In an age where regional cuisines seem to travel around the world at the same pace that people do, Southern cooking is an American favourite that has remained distinctly local. Here, Chef David Ryba – one of America’s greatest exponents of traditional Southern fare – shares his thoughts on his food philosophy and culinary heroes, all from the sublime setting of his restaurant, The Dining Room at the Inn, on George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.
The Biltmore Estate is an impressive holding. What produce do you grow on the estate and how much of it do you use in your cooking?
“Biltmore’s field-to-table manager works closely with all the estate’s chefs to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables based on our needs. We receive butternut squash, microgreens, lettuces, radishes, baby beets, baby carrots, spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, Swiss chard, herbs, blackberries, raspberries and more. Deliveries are made to estate kitchens weekly. The Production Garden also features a greenhouse where we start some of the seedlings for field production. The more controlled atmosphere of the greenhouse allows us to grow micro-greens, hydroponic lettuce, herbs and even edible flowers.”
Can you tell us about Biltmore’s Field to Table Philosophy?
“From the beginning, it was George Vanderbilt’s intention that the estate should be self-sustaining and therefore, agriculture has remained an important constant of Biltmore life to the present day. After visiting working estates in Europe, George Vanderbilt envisioned building his home on a foundation of self-sustainability. Soon he had his estate producing meat, poultry, fruits and vegetables for use in Biltmore House’s kitchens. Original Biltmore livestock varieties and crops included Jersey cattle, Southdown sheep, Angora goats, Berkshire hogs, turkeys, laying hens, ducks, pheasants, quail, forage and grain crops, vegetables and beehives.
The descendants of George Vanderbilt, the present day owners of Biltmore, have built on that vision of a self-sufficient estate. Today, the family carries on the farm legacy with our vineyard, production garden, Angus and Wagyu cattle, and South African White Dorper sheep. We also recently restored George Vanderbilt’s turn-of-the-century brooder house used for raising chicken and quail eggs.”
How much do you get involved in the farming and the foraging?
“Biltmore’s Field-to-Table Manager Eli Herman manages all aspects of Biltmore’s production garden. We have frequent meetings with Eli to discuss menus and on-going needs for the freshest seasonal vegetables. Eli works with us also in getting feedback on different products we want to experiment with.”
What is the ethos of Southern cooking? What is so unique about it?
“To me, Southern cooking is about simple food with bold flavours. Southern food also screams family to me; just pure enjoyment of eating a well prepared meal that was made with love.”
Do you serve any traditional Southern dishes on the menu, and if so, what?
“At the Dining Room at the Inn on Biltmore Estate, we pair a lot of southern sides to proteins. We use items such as cream corn, collard greens, sweet potatoes, succotash and okra.”
How would you describe your own style of cooking?
“I believe my style could be described as modern Southern American with French influences. I like to use local ingredients and enhanced flavour while making sure not to jeopardize the integrity of the product. My philosophy is to let the ingredients be the star of the plate.”
How often does your menu change throughout the year? Is it seasonal?
“We change our menu every season. Our major changes come in spring, summer, autumn, and winter, but changes also occur based on the availability of products. We try to only serve products when they are in season and at their best.”
You have some award-winning estate wines – isn’t North Carolina a little unusual as a wine-growing destination? How does is stand up against more established regions in California or Oregon?
“Most people would think that the most visited winery in the United States would be in Napa Valley or Sonoma County. Actually, the most visited winery is here at Biltmore in Asheville, N.C. North Carolina is really growing as a wine destination. With our soil type, relatively mild winters and rolling hills, it is a great state for grape growing. We do see a difference in our tasting room at the winery as opposed to those in the top wine regions. We have some people visiting who have never tried wine. It’s different to California or Oregon where people are searching out wines. We might have to introduce more guests to our product.”
Do you create dishes that work particularly well with the estate wine? Or look to find the best match to the dish?
“When I create a plate, I try to make sure that it is wine friendly, fun and approachable.”
How did you become interested in food in the first place?
“Food for me has always been a passion. As a child, a home cooked meal was enjoyed with my family every night. My family had a garden in which we raised our own vegetables that would later be canned or frozen to help supply our needs throughout the year. My father taught me how to fish and hunt and also how to butcher what I caught with an emphasis on preparing the entire animal with minimal waste. I think it was these early experiences that helped shape my path as a chef.
Knowing what is behind food – the love and the passion of caring for the product from ground to plate is important to me. It comes out of respect for the farmer as well as the food itself.”
Who was your mentor and which cooks have really inspired you?
“My mentor was my first chef out of culinary school, Rick Boyer. We met in Boca Raton and worked together at the Boca Raton Resort and Club. When he moved to Asheville to take over the Inn on Biltmore Estate, he asked me to join the team. We worked together in total for almost eight years.
Over the years I have gathered inspiration from many chefs such as Patrick O’Connell, Thomas Keller, and Daniel Boulud.”
What’s important to you as a chef when you’re cooking and in the produce that you use?
“Seasonality is important to me. I enjoy cooking food when it’s at its best. Plus, it is most likely to be local, with a journey of no more than 500 miles to get here.”
Where has been the best meal you’ve ever eaten, The Inn aside?
“My most enjoyable meal I have ever eaten was at the Inn at Little Washington.”
What would your last meal be?
“A perfectly ripened Wheel of Edel de Cleron with candied pecans, locus honey, and crusty French bread”
Finally, could you share a quick and easy recipe with us?
Six Minute Egg with Creamed Corn and Bacon Vinaigrette
Method for Six Minute Egg
4 eggs in the shell
Bring water to a simmer.
Shut off water
Place the Eggs in the water and turn heat up medium heat.
Cook eggs for 6 minutes
Shock eggs in ice water.
To reheat pour hot water over eggs in a bowl and let sit for 4 minutes
1 cup diced and rendered smoked bacon
1 tbsp. minced shallot
1 tsp. minced garlic
1 oz. white balsamic
1 cup demi glace
½ tsp. tarragon
½ tsp. parsley
½ tsp. thyme
Render bacon, add shallots, garlic and cook for two minutes. Reduce balsamic vinegar to syrup. Add demi glace and reduce slightly. Finish with herbs.
4 ears of sweet corn
½ cup chicken stock
1 tbsp. butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Husk corn and clean out silk. Grate corn on a cheese grater, place in a heavy bottom pot with stock and butter. Cook on low heat until thick and creamy, about 20-30 minutes.
To experience David Ryba’s cooking and visit the Biltmore Estate, book a place on the Insight Vacations Southern Glamour journey.