Cultura executive chef Eric Morris barely had a minute to savor the 2020 James Beard Foundation’s semi-finalist nomination as Best New Restaurant before it all shut down. Cultura, which with the Funkatorium operates under the Wicked Weed Brewing umbrella in downtown Asheville, and Morris did multiple pandemic pivots — partnering with a local nonprofit to provide hundreds of free meals weekly, starting a breakfast sandwich pop-up, and taking a sabbatical to work for a church serving Asheville’s homeless population.
Last fall, while back inside Cultura thinking about how to use the underutilized dining room, Morris came up with the idea of a monthly pop-up dinner collaborating with local chefs and cooks to devote a portion of the proceeds to a nonprofit of each chef’s choosing. He explains, “I felt like we could do more with this space than just run a restaurant. It could be a place to give chefs a platform to showcase their talent, shine a light on things they care about, collaborate and benefit the community.”
Cultivated Community Dinner Series launched in September 2021 with Oaxacalifornia, a seated five-course dinner by chef Luis Martinez showcasing his Oaxacan heritage. Martinez was executive chef/partner of El Gallo restaurant before leaving in July 2021 to pursue food justice ventures.
The 50-seat pilot sold out and a series was born. October’s guest chef was Jonathan Pridgen, responsible for all the charcuterie at Katie Button’s Curate. Pridgen did eight courses titled Swine’d Sustainably. In November, Silver Cousler presented Food of the Gods: Filipinx Culinary Ancestry, a peek of what to expect from Neng Jr.’s, their highly-anticipated restaurant on the verge of opening in West Asheville. Cantonese chef J Chong, formerly executive sous chef at Curate, started her own dumpling business in 2020 and closed out the dinner series with six courses she called Yam Seng (“cheers” in Chinese).
Asked to name a stand-out dish from each meal Morris laughed. “Every single dinner there were two or three that I thought, ‘That is awesome! I need to try that!’ I love being introduced to all the cuisines.”
The highlight of Martinez’s Oaxacalifornia dinner was the tlayuda, for which Martinez milled his own mix of blue corn, spread an ant mole on the thick blue tortilla, and added whipped lardo and pickled red and yellow beets. “That dish melted my brain a little bit,” Morris admits.
Pridgen’s dish that blew Morris away was a chicken liver mousse with a tepache gelee, huitlacoche tuiles, and cilantro. “He used some of the ant mole negro from Luis’s dinner in his mousse. I loved that collaboration.”
Cousler developed a deep crush on barbecue while a sous chef at Buxton Hall Bar-B-Que. “Shredding Silver’s smoked chicken and incorporating that into Filipino flavors and house-made rice noodles was phenomenal,” Morris says.
Recalling the hours with Chong wrapping lotus leaves around sticky rice for the lap cheong lo mai gai he notes, “That dish was like something I would buy off a street vender in NY, but J pushed it up a couple notches.”
Though Cultura is in the process of reopening as a full-service restaurant, the Cultivated Community Dinner Series will continue monthly through 2022, and the stellar line-up has fingers hovering over keypads to snag a seat.
Family Reunion – all four 2021 chefs will work together on the amuse, then create an individual course — is February 17. Morris has asked each for a dish that represents something they love about Asheville.
After months of pursuit like a love-sick teenager, Morris signed Ashleigh Shanti — opening chef of Benne on Eagle and also a 2020 recipient of a Beard nomination for Rising Star Chef — for the March dinner. “She’s like the golden unicorn. I really want to more fully experience her food. I had her fish sandwich with fermented collard greens at one of her Good Hot Fish popups and I’m kind of counting on it showing up as a course.”
The spring series concludes in April with Sawhorse owner/chef and transplanted Adirondack Mountain man Dan Silo. “His buckwheat pancakes have their own cult following,” Morris avows.
Tickets for the dinners are $100 per person and include alcoholic and NA beverage pairings. Keep up with the Cultivated Community Dinner Series schedule and notice of on-sale dates by signing up for their newsletter.