Jason Sellers is one of those people I often envy for what appears to be an uncanny ability to do anything well. Here’s a case in point: we were hanging out at the Bywater with friends a few weeks ago. The Bywater is this really cool concept bar/recreation area on the French Broad River. I call it a kind of summer camp with booze: in addition to the bar, there’s about an acre of land with picnic tables, horseshoe and cornhole games, grills, and fire pits. You can bring your own food and grill out, sit by the river, play the games. You can bring your dog. You can tube down from the Wedge, climb out of the water, and head into the Bywater — at least that’s what a whole cadre of folks had done the day we were there. I haven’t tried it yet, but I will.
There’s a bimini ring toss game as well, the goal of which is to swing a ring tied to the end of a string in such a way that it lands on a hook attached to a wall. This is not an easy task. I stood there and threw the freaking ring over and over and never got it on the hook. Jason took one practice swing, then a second, then got the ring on the hook. And then did it over and over. In exasperated and highly competitive frustration, I gave up and got another beer.
So it’s this sort of thing that seems unnerving to me, Jason’s ability to do things with such seemingly little effort. But the truth is something altogether different — and the ring toss example works to explain it. I just kept throwing the ring, thinking that if I just threw it enough times, it would land on the hook. Which it didn’t. If it had, I would have then gone back and then tried to replicate the process by which I succeeded. And that’s kinda sloppy, no?
Not Jason. Jason’s the antithesis of sloppy. Jason measures everything that he does, and he weighs all the options before acting. He got that ring on the hook on the third try not only because he considered the problem of the ring and the hook — the weight of the metal in his hand, the length of the thread, and his position relative to the wall — before he let it go, but also because he paid careful attention to what he did wrong the first and second times; he doesn’t come at things backwards, doesn’t allow himself to continue to make errors. He gets it right because he takes getting it right very seriously — perhaps more so than anyone else I know. And once he gets it right, he keeps working to get it more right. He got the ring on the hook, but maybe he could get the ring on the hook with his eyes closed. Maybe he could get the ring on the hook using his non-dominant hand.
So back to Plant: Plant is vegan. Plant is a restaurant based on an ethical principle to which Jason adheres absolutely and to which his business partners, Leslie Armstrong and Alan Berger, adhere as well. And that ethic is, in fact, the driving impulse behind the place. Jason had been a long time vegetarian when I met him in 1997; we became vegan after we moved to Massachusetts in 1999. And Jason has always been a chef at heart, has always been interested in food and in the politics behind how and what we eat. He went to culinary school at the Natural Gourmet in Manhattan in 2004, and he worked in the city at Candle 79 before moving with me — very much against his heart’s desire to stay in New York — to Asheville, where he became head chef and kitchen manager at the Laughing Seed.
Jason has been working to get it right for a long time, and he’s succeeded in ways that seem inconceivable to me. And I should know: I’ve been present for the entirety of his culinary journey and before, when he was working in his masters in Linguistics at North Carolina State University and training Kung Fu, becoming the very badass salad-eating-vegan-who-can-put-you-through-a-wall. The food that he’s making now is the food he’s always wanted to make. It’s delicious, savory, entirely plant based, and incredibly refined in both presentation and flavor combinations. One of my friends declared, after eating lunch there today, that the space in which Jason works should be declared a holy pilgrimage site.
For Jason, getting it right is still something that can be improved upon; getting it right is just another place from which to start. And I can’t wait to see what happens now.