Former Portofino executive chef Andre Brookins left his job at the fine dining Buckhead restaurant and relocated to the Blue Ridge Mountains with his family to open the Crown. The restaurant is located in Brasstown, N.C., and serves modern Appalachian cuisine.
Photo: LIGAYA FIGUERAS / LFIGUERAS@AJC.COM
Photo: LIGAYA FIGUERAS / LFIGUERAS@AJC.COM

Appalachia calling: Atlanta chef trades city life for mountain cooking

BRASSTOWN, N.C. — Why would a talented, established chef trade the top post at a fine dining restaurant in Buckhead for a job helming a chancy new restaurant in Brasstown, North Carolina?

In May, Andre Brookins, 39, moved with his pregnant wife and their 7-year-old daughter from Bankhead to the Blue Ridge Mountains so he could open the Crown, the fanciest (and only) restaurant in Brasstown. (Downtown Brasstown spans exactly two blocks and there are no sidewalks.) It’s pretty much the only place to eat between neighboring towns Hayesville and Murphy.

Sure, the native from Brooklyn, New York, was tired of getting rent-squeezed out of once-affordable intown neighborhoods he lived in while working in kitchens at Muss & Turner’s, Woodfire Grill, Parker’s on Ponce, Tap in Midtown and, the latest, a three-year tenure at Portofino in Buckhead. But mountain food was also calling.

“I’ve always been very closely affiliated with farm-to-table — and I almost hate saying farm-to-table — but, you know, locally sourced, sustainable good bites and not trying to reinvent the wheel but just doing really good food great,” Brookins said when we met up on a Tuesday night.

The restaurant was closed, but the chef still offered bites. The souse on his menu is the most indicative of the style of cooking he’s charting here at the Crown. The pork terrine features hogshead from nearby Candy Mountain Farm. Between the headcheese are green layers of locally grown kale, Napa cabbage and broccoli leaves, some sourced from as close as the John C. Campbell Folk School garden right across the road.

Brookins serves the souse as a small charcuterie board, with a dollop of pungent horseradish mustard, pickles and sous chef Luke Conrad’s addictive gluten-free crackers.

“We’re quietly gluten-free,” Brookins mentioned. The cooking traditions of Appalachia are all about corn anyway, he added.

Do people from these parts know what’s grown and raised here? he pondered aloud. Besides Brasstown Beef, there’s trout from Candy Mountain. Brothers on Farms offers shiitake mushrooms, figs and lamb. Mercier has all the apples he could want. 7M Farm in Blairsville has honey. SMM Farms in Brookins’ new residence in Hayesville grows the goods for a shelled pea salad.

“I want to generate a drive for what’s around here to support local farms,” Brookins said.

In these early days for the Crown, Brookins has embraced Appalachian culinary traditions. “Preserve, pickle, dry. All the homesteading out here — I love it,” he said.

But he’s looking to funk things up with new-school items like a mountain ramen featuring a spicy pickled duck egg and broccoli greens in lieu of seaweed.

Brookins stopped to ponder where he’s at — 23 years into a food service career, with a growing family and living life in the mountains. “This decision was so hard because Portofino was the most awesome job I’ve had. But I had to go try this thing and move out in the middle of nowhere. I’ve even had some tables come up here from Buckhead, which blows my mind. I think we’ll be OK.”

THE CROWN

7:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. 139 Emily Lane, Brasstown, N.C. 828-516-1672, Facebook: The Crown Brasstown.

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Read the AJC Fall Dining Guide: The Noodle Edition

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