There’s a lot of moments where you’re navigating so many different equations,” says River and Woods chef and co-owner Daniel Asher of the challenges of working 15-hour days in a restaurant. “Then someone walks up and asks a question that’s been asked five times, and it’s asked again, and in your mind you’re kind of having this quiet, little meltdown where you’re saying to yourself, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ But you can’t say that. You just have to take a deep breath and say, ‘OK, I totally thought we covered this but let me go through this with you again.’”
Asher and I talk in the backyard of his restaurant, which occupies the building that formerly held John’s Restaurant on Pearl Street for more than 30 years. Everything in the space seems designed to effect a certain atmosphere — holes carved into a plywood deck to allow trees to grow through, tree bark-lined tables, nifty leather waiter’s notebooks, a hay couch and a small, silver Airstream camper turned into an outdoor bar. It’s a sanctuary back here, and the only thing that fills up the space more than the steady stream of Happy Hour diners is Asher himself, ebullient, talking eagerly and laughing loudly.
Asher says when they were designing the space, he thought a splash of color would work along one of the walls. The designer told Asher, “Yeah, that would work,” but his decorating M.O. was to take away until he could take away no more. Asher says he recently came to this same belief in minimalism in the kitchen.
“For a while, I was fixated on a lot of finishing garnishes and a lot of plate touches and, ‘Oh, now they’ll get a pop of this, and then their palate will zip over here, and I’m going to finish it with a little bit of fermented chili paste so then this will happen, and then, oh, it needs a little bit of sweet so I’ll drizzle a little bit of local clover honey.’ I think I went through this process where I really wanted there to be this very profound palate experience. … And then I reached a point where you get in an ingredient that has such it’s own dramatic identity that you don’t want to disrespect it with your version of what its best self can be. I’m at that point now where I’m simplifying, I’m getting into more basic elements of cooking,” Asher says.
Long gone are the days when chefs feel entitled to invoke authoritarian control over both the kitchen and the guests. Food is becoming more collaborative, Asher says, which is why he implemented a community-based aspect to his menu. About one-third of all the dishes served at River and Woods are borrowed from members of the community who submitted recipes for consideration.
However, a boom in the last decade of food media — whether it’s the Food Network or Instagram accounts — has glamorized an industry that can be decidedly unglamorous, Asher says, separating the chef from that sense of community.
“I remember when I started cooking I was 14, and people would say, ‘Why are you working in a kitchen? Why are you peeling potatoes and washing dishes? What is that about?’ Well, I love it. I love being around food. I love being in a kitchen. There was no glory in it. … It was just something that you did until you figured out what you were really going to do.
“Then it became like, ‘Oh, you’re a chef. What kind of cuisine do you specialize in?’… It just suddenly became a thing.
“I think we lost some of the basic essence of being in service to people. It’s a very humble, sometimes lonely, thing to be doing. The hours are extremely long, the anxiety and stress is extremely high, the compensation is not awesome. It’s just sometimes extremely brutal, and it can be very challenging to find your center within that chaos.”
Asher relies on reading, writing and meditating to center himself. He reads spiritual texts in the Buddhist, Hindu and mystic traditions, as well as self-help, habits-of-highly-successful-individual books. There’s breathing exercises he does in moments of stress, and mantras that he returns to often.
“You have to see there’s a higher purpose in serving people, and if you truly take care of others, then that nourishment inevitably comes back to you,” he says. “It’s this beautiful, energetic rhythm of life that I have endless faith in and has served me very well. I think if you keep that perspective of making sure those around you are full, you won’t necessarily be empty.”
Asher cautions that he has to be self-sustaining “because there are long stretches of time when no one is keeping you full, and you have to keep yourself full.” In order to stay full, he relies on his family and his ability to provide for them. Too, he says, the knowledge that the next day presents more opportunities to nourish people drives him to take on the next 15-hour day.
It all sounds good, right? The minimalism, breathing, the giving and taking from the well, the virtue of hospitality — the Zen of Daniel Asher? But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. In the food industry it’s always hard to please everyone and the great ones would never try.
I ask Asher about a recent food review of River and Woods in which the reviewer described Asher as having “culinary OCD” and criticized his brunch pancakes.
Asher, though noting that it was “kind of mean,” said he thought the review was hilarious.
“It’s like dude, [in the pancakes] there’s like heirloom blue corneal from Motherlove Farm in Fort Collins that I get freshly milled from Grateful Bread. There’s organic steel-cut oats. There’s organic poppy seeds, sesame seeds, there’s local buttermilk, local chai from Sherpa. And, I mean, there’s so many great things happening in those pancakes and he just said they’re ‘oversized manhole covers they’re calling pancakes.’”
He admits that the reviewer’s beef could’ve been personal, though he says he never met him.
“I’d much rather he ended the review saying, River and Woods is pretty cool, I think Daniel Asher is a dick. I give him one and a half stars, I give the restaurant three.”
Oh well, in the world of chef Daniel Asher tomorrow is another day — another 15-hour day of keeping the rest of us full and content.
To listen to more of our conversation with Asher, press play in the box below.