In a family wrought attorneys and politicians, William Dissen followed a different route: the (sustainable) culinary arts. Dissen grew up foraging in the mountains of Charleston, West Virginia, his earliest kitchen memories shaped by his grandmother’s farm-to-table cooking. But at age15, he began work in a professional kitchen, first as a dishwasher and later as a prep cook at a local Charleston country club.
Graduating from West Virginia University with degrees in English and French language and culture, Dissen followed budding culinary passions, enrolling in the Culinary Institute of America, where he sharpened his cookery skills and graduated with honors. His education didn’t stop there. After attending the CIA., Dissen spent time in the kitchen of Certified Master Chefs Peter Timmins and Richard Rosendale at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. In 2005, the already career-driven chef attained a master’s degree of hospitality, restaurant, and tourism management at the University of South Carolina.
From there, he pushed forward with hands-on learning. In Montecito, California, he worked under Chef Jamie West, who cultivated Dissen’s passion for garden-fresh ingredients. After moving to Charleston, South Carolina, Dissen advanced his career under the mentorship of Chef Donald Barickman, the former executive chef and owner of Magnolia, Blossom, and Cypress, work for Chef Craig Deihl at the latter. In 2009, deeply versed in culinary arts and restaurant management, Dissen achieved his long-time dream of opening his own restaurant—The Market Place in Asheville, North Carolina, where he’s been twice named Fortune Magazine’s Green Chef of the Year, working every day with farm-fresh, local ingredients.
Why: The are an integral network in Asheville and around my region that links together chefs & restaurants, farmers & farms, educators & institutions to create our local food system. They have helped to create a positive change by helping farmer’s markets flourish, getting local & healthy foods into schools and reuniting chefs with local farms to source fresh, flavorful ingredients.
Interview with Chef William Dissen of The Market Place – Asheville, NC
Sean Kenniff: What first inspired you to start cooking, and where do you find inspiration today?
William Dissen: I was first inspired to begin cooking by spending time with my grandmother on her farm. She and my grandfather grew a large garden, raised livestock, and kept honey bees - and as a child I remember her food having a sense of place, being authentic, and tasting fresh and amazing. The food she created was simple, country cooking, but you could taste the freshness. Today I find inspiration in much the same way. I work to create relationships with my local farmers and artisan producers to source the best ingredients. I frequent the local tailgate farmers markets to see what is in season. It allows me to cook in the moment with whatever is ripe and fresh. With access to so many amazing farms in Western North Carolina, it makes my job easy to source great products.
SK: What's the hardest thing you've had to do in your career?
WD: Catering a 5 course meal for 400 people. I was working at the San Ysidro Ranch in Montecito, CA, and we had a high-end Jewish Kosher wedding to cater. The kitchen had to be set up outside with all new equipment and had to be blessed by an Orthodox priest. Everything that came in and out of the kitchen was scrutinized by the priest - it made cooking the dinner challenging and stressful, but it was one heck of a learning experience being able to blend culture, religion, and food. It helped me to understand the importance of miss en place and logistics, and to learn that food is more important than just eating - sharing food across the table can bring so many people together.
SK: What's the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
WD: Our biggest challenge in Asheville is the seasonality of our city. We live in amazing community surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery in the country, yet we are hyper-seasonal in our Winter months due to tourism. I am very fortunate to have a dedicated and talented staff that stays with me through the year. It really allows us to continue to grow and experiment even when it's slow at the restaurant. Our city is growing year by year, and the "shoulder season" is slowly diminishing, so hopefully so will this challenge!
SK: Describe a food experience that you found transformative.
WD: My wife is from India, and she has opened my eyes up to so many different flavors and styles of cooking. When I was first courting her, I vividly remember trying "pani puri" for the first time. It's a crispy, hollowed out chick pea bread that is stuffed with potatoes and more chickpeas - that's the puri or bread. You then add a date chutney and spoon in a green cilantro, mint, & jalapeño water - the pani or water - and then stuff the whole thing in your mouth - a mind changing burst of flavor explosion. I haven't looked at food the same way since.
SK: How has the restaurant scene in Asheville evolved since you moved there? And how do you help to keep pushing it forward?
WD: The food scene in Asheville has been percolating for decades, but in the last 4 years it has really taken off. When I first moved here there were maybe 15-20 restaurants in downtown Asheville. Now there are probably around 100 - and all of them are great. Asheville is one of the greatest food cities in our country and we are continuing to push the boundaries by opening more and more cutting edge restaurant and bringing more talented chefs to the playing field. This is helping to raise the bar of food across the city. I am always striving to continue learning about food, trying new ideas, and collaborating with respected chefs to push the boundaries of what's good in food in Asheville. Once you stop learning you can't continue to push forward. Education and collaboration are key.
SK: Describe you personal cooking "philosophy" and how it may have been shaped by the community of chefs you're a part of?
WD: My cooking philosophy is simple: local & sustainable food first - support your local community
The local community of chefs has definitely helped shape my philosophy on food. We are a unique community of chefs that "play well together", we collaborate and works on unique projects. This has helped me to see what other chefs in the area are up to and really helped me to focus on my style of farm-fresh food at The Market Place.
SK: How are you involved in the industry at large, beyond Asheville and North Carolina?
WD: I have been fortunate to be nominated by the James Beard Foundation to participate in their Chef's Boot Camp, and travel to promote sustainability and change through food as a medium. I am also on the Culinary Blue Ribbon Task Force for the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program where I've had the chance to promote the importance of healthy oceans and sustainable seafood choices. I work with the Chef's Collaborative & Common Threads programs, and am always traveling to team up with my chef friends around the country to work on projects and special events.
SK: Why do you think The Carolinas are such an exciting place to be cooking right now, and in what ways are they leading the country?
WD: In North Carolina we are creating a renaissance of Appalachian Cuisine through heirloom & foraged ingredients and heritage cooking techniques. South Carolina has produced a rebirth of low country cuisine as well. Both these styles of food speak to the past of our country, and people can relate to it. It's the food of our grand parents that we are bringing back into style - just reimagined. Bringing back these heirloom ingredients and heritage cooking techniques allows us as chefs to produce flavors that many thought were lost, and it has helped to evolve our food into more creative, flavorful cuisine. We are the true trend setters right now with food.
SK: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
WD: Five years from now I hope to be steering The Market Place Restaurant on a course for more great things. I hope to be working on another restaurant project and hopefully my first cookbook. The sky is the limit.