Chef William Dissen is the next culinary entrepreneur and cuisine expert to host Gordon Ramsay on Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted on National Geographic Channel this coming Sunday.
William Dissen’s reputation as a Smoky Mountain legend is well earned, with fresh, healthy, and sustainable food available at his three restaurants.
The secret is that Dissen has a robust network of local farmers, fishermen, and artisan producers to offer up ingredients that allow him to create some of the best dishes the region has to offer.
The coming episode features local dishes like ‘livermush,” which sounds terrible but has the complexity of a fine mashup of boudin and pâté.
Dissen gives Ramsay some 24-month aged ham with a bourbon chaser and exposes him to simple dishes with Native American Cherokee cooking techniques involving hominy. Even local trout caught fly fishing and trapped crawfish are served up with foraged mushrooms, all of which will have you salivating.
In the National Geographic series, Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has a global quest for the best local ingredients — from Croatia to North Carolina’s own Smoky Mountains this week.
Ramsay not only learns but competes with the best local chefs like Dissen of Charlotte’s Haymaker and Asheville’s The Market Place. He even has a fun fried chicken restaurant called Billy D’s.
Dissen and Gordon spent a week filming the episode as local vendors and regional secrets for foraging are revealed, and the scenery is flat-out stunning. This is the Last of the Mohicans film location territory, and the majestic Smoky Mountains are pure magic. You can tell that they left a mark on Ramsay, who told Dissen he would return.
The show pairs Gordon with regional ace chefs everywhere he lands in eight episodes, people like Justin Yu, Kiki Martins, David Skoko, José Enrique, Ragnar Eiríksson, Gabriela Cámara, James Rigato, Melissa Kelly, and Kim Mikkola.
Exclusive interview with Chef William Dissen
Monsters & Critics: Gordon worked hard to get the ingredients for the cuisine challenge, and it gave him a sense of place of where he was and the bounty of the ingredients, and the history of the region’s cuisine. He seemed up for it. Is that something that you talk about with producers ahead of time?
Chef William Dissen: We chatted about all this stuff in advance to get his adventures set up. But like you mentioned, it’s also those adventures, they’re great for TV, but they also speak just bounds about the culture and history of the region. I think that Appalachia and the Smoky Mountains are often overlooked as this backcountry redneck area and get this bad taste associated with it, right? Pun intended.
The food culture here and the people it has a very rich heritage. There are so many folks from different walks of life, from African-American scotch-Irish, Italian, German, Hispanic, who have come to the region one way or another and have founded the roots. If you go back even further than that, you have the native American culture here before any of us.
Because we have this natural fortress of mountains all around us, you have this culture that’s just resonated for years, creating a beautiful heritage. And, with that, there are also so many heirloom ingredients that have just proliferated through the mountains over the centuries.
M&C: You had your mushroom forger, and you also forage and found Reishi mushrooms.
Chef William Dissen: Reishi, when they’re young, you can cut the white tip off. It’s very edible, but traditionally, they’re harvested and dehydrated and then used as Chinese medicine.
M&C: You grew up in West Virginia, got your undergrad in West Virginia, and then off to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. What was that pivot moment for you to explore the culinary arts?
Chef William Dissen: I double-majored in English and French. And the French studies led me to explore French culture. And obviously, a big part of French culture is food and wine. Our study groups were a lot of fun in my undergrad. I always worked in restaurants since I was 15, washing dishes and working my way up. When I was in college, I worked in restaurants to help support myself.
I got to that point in my life where you ask the question, what are you going to do with your life? I’m not going to sit behind a desk. And I love cooking, and I had a knack for it. So, I applied to culinary school in Lyon, France. At the time, getting that student aid was very difficult, and it was an expensive school.
It was before Food Network took off. So, it didn’t work out, but not that was a bad thing. I applied to and got accepted to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. I mean, I felt like when I got there, I’d found my life’s calling. These are my people. This is what I’m here for and what I was put on this earth to do.
M&C: And you did it smartly because after you apprentice for a while and after you graduated CIA, you learned the business and management side. A lot of people can cook. There’s a lot of great chefs. They don’t know how to run a business. You book-ended your skillset.
Chef William Dissen: Yes, I was running kitchens, and I felt like I had a knack for cooking. As a chef, you’re always learning. I certainly still always have more to learn, but I felt like I didn’t understand accounting and marketing, and all those things like HR are the things that are very important to operating a successful business. I had had a fantastic opportunity at the University of South Carolina. It was a great program.
M&C: What about the Carolinas beckoned you away from West Virginia?
Chef William Dissen: I joked because he is one of my mentors, but a gentleman named Chef Donald Barickman owned several restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina.
He was at the Greenbrier where I was apprenticing to do a book signing event. I was the Chef commis that got to assist him during the day.
He said, ‘Man, you’re doing a great job. I have these wonderful restaurants in Charleston; you should come to check me out. So I did. Charleston is a very beautiful place, and his restaurants were terrific. It was a great opportunity.
I moved down there and worked for a long time. I was working a lot and got started to get kind of hit burnout. And that’s what pushed me towards a master’s degree to figure out my career path in the past. Should I get a corporate job, or should I stay as a chef? So that’s where I started to figure things out and eventually decided I wanted to own my own business and started looking at places to move.
