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Faces of Local: Chef Derek Powell of Biltmore

ASAP likes to share the stories of people who help us fulfill our mission. This month, we talk with Derek Powell, Executive Restaurant Chef for Cedric’s Tavern at Biltmore. Chef Powell recently did a local food taste test for the students at Fairview Elementary School. 

Q: How did you get started cooking?
A: I never really took cooking seriously growing up. Both my parents worked full time, so in order to feed three boys, it was mostly simple food, because it needed to be a lot of food. It wasn’t until I was 15 that I started having an interest in cooking and food in general. My neighbor at the time opened up a small family Italian restaurant and needed dishwashers, I was looking to make money to buy my first car so it worked out perfectly. After my first day, I knew I loved it. The controlled chaos, the constant activity, and the passion of everyone else working there. The moment I knew I was hooked was a few months later. I was filling in for a cook that didn’t show up for his shift and I was soon getting the trial by fire training to get through service. After I sent out my first plate, the server brought it back twenty minutes later, completely cleaned, relaying the message from the guest it was the best they ever had. I was quickly learning every aspect I could within the restaurant, particularly the kitchen. By the time I was 18, I had worked my way up to Sous Chef and was looking into culinary schools.

Q: Tell us about your training as a chef?
A: My formal education started at Cape Fear Community College, and it was a good start to creating a solid foundation of basic skills and educating me that I actually knew very little about the culinary world. I worked around North Carolina for about three years in different restaurants but was never really satisfied. The chef I was working under at the time started talking to me about the CIA in Hyde Park, NY. She straight out told me that I would never make it through the program, I would not be able to handle the stress and pressure of the program. I took that as a challenge, and used it to push me beyond my limits and to graduate from the Bachelor’s program with high honors.

After graduating, I moved to Bayamon, Puerto Rico and worked in San Juan. There I started my education with farm to table and the importance of local products. The local produce was being picked, processed, and delivered within 48 hours from farms within a few hours of the restaurant. The flavor of fresh fruits being picked ripened on the tree versus those ripened within the shipping containers was amazing. It was not only the quality of product that was important but also the positive impact on the local economy. Many of the local farmers produced items solely for the restaurants and worked directly with owners/Chefs to coordinate what to grow and quantities.

Q: When did you start at Biltmore?
A; I started during the fall of 2014. I am the restaurant chef at Cedric’s Tavern.

Q: Do you have a specialty at the restaurant?
A: One of our specialties that I developed is the Pork Burger. We use ground pork from the Berkshire hogs grown on the Estate, mix it with roasted garlic and cooked bacon. Finish it with spicy pepper mayonnaise, a pickled apple slaw, Estate grown lettuces, all on our house-made bun.

Q: Tell us about the importance of using local farm products?
A: There are a few different ways to view the importance of using local farm products. The economic increase into the local or surrounding area is important. Many of the local farms we purchase from are multi-generational and for me to know that I am helping them continue on with their traditions for the next generation is important to me. There is the environmental aspect of trying to minimize our carbon footprint, by decreasing transportation time of the products. Also being able to speak on the story of what we are serving to our guests, relating the history and passion of everyone involved to bring about the best possible product.

Q: Do you have a favorite local farm that you source from?
A: For me, it’s Stepp’s Hillcrest Orchard in Hendersonville. Fall is always my favorite time of the year and the apples from Stepp’s are the best I’ve ever had. Always a great variety available and a superior product. Plus, apple cider doughnuts.

Q: What’s your favorite dish that you like to prepare using local farm products?
A: On our menu at Cedric’s we have the Farmer’s Green Salad that changes seasonally. It’s a great menu item I like to use to challenge my team to create not just a good salad, but a dish that really showcases the local produce of the current season. It’s always a lighter salad, but has great flavors that build on one another.

Q: This was your first time sampling a local food dish at a school? How did it go? Did the kids like it?
A: Yes, this was my first time. I think it went well; roasted apple and butternut squash soup is an approachable dish for nearly everyone. It was interesting to see that the younger kids were more open to try something new, most eating the sample right away. Whereas, the older kids would look at it, smell it, and take a small taste before deciding if they were going to eat the sample or not.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Don’t be afraid to try new things. If you have the opportunity to travel, even if it’s right down the road, try the local items. Look for the story behind the products, the history and work involved to bring it to you. You may appreciate local farms more and learn about new ingredients to use when cooking. The worst thing that can happen is you have to ask for something else.