Between mealtimes, Duane Fernandes keeps an eye on the door of Isa’s Bistro, where he works as head chef. He’s looking for farmers and fishermen who come to sell fresh produce, wild mountain herbs and seafood. “It’s almost like a big family,” he says. “It’s not like you’re working in a big city, and everyone’s on their own.”
Occasionally, the vendors approach with a rare treat — an unusual fish from the coast, fresh figs ripened in the sun or a basket of ramps, relatives of the onion that grow on mountain slopes. Fernandes creates dishes that highlight these specialties on the New American menu. “I’ve always been about sourcing good ingredients from the start,” he says. “We’re fortunate to live in an area where there a lot of really great farms.”
In the six years since Fernandes moved to Asheville from New York City, where he worked at Thomas Keller’s Per Se, he’s come to love the many farmers, growers and artisans. He serves bison and trout raised just up the road and pairs locally made cheese with honey from a nearby hive. “I was very surprised when I got here to see so many local farms,” he says. “In New York, there’s not so much of a local push. Everything is transported in.”
He admires both the fresh produce and the dedication to hard work required to grow it. At Isa’s Bistro, he sees himself as part of this cycle that transforms soil and sunlight into fine cuisine. “I like to focus on the tradition and skill and craft of cooking and keep it humble and simple and real,” he says.