At that time, Asheville had not exploded the way it has today with being a destination, and I came to visit. It reminded me of my home in West Virginia, but with a more outgoing culture and excellent access to the outdoors, and an amazing local farming community. I said this is it. It feels like home.
M&C: Farm-to-table is such a slogan now, but you were going to honor that sort of a connection to your food vendors, having a fluid menu. What was your thought process when you opened Market Place, your first restaurant?
Chef William Dissen: The backup, my grandparents, had a large farmer in rural West Virginia, and they were meager folks from the mountains of West Virginia. But they were the richest people I knew because they always had so much food and delicious food, and they lived a wonderful life.
But they were sustainable before that was even a buzzword. They canned, pickled, preserved, gardened, hunted, and foraged. They did all these things, not because it was the food trend of the moment. They did it because that’s how you sustain your family. That’s how you put delicious food on your family to sustain them throughout the year.
And that translated to me when I became a chef. I’ve mentioned this to someone recently. I said, ‘When I was at CIA, I had a number of European master chefs telling me if you want to be the best chef, you have to use the best ingredients. For many of them, that translated into caviar and truffles and foie gras and high-end ingredients.
But for me, that translated into using the freshest ingredients I can get. The analogy being would you rather eat a tomato in January or in July?
I think that that translated to how I cook. Fast forward when I moved to Asheville, I was looking to either find a warehouse space or an old building and renovate it. I got turned on to the Market Place restaurant, which at the time was 30 years old. The original chef/owner was ready to sell it and, right place, right time. The restaurant is now over 42 years old.
M&C: I understand you also have a restaurant in Charlotte, and you’ve got something up in North Carolina Zoo. Tell me about that.
Chef William Dissen: Yes, we were looking to expand the Market Place and try to do more with it. I didn’t want to put another one in Asheville because it’s a small city. I was looking at Charlotte, and my wife had lived there for a while, and we’ve got family and friends there. So we opened a restaurant called Haymaker, which is very similar to Market Place.
It’s a casual, fine dining, seasonal farm-to-table restaurant. And I know all these things are buzzwords and food journalists say, ‘Oh, another farm-to-table restaurant.’
M&C: Nobody wants to eat food that’s out of season, and they don’t want to eat foods covered with pesticides, and they want to see small farmers succeed.
Chef William Dissen: I guess many food journalists are like, ‘oh, well, great, here we are, another white chef doing a farm-to-table restaurant.’ But not many people, I think, are following the farm-to-table path the same way we are.
We are sourcing champions. This is how I like to cook. And our team is what separates us from our competition and why our restaurants are successful. We have a very talented staff, but we have exceptionally gifted farmers also.
M&C: So, you won the bet, the competition, any travel plans yet?
Chef William Dissen: I did! And I’m still waiting for my airline tickets. Gordon’s a busy man. But I’m sure he’ll get around to it.
M&C: Where in London do you want to eat?
Chef William Dissen: The bet was to dine at his namesake Michelin three-star restaurant. I certainly want to eat there. In the episode, you saw that I was egging him on about a tasting menu. And then, as we were cooking, I said it was the 10-course menu. Then I wanted a 20-course menu (laughs)
M&C: And then it went just from tickets to go to London to first-class tickets. You offered up your truck!
Chef William Dissen: It was interesting. Gordon, in a different place in time, I’ve mentioned it may have been more intimidating of an experience, but in the middle of COVID [-19], it was almost like, you know what? My businesses are in flux. My life is in flux. Here I am, 6,000 feet up on the mountain, cooking with the most famous chef in the world. Enjoy the ride.
M&C: What do you make of Gordon?
Chef William Dissen: I thought he was terrific. He comes across as this very big, bold, brash man, and he is, but he’s also a very kind soul. So I asked him, are you like that [TV persona]?
He said, no, you Americans love drama. He said, ‘You got to watch my British shows. I’m certainly out there, but it’s a lot more down-to-earth.
M&C: He puts it on for sure.
Chef William Dissen: Yes. Gordon does a lot for his communities too. He’s a good guy. I enjoyed having the opportunity to be working with him on the show.
M&C: A two-parter: Your high-end fancy French meal. Please tell me what’s on the menu and also for your guilty pleasure meal.
Chef William Dissen: I think a lot of that also has to deal with the people and the feeling and the environment. I’ve had some delicious meals sitting on the beach somewhere, eating tacos.
I’ve had some forgettable 20-course tasting menus.
I think it has to do with a place in time, hospitality, and evoked feelings. For a high-end meal? I would love to go back and eat at Noma again, in Copenhagen, Denmark. That was amazing.
For a guilty pleasure, Billy D’s fried chicken! And Mexican food. I love citrus, cilantro, and coriander. I love the bold flavors, the corn tortillas made with like real corn, pressed and griddled fresh like that. Al pastor tacos with lime and salsa verde with some fresh guacamole and a margarita or a couple of beers. I’m a happy camper.
Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted airs Sundays at 9/8c on National Geographic Channel.