MEMORABLE MEALS OF 2019
A Q&A with Food Fan Stu Helm
Photos by Stephan Pruitt
Over the last several years, food writer Stu Helm has become an influential voice in Asheville’s bustling restaurant scene. With an almost unparalleled passion for local restaurants, he eats out A LOT and then uses social media to discuss his favorite dishes or deliver a shout-out to beloved chefs. He never wavers from a signature look, black jeans and T-shirt (or a hoodie, when it’s cold) and black Converse shoes, making him easy to spot on the streets of downtown Asheville, usually on his way to or from a restaurant.
While Helm has no formal background in professional kitchens (a fact he does not hesitate to admit), he stays on top of every restaurant opening, tracks the movement of local chefs and can quickly identify trends, as well as tastes and flavors that he likes. But don’t call him a “foodie or a “restaurant critic.” He eschews both titles. Instead, he prefers the term “eater” and “food fan,” a distinction that allows him to avoid the pitfalls into which many “critics” often fall.
Helm has a following on Facebook, but also writes for blogs and local news sites like AshVegas.com, serves as a guide for Asheville Food Tours, has hosted a radio show and podcast, and launched a series of popular food festivals and contests that draw thousands.
Helm’s annual restaurant awards, previously known as the “Stoobie Awards” but now called the “Food Fan Awards,” recognize dishes that stood out to him over the course of a year. Hosted with Shay Brown Event Management and AshVegas.com, the upcoming event will include a wide variety of food and beverages from local restaurants and bars. Tickets range from $45 to $100, and can be purchased here.
When: Monday, January 27 at 5:00 PM
Where: Asheville Masonic Temple / After-party at Asheville Beauty Academy
Edible Asheville: The Food Fan Awards include prizes for a lot of different categories—from sandwiches and burgers to pickled dishes and mushrooms—and the nominees include both well-known restaurants and lesser-known eateries. This year’s batch (recognizing dishes from 2019) includes Benne on Eagle, Cultura, French Broad Chocolate Lounge, Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack and Tastee Diner, among others. Can you tell us how the nominees are selected? And can you walk us through that process? Also, how are the winners are selected?
Stu Helm: Over the past 12 months, I’ve had a lot of food and dining experiences, and the process of winnowing those down to just three nominees in each category is a long and sometimes difficult one! So I start by doing the easiest thing, which is just thinking back, meditating on the past year, and allowing my mind and memory to do it’s thing.
Certain things will stand out as obvious candidates in the various categories. To build the list of nominees from there, I scroll through all the pictures on my iPhone and all the posts I’ve made to social media in the previous 12 months, and the spaces will be filled in.
I do consult with other people (they help to remind me of things we ate together that were outstanding or hospitality professionals who deserve attention), and they might even steer me towards something in December that I hadn’t tried yet.
Finally, I talk to chefs and other food industry people about their favorite people, places, and things. Farms, for example. I don’t know much about local farms except what I eat from them, and so I count on the chefs to tell me who they work with and what those farmers have done for the food scene.
EA: It sounds like a big part of the nomination process is based on where and what you eat over the course of the year—and we know you eat out A LOT. How do you choose where to eat? And, once there, how do you choose what to order?
SH: I don’t own a car—never have—and so many of my dining choices are made according to proximity. Fortunately, I live within walking distance to downtown, the South Slope, Montford, and the River Arts District, where the majority of restaurants in Asheville are concentrated.
I make it clear to my readers that my experiences are going to be mostly in those neighborhoods, but I do make efforts to get outside of that geographic area when people with cars want to grab a bite. I also use delivery services to expand my experiences and this year, as well as every other, some of my nominees and winners are from outside my usual circle of influence.
I try to eat at all the new places when they open. I also try to go to all the classics a couple of times a year, and of course I have my favorites.
As far as what I order, I tend to try new stuff while also eating my ol’ faves. I’m a burger hound, and so I eat a lot of those. I like simple, hearty food, and I eat a lot of that. I also like complicated, refined food, so I eat my fair share of that as well! Like most diners, I eat what I like. But as a food blogger I do have to push my limits and get outside of my comfort food zone!
EA: What are some of the culinary trends you see happening in 2020?
SH: Entrees and large pieces of animal proteins. In the second half of 2018, I wrote that steak is making a comeback, and someone actually quoted me on it in a piece they wrote. So it must be true!
I think the pendulum might swing old school for a little bit, with things like trout almondine, steak Diane, and surf & turf. I still love small plates of adventurous food, and always will, but recently I started hankering for big stuff on a big plate that I don’t have to share with the entire table, and I’m starting to notice more stuff like that on menus.