Lake Powhatan outside of Asheville | Credit: Matt Kettmann

This edition of Full Belly Files was originally emailed to subscribers on October 20, 2023. To receive Matt Kettmann’s food newsletter in your inbox each Friday, sign up at

Although we’d already gathered wicker-basket loads of chestnuts, fairy potatoes, honey mushrooms, and onion grass, our gang of six remained mostly clueless foragers wandering near-aimlessly through the North Carolina woods. As we rounded a hearty oak tree, our guide Hannelore Berken told us to stop, look at our surroundings, and tell her what we just missed.

We might as well have been blind, and that was before any of us stared right into last Saturday’s eclipse. Seconds later, she was kneeling beneath that same big oak, directing our attention to the biggest mushroom most of us had ever seen.

“This is hen of the woods,” explained Berken, a lifelong wild food fanatic and the managing director of Asheville’s foraging company No Taste Like Home. “It’s also known as maitake.”

Hannelore Berken from No Taste Like Home found us a massive maitake mushroom, and then prepared some for us to eat at the end of the tour. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

Then she removed less than half of the heaping fungus — leaving the rest to continue to flourish for future foragers — and presented us with the sandy-colored mass of feathery fronds, about the size of a big chicken but surprisingly much heavier. The six of us grown, grizzled, fortysomething men — close friends since the early 1990s, some of us going back even further to 1st and 5th grades — then posed for a group portrait, all sporting the giddy smiles of treasure-finding boys.

The foraging crew | Credit: Matt Kettmann

A bit later, after sucking on sourwood leaves, chomping fox grapes, and dipping under bridges to pluck shrimp of the woods (a k a hunter’s hearts) from stream banks, we arranged our bounty on a picnic table as Berken cooked up some shrooms with just ghee and onion grass salt. Those bites ended our three-hour tour, but it was really just the appetizer course in the eating stage of this full-sensory foraging experience.

After leaving some of our finds with Berken, we took the haul to Cultura in downtown Asheville, where Chef Eric Morris spent the afternoon working our wild ingredients into dishes for our tasting menu dinner that night. Later, as we dined on roasted chestnut/fairy potato/onion grass soup — whose creamy texture only required a splash of actual cream — and a large plate of the fried, sauced-up mushrooms, Morris confirmed that we’d brought in the most foraged items they’d ever seen from a tour like this. Everyone in the kitchen seemed as fired up as us.

Cultura’s bread larder course and the chestnut/fairy potato/onion grass soup made from the foraged ingredients | Credit: Matt Kettmann

Beyond our foraged specials, Cultura’s “New Agrarian” cuisine was revelatory, proving even more electric than the restaurant’s black-lit bathroom halls: Royal Red shrimp atop heirloom corn laced with black ant aioli; a root veggie panna cotta topped with Jonah crab, Vadouvan curry, tamarind, and brown butter; and the pork and chanterelle pie, laced with peach aspic and smoked bacon, to name just three courses.

That dinner was just the culmination of four days of hedonism both homey and haute, from the rib racks at 12 Bones and smoked-fried chicken sandwich at Bear’s, to epic meals at Ukiah Japanese Smokehouse and Neng Jr.’s.

Swordfish with laing and a pile of tuna crudo at Neng Jr.’s | Credit: Matt Kettmann

The latter — an 18-seat, queer-run, natty-wine-pushing eatery that serves updated spins on classic Filipinx food — is making most of the top national media lists as a restaurant to hit right now, requiring reservations to be made a month in advance. We played that game, and snagged six seats at the bar, where we worked through colorful piles of tuna crudo; Carolina shrimp pancit noodles; swordfish with the earthy, taro-root stew called laing; and pork cheek awash in the peanut sauce called kare-kare. This was not the Filipino food that our San Jose–raised crowd grew up on, though I’d eat Neng’s pork lumpia all day every day because it did remind me of home.

  Yellowtail crudo and crunchy rice cake at Ukiah Japanese Smokehouse | Credit: Matt Kettmann

Ukiah, meanwhile, combined fascinating seasonal cocktails — tangy pickled-yuzu, habanero tincture-topped margaritas; punch-like goji-berry-flavored gin awash in various aperitifs — with a textural tour of raw, fried, smoked, and confited eats. Hamachi crudo, Wagyu tataki, and salmon tartare atop a block of brilliantly crispy rice bled into beech mushroom tempura, duck dumplings in shoyu broth, smoked pastrami short rib, and should-be-dessert Japanese sweet potato with miso butter, brown sugar, and parmesan. Yes, it was too much food, all part of the $85 tasting menu.

The spread keeps coming at Ukiah Japanese Smokehouse. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

We didn’t just eat, of course. We drank too, like at Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar, where I met former Riverbench Winery manager Laura Booras and her partner, Wil Fernandez (remember his film Vintage 2014?), over bubbly flights, charcuterie splashed in Lusty Monk Mustard, and hot pimento cheese dip with warm bread. Our gang of six survived a Canoe Brew Tour with Cedar Rock Adventures, hitting 12 BonesWedge BreweryNew Belgium, and the artisan marketplace called Marquee, where we bought sips of rare aged Italian mead and a bottle of mourvèdre blanc called Unau.

Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar (left) and New Belgium, one of the stops on Canoe & Brew | Credit: Matt Kettmann

There was also a home-cooked meal, a challenging uphill-both-ways hike to Lake Powhatan, and screenings of Aliens and Weird Science in our rented home’s movie theater. (Many Asheville Airbnbs, it turns out, feature theaters, game rooms, and other amenities.) This was the 13th time our group has pulled off this annual-ish trip — known as KIA, for Keep It Awesome, previously covered here and here — and Asheville will go down as one of the best.

Canoe & Brew Tour to Asheville breweries with Cedar Rock Adventures | Credit: Matt Kettmann

I don’t travel enough to food capitals like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago to make definitive claims about whether this comparably tiny Carolina town in the Blue Ridge Mountains is the best place to eat in America right now. I’d say it’s in the running, and others with more experience agree.

Buskers entertain on the streets of Asheville; the crew’s home-cooked dinner | Credit: Matt Kettmann

But if you’re a special type like us who gets a thrill from learning about nature, finding your own food in the forest, and then having a world-class chef treat the ingredients with the respect and enthusiasm they deserve? Then aim for Asheville, where all your senses will be satisfied.

Help for Eye on I

Jeff Olsson | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

The Santa Ynez Valley is still reeling from the death of chef extraordinaire Jeff Olsson, the co-founder of Industrial Eats in Buellton and Eye on I in Lompoc. (I wrote this short news story soon after he died and then reflected a bit more on his passing here.)

Now, the management of Eye on I is using this GoFundMe page to ask for the public’s help in reopening the restaurant, which has been closed since Olsson’s September 2 death.

“The sudden death of our owner, Jeff Olsson, has left so many of us devastated,” writes Heather Hovey, who was the founding manager and chef of the restaurant. “Anyone who frequents Eye on I or Industrial Eats knew Jeff was a part of our soul. He was the sand in the sandbox…. As we navigate technicalities and ownership transfer, we are asking for help raising funds to be ready to re-open by November 1. For anyone who shares our philosophy or vision, please consider a donation as a community investment.”

As of yesterday, the campaign, which is aiming for $40,000, is still shy of $7,000, so there’s plenty of room for more support. Click here to contribute.

From Our Table

Sazon’s chicken mole enchilada | Credit: Matt Kettmann

Here are a few stores that you may have missed:

  • I visited Sazon Latino Restaurant on the Westside to meet Omar Mozqueda for this feature about how he and business partner Roberto Mendoza went from COVID caterers to popular restaurateurs.  


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