ON THE HORIZON
Celebrated local chef Silver Cousler plans a new restaurant to display the flavors of the Philippines
BY GINA KAE SMITH
A little more than a year ago, Silver Cousler had just wrapped up Love Songs, a hit popup series at Gan Shan West showcasing the cuisine of the Philippines. At the time, Cousler, who uses they/them pronouns, harbored an eager but still nebulous dream of eventually opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant to similarly pay homage to their Filipino heritage.
But an opportunity to dive into a live-fire cooking residency at Palm Heights resort in the Cayman Islands beckoned, and in late 2019, the then-29-year-old chef resigned as chef de cuisine at Gan Shan West and put Asheville in the rearview mirror.
But the onslaught of COVID-19 abruptly curtailed Cousler’s Caribbean adventure in early spring, likewise scrapping future plans for a cooking residency in Uruguay, where they hoped to work with live-fire master Francis Mallmann.
So — fortunately for Asheville — they headed home to the mountains.
Now, with 2021 on the horizon, Cousler’s vision of opening a restaurant is about to become reality. The chef has recently announced plans to launch Neng Jr.’s, a casual eatery serving cuisine that Cousler calls Filipinx—a gender-nonspecific term that replaces the masculine “Filipino” or feminine “Filipina”—alongside the soon-to-open Different Wrld collaborative creative space inside the West Asheville building at 701 Haywood Road that formerly housed the Mothlight music venue.
The restaurant’s eponymous name references Cousler’s Filipino nickname, which is derived from their mother’s nickname, Neneng. Basically, says Cousler, Neng Jr. means “baby girl.” They debated whether to call it Silver’s Fast Foods, but “I like the ‘junior’ iteration, because that’s just what they call me, and it makes sense for me as a trans person,” they say.
Projected to debut in January, the restaurant will occupy the middle section of the building (former Mothlight patrons will remember it as the gallery and arcade area), while Different Wrld — a community creative hub with a bar, education space ,and open access to arts equipment — will have street access. Though Neng Jr.’s won’t have a door opening directly to the street, a window will allow for convenient takeout service.
“So it’s kind of perfect for COVID times,” says Cousler. “I can be in this space and cook an easy menu with to-go food.”
The snug space will accordingly offer a tight menu that Cousler characterizes as a Filipinx take on traditional meat-and-three diner offerings. “There’ll be a noodle dish and then the chicken dish and the seafood dish and classic Filipino snacks—just craveable, easy snacks. Then also some really developed Filipino dishes that speak to who I am,” they say.
Cousler notes that Filipinx cuisine can be challenging to represent, because each dish has countless variations based on regional and even individual family preferences. So the chef plans to offer a mix. “I’m going across the board where I feel like Flipinos will come in and be like, ‘What the hell is this?’ But also I’ll have the staples like lumpia,” they say. “I’ll get a little weirder as time goes on with the menu.”
The chef’s partner, Cherry Iocovozzi, who collaborated on the Love Songs popup, will curate a list of natural wines for Neng Jr.’s. “I just don’t think any restaurant in town will have a list comparable to it, and in combination with the kind of food [I’ll serve], it will be a very special experience that Asheville just deeply needs,” says Cousler.
A unique feature planned for Neng Jr. ‘s service stems from two of Cousler’s non-culinary interests: fishing and Asheville history. After moving back to Asheville, they went fishing with a friend, East Fork Pottery owner Alex Matisse, and got hooked, developing a COVID-era passion for catching their dinner from local streams. They also recently discovered, while indulging a love of reading archival history of Asheville, that at least one historic local restaurant had a service that allowed diners to bring in fish they had caught to be prepared in the kitchen.
“It was basically like a corkage fee: The restaurant would charge them a few cents or something to cook up the fish,” Cousler explains. “As a person newly addicted to fishing, I think that needs to tie into the menu somehow. And there are so many people in Asheville who love to fish, and I just never have met them until this year.”
Diners can expect to find many locally sourced ingredients: Rice from Lee’s One Fortune Farm in Marion and trout and trout roe from Sunburst Trout Farm will be core to the menu.
Design will be handled by the Asheville-based Shelter Design Studio. The room and its narrow, 130-square-foot kitchen area will require some buildout, including removal of a wall to create a more open floor plan. The dining room will have about 20 seats, including a counter with old-fashioned stationary tools.
“My inspiration is a soda shop I used to go to when I would skateboard in middle school,” says Cousler. “I’m going in a classic diner direction, but with my own color scheme — a lot of bright primary colors, like bright-green tile and orange light fixtures.” A friend in upstate New York, Liz Hopkins, will design furniture pieces.
Cousler has also enlisted New York artist SK — known for cute, colorful characters that often highlight African American folklore and the artist’s experience as a Black, trans femme — to design a mascot for Neng Jr.’s. After some research, Cousler settled on Lakapati, a goddess from the Philippines’ mythology that reflects both the chef’s heritage and their trans identity.
“She’s actually a trans goddess, and she is also the goddess of rice and agriculture, so she makes sure everyone is fed, that is her gift to the world,” explains Cousler.
While several local restaurants are adapting to the pandemic era by using smartphones to process orders and payments, Cousler wants to create a phone-free experience at Neng Jr.’s. The list of dishes painted on the wall.
“I know we’re all doing the QR-scan moment, but I really don’t want to involve phones,” they say. “My mom probably knows how to do that now because of COVID, but I want it to be accessible for everyone, I don’t want to turn anyone away.” Cousler notes that her dad, who suffers from ALS, a neurodegenerative disease, is in a wheelchair, so making the space accessible and welcoming to people with all levels of mobility is a priority.
They are also focused on creating a progressive business model that can support service workers as the industry adjusts to a new normal. In addition to their work with chef Patrick McCain at Gan Shan West, Cousler has an impressive Asheville culinary resume, including some time at The Admiral, a run as Elliot Moss’ sous chef at Buxton Hall Barbecue, and several successful pop-up concepts. And their work in the Cayman Islands — plus a past stint in New York City with their mentor, Filipinx chef Angela Dimayuga of Mission Chinese Food — exposed Cousler to some fresh ideas, some of which will be implemented at Neng Jr.’s.
“My goal is basically inspired off of this restaurant in New York, a small, 12-seat restaurant called Okonomi,” they explain. “The people that work there rotate [jobs] … and they don’t do gratuity there — that’s just formatted into the menu.” Tipping will be optional at Neng Jr.’s, but servers will not be dependent on gratuity for their wages with menu prices absorbing that difference. Also, staff will both cook and serve, making front and back of house operations cohesive.
But beyond the scope of the restaurant sector, Neng Jr.’s is Cousler’s bid toward creating Filipinx business representation in Asheville and fostering a more inclusive environment for marginalized groups, including people of color and those who identify as gender-nonconforming. They praise Mothlight owners Jon and Amanda Hency for seeing this bigger picture and helping make Neng Jr.’s a reality.
“They had a lot of people trying to get that spot, but they really saved space and had racial equity in mind,” says Cousler. “It’s a perfect situation, and I’m really excited about it”
A GoFundMe campaign is in place for the project with a goal of raising $80,000 for the buildout and other startup costs. By mid-November, supporters had contributed more than $12,000. The chef aims to have Neng Jr.’s up and running by the end of January or early February, but they promise some kind of New Year’s takeout event to celebrate their mother’s Jan. 1 birthday.
“I feel really, really excited,” says Cousler. “I think it’s going to be exactly what Asheville needs.”
Neng Jr.’s is projected to open in late January or early February at 701 Haywood Road. For updates, follow the chef on Instagram at @cousler8.