Chef William Dissen: Appalachia's Prodigal Son
Getting to the Roots of Mountain food
by Candace Nelson
A great meal is like a great song: a sensation for the senses.
At their root, there’s a reason for living and the means to get there, often steeped in divinity, enrobed in delicious melody, and soused in flavor.
No one knows that better than Chef William Dissen, owner of three high-end farm-to-table restaurant concepts: The Market Place in Asheville, N.C., Billy D’s Fried Chicken at The North Carolina Zoo, and Haymaker in uptown Charlotte, N.C.
“As a child, I remember going to Mountain Stage at the Cultural Center in Charleston, West Virginia. There I heard musical acts like Bela Fleck, Alison Kraus, David Grisman, and more. Every festival I attended had bluegrass music, and as a child, it felt like the music of the mountains,” Dissen said.
“Hearing impromptu jam sessions at a friend’s home and watching how connected everyone in the room was to the music played an important role for me as I took the time to understand the food and culture from my home. I love how both music and food can bring people together, to make someone smile and to spark a conversation between two strangers over something they love.”
The Appalachian prodigal son draws inspiration from his roots to craft global cuisine that has earned him the reputation of being the definitive trendsetter in the Southern culinary world.
“I was born and raised in Charleston, West Virginia, and while my journey as a chef has taken me all over the world, my heart has always yearned for a home in the mountains of Appalachia,” Dissen said.
The early pioneer of the southeast farm-to-table movement uses those experiences to inform how he develops world-class meals and nourishes his community with place-based food.
“Growing up, my grandparents had a farm in rural West Virginia where they truly lived off the land; growing a garden, keeping bees for honey and as pollinators, raising livestock, foraging for wild mushrooms and herbs, and preserving the bounty of their garden through techniques like fermentation, pickling, canning and more,” Dissen said. “As I grew to become a chef, my recognition of my roots helped to guide me toward fresh, local flavors and to ensure that we are preserving the land around us by supporting sustainable agriculture and seafood practices.”
His culinary prowess was most recently recognized when he competed with – and beat – Celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsay on National Geographic, winning the accolade “World’s Most Sustainable Chef” by Ramsay himself. His other titles collected over the years include: “Green Chef of the Year” from FORTUNE Magazine, “White House Champion of Change for Sustainable Seafood” from the Barack Obama Administration, and “Featured Chef” six times from the James Beard Foundation, which included Dissen cooking more than 16 times on the foundation grounds.
Dissen’s long commitment to foraging local ingredients and showcasing Appalachian cuisine has secured his position as the region’s most influential ambassador. He prepares dishes influenced by his heritage while infusing techniques from all over the world, which results in one-of-a-kind meals lauded by world leaders, global culinary institutions, and award-winning chefs.
“As I have grown as a chef, I have experimented in all different types of cuisine from around the world. I’ve learned about avant-garde and modernist cooking, and I’ve eaten and cooked street food from Southeast Asia. While I was studying in culinary school, one of my chef instructors told me that if I wanted to be the best chef, then I needed to use the best ingredients. For him (as a French Chef), I think that translated to ingredients like foie gras, truffles, and caviar, but for me, I