Downtown Asheville is one of the prides of this mountain city; it contains everything from quirky clothing stores to historical information to good food and drink. One of the staples of the bustling area is the French Broad Chocolate Lounge, founded in 2008 by Dan and Jael Rattigan. In the past ten years, the lounge has developed a reputation for being a unique space that is a special combination of food, friends/family, celebration, and relaxation.
When we were in the beginning stages of crafting this project, we knew that we wanted to connect our work to the current community in Asheville. We could think of no better way to learn about the connection between food and the local community than interviewing those who worked to create spaces where those connections could be made. Last week, Dan Rattigan graciously let us interview him about the lounge, his ideas about food and community, and the importance of cookbooks. Unfortunately, Kinsey could not make the interview due to class and work, so I interviewed Dan alone.
In all honesty, I was extremely nervous to be interviewing Dan, as it is not everyday that I interview anyone, let alone the owner of a company. It turned out that I had nothing to worry about. Dan is one of the calmest, politest, and most easy going people I have had the good fortune to meet. Given his busy day, I briefly described our project, and we jumped into the interview.
For Dan, food is what sustains us, brings us together, and keeps us human. He remarked that one of his favorite ways to think about food is something his dad told him, that “some people eat to live, and others live to eat”, with the latter being the better choice of the two. The connections that are made when people eat and enjoy the food and time spent together are unparalleled, which is why he believes families should eat together as often as possible. (They should also eat the same food, but with picky eaters that can be a challenge). There is no replacement for that time and company shared.
Dan also enlightened me to more of the reason for the lounge’s creation. In 2006, he and his wife moved to Asheville from Costa Rica where they had been running a restaurant named “Bread & Chocolate”. Wanting to continue the work left behind, the original French Broad Chocolate Company began as a home based cottage industry. However, Dan told me that as more time passed, he and Jael decided that they wanted to create a space that was more of a holistic experience. Asheville needed chocolate, and it needed a public meeting house that did not rely on the bar atmosphere.
This then leads to the question of what exactly is Asheville in terms of food and community. While Dan believes that Asheville is “ahead of the curve” when it comes to food and connectivity in this moment in time, he stated that this progress is due to chance circumstances: a thriving local food movement based in farmer’s markets and small businesses locally sourcing products, local businesses that foster connections between those making the food and food lovers, and that in general Asheville tries to live life holistically. The “yearning for communion” and the push to be better informed about one’s food is one that he feels to be universal. Asheville’s food culture is a melting pot combining the Renaissance of Southern Food and various ethnic foods. There is a heavy emphasis placed on Appalachian food, specifically Southern Appalachian, in the forms of vegetables, flours, and other traditional ingredients that everyone uses (like sorghum syrup, for example). While Asheville is currently a vortex of food, community, and culture, Dan hopes that the the way Asheville treats the connections between food and community will spread.
The second half of the interview focused on the purpose of the French Broad Chocolate Lounge and what Dan thinks people overlook when thinking about food. Food is celebration to Dan; it is a celebration of life and these celebrations come in all shapes and sizes. With the space of the lounge, he and Jael wanted to create a space where all of these celebrations were welcome and could be accompanied by small tokens of spiritual satisfaction (all the wonderful delicacies in the case). Speaking of the wonderful delights in the case, when asked about the inspiration for the various treats on the lounge’s menu, Dan mentioned that the variety available is their way of catering to all the various people and situations that walk through the forget-me-not doors.
One of the things that we have perhaps overlooked so far is that people do not always think about food as being this amazing connective force. Dan considers the fact that most places have limited opportunities to interact with food at its source as one of the greatest detriments to food philosophy. All food is not equal and it is extremely important to Dan and Jael that they know exactly where all of the ingredients they use come from. It is this in-depth knowledge of the work and care that many people put into food that Dan described to me as being integral to people having a greater understanding and appreciation of food. We discussed cookbooks as being one of the ways in which all of this can be documented, although cookbooks are so much more. Cookbooks for Dan are a testament to the creative process and rigor that others have put into their food and the experience they are passing on in the cookbook. These books are tomes of others knowledge, experience, and philosophy concerning that which nourishes us. There is an ability to track how food has changed and how thoughts on food have changed in their pages.
My final question for Dan was quite simple: is there any question I did not ask that you wish I had? His answer astounded me, and I did kick myself later for not having thought of it first. Dan’s question was this: What are the cookbooks that have influenced you? The two authors he mentioned first were Mark Rosenstein and Ashley English, both local writers who whose books were published by the Lark Books publishing house (now closed). (Dan highly recommends Rosenstein’s book In Praise of Apples). He admitted that part of the reason he was drawn to those cookbooks is the existence of a prior relationship with both authors, but that both authors had similar philosophies concerning food which is part of why the relationship existed in the first place. For him, the most important part of a cookbooks is knowing the inspiration behind it and knowing that importance is placed on the who/what/where/why of the ingredients used. Both he and Jael like to do it all. For example, Dan mentioned that if cornflakes are used in a recipe, they want to know how those cornflakes were made and how to make their own rather than purchasing them already used. This love of building everything from the ground up is part of the foundation for the French Broad Chocolate Lounge.
At the end of the day, the most important thing that Dan wanted me and others to take away from this, was the importance of food and the space you consume it in as being a holistic, enjoyable, and enriching experience. In the words of the window decal, “Send chocolate, Send love”.
Dan Rattigan, interview by K. Dakota White, April 20, 2017, recording.