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Faces of Local: Interview with Jen Pearson of Guadalupe Cafe, Sylva, NC

We like to share stories of people who are passionately part of the local food system. One such person is Jen Pearson, owner of Guadalupe Cafe in Sylva. Read the following excerpt from our interview with Jen, highlighting cheese as part of Get Local, and perhaps it will inspire you!

Why did you decide to open a restaurant?

I stumbled into this career by mistake, I was in between college and grad school, and I wanted to take a break and took a job at a wonderful, now-defunct little café in Sylva because I have some family in the area. I fell in love with the excitement of restaurant work, and the joys of working with food for a living. I traveled a little, working an eclectic mix of food/restaurant jobs (mostly with female bosses, hmmm! ;)) but could never leave Sylva for long. And so, eventually, Sylva was the perfect place to start my restaurant: such a welcoming little town with great farms, dairies, crafters, artists, wonderful local businesses, several great places to eat and hang out, the college nearby, and the nicest locals ever.

My original intent with Guadalupe was to serve foods that couldn’t be easily found in our little town, to make fun, vibrant food out of the best ingredients -as many local as possible!- and to create a little universe inside those walls where the things I value could be explored with like-minded souls: food, music, art, people coming together, treating each other well and working together.

What is your establishment like?

It’s a really happy, colorful, lively place. We are pretty casual and strive to make everyone feel welcome and at home, but we also care a lot about making the simple foods we serve delicious and memorable.

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What are your favorite things about your café?

My favorite thing is the way, being a tiny, community-oriented café in a tiny town, we have a real sense of camaraderie amongst our customers, staff, and farmers (those categories actually tend to overlap a lot!); it just make things really cozy and pleasant for all of us. I think a huge part of that is how special Sylva is — it is a remarkable and unique community.

What are your biggest challenges?

Restaurant ownership is full of surprises and chaos and a lot of thinking on your feet, which for the most part I enjoy! But now that my family has grown to include two young children, it brings the challenge of making sure the café runs smoothly while maintaining some sort of sane, functional family life. I’m so thankful to my team of incredibly talented, smart, dedicated staff, to whom much credit is due for the continued growth and success of Guadalupe, and for any semblance of work/home balance I’ve thus achieved!

What is your favorite cheese or local food dish, and why?

I have two favorite local cheeses, and therefore they are both used a LOT at Guadalupe! Dark Cove Farm’s garlic and chive cheese is a distinctively mild, well balanced, incredibly fresh-tasting goat cheese that is made in tiny batches by my dear friends Jackie and David. Yellow Branch Farm makes several outstanding aged cow-milk farmstead style cheeses. Bruce’s aged pepper curd is particularly lovely with it’s springy texture and bright, salty-sour flavor. Both of these cheeses are totally addictive, and we are so fortunate to live in a community with an abundance of fantastic cheese-makers!

Why is local cheese important to you?

I’ve found that the flavor and freshness of local cheeses, as a rule, are vastly superior to mass-produced dairy products. Maybe because they’re made in small batches and consumed at peak maturation, or other reasons tied to the attention that can be given to crafting cheese on the small scale.

Another part of it, of a different but equal value to me, is that I think it’s important simply to support our local farms and to acknowledge the innumerous benefits to our mountain community conferred by the presence of many small, thriving family farms. There are so many wonderful restaurants in WNC, and a huge part of that, I believe, is that we have such great local materials (cheeses, and much more) to work with. I love being able to give my business to people I actually know, to tiny local farms (instead of huge distant corporations) — the local farmers that I know treat their land and their animals with love and respect. They take such gorgeous pride in their work and that leads to vastly superior products. These farmers are an essential part of what I and so many others hold dear about this place.

What reasons would you share about why folks should attend the Carolina Mountain Cheesefest?

We are so fortunate to have this delicious variety of cheese to explore right in our backyard! What a pleasure not only to have the chance to acquaint oneself with so many new local cheeses, but also to meet the faces behind the dairies and farms, learn their stories and such.

What impact has ASAP had on your business?

I really treasure the work ASAP does in increasing the visibility of local food, helping consumers identify local products, and helping businesses like mine both source local products and get the word out to our customers about the tremendous amount and variety of produce, meats, cheeses, and more that our local family farms are producing. As a business that opened over a decade ago with only a handful of farm contacts, I thank ASAP for stirring demand amongst consumers and diners for local farm products, fostering the growth of the dozens of farms I now partner with, and also for taking the lead locally in educating folks about the role we all can play in helping to maintain our communities’ agrarian heritage.

Find out more about Jen’s restaurant, Guadalupe Cafe!