
For Asheville Chef Silver Cousler the answer would be a definitive, “Yes.”
Cousler is set to open Neng’s, Jr., one of North Carolina’s only Filipinx restaurants, in the former Mothlight space in West Asheville later this winter. Not only will Cousler be serving some of the food they grew up eating, they’ve also endeavored to create an expressly queer space that encompasses their decade-long experience in the restaurant industry and celebrates their identity as a queer Filipinx chef.
In an interview with Eater Carolinas, Cousler explains why they felt the time was right for them to strike out on their own.
According to Cousler, reflecting on their past experiences in the restaurant industry “involves tearing away a lot of toxic environments, which I feel like I’ve just worked in forever. A lot of this past year has been me trying to figure out if I wanted to continue [in the industry]. I was like, do I really want to open a restaurant?” They continue, “I think in the back of my mind I was just like ‘Actually yes.’ I feel like I would be doing myself a disservice to not be doing something that I’ve really wanted to do.”
For Cousler, who grew up in Eastern North Carolina the child of a Filipina mother and American serviceman father, that meant digging into their identity as both a Filipinx-American and a queer person. “As a trans person in the South, and as a person of color in the South, I just don’t think that our voices are represented in a way that [they would be] if I lived in New York City or if I lived in LA.”
While noting that for many the very concept of Neng’s Jr. might seem more suited to a big city, Cousler is adamant that Asheville is the right community for this restaurant. “I really believe in this place and I really, honestly believe in myself.”
Neng’s, Jr. will be a small, 20-seat restaurant with the kitchen at the heart of the space. Loud colors will join with non-linear furniture from Asheville-based designer Liz Hopkins to create a dining experience that is 100% Cousler. Servers will be cross-trained in the kitchen, and kitchen staff will also spend time serving. Salaries will be the same across the board.
Even the name of the restaurant is personal — Neneng is Cousler’s mother’s Filipinx nickname (meaning “baby girl”) and Neng Jr. is Cousler’s nickname.
The menu will bridge the divide of Cousler’s heritage, with Filipino staples like Shanghai lumpia, pancit, and adobo barbecue chicken served in the Southern meat-and-three style. Cousler, who worked in a barbecue restaurant in Eastern North Carolina when they were younger, points out the similarity between Filipino and Southern cuisines. “Traveling the South and eating at a ton of different barbecue restaurants,” Cousler says, “that setup is similar to the street vendor set up in Manila or in Quezon City, where you pick your main and then you have your sides.”
The meat-and-three tradition isn’t the only inspiration Cousler has gotten from Southern barbecue joints. “There’s a hand painted menu at Chuck’s Barbecue in Savannah,” Cousler says, “and I love that the menu is just painted on the side of the building.” “And that’s like a lot of my inspiration for [Neng’s] menu,” Cousler continues, “where it’ll be a stationary menu that you can just rely on, but also I will always have something new.”
Cousler and their partner Cherry were able to do a test run of Neng’s last year with a series of pop-up dinners in Asheville. “It was very successful,” Cousler remembers, “and it made me feel so affirmed, knowing that if you create the space, they will show up.”
Cherry will continue to be involved with Neng’s Jr., creating a beverage program that Cousler says will focus almost exclusively on unique and natural wines. “I only want to serve wine because [Asheville] is such a beer town, like, we don’t need another brewery. We just don’t,” Cousler laughs.
When it comes to financing for the restaurant Cousler has also chosen to forgo the traditional investor-and-loan route, opting instead for a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe. “The whole point of this restaurant is to prove that it’s possible for your mission or your project to come alive with just the support of your community,” Cousler says. To date they’ve raised over $18,000 towards their $80,000 goal.
When it opens Neng’s Jr. will become one of the very few Filipinx restaurants in North Carolina, and likely the only one west of Charlotte. Word is already getting out.
“People DM me or message me about how they’ve been craving Filipino food and are excited and are coming to Asheville,” Cousler says. “They can’t wait for this restaurant to open, and just getting these messages - I’m just like, this is why I’m doing this.”
With their dedication to Asheville and community support Cousler is confident that Neng’s Jr. can become a welcoming place where delicious Filipino food, Southern tradition, a bit of a queer avant-garde sensibility, can mix to create a space that stands wholly on its own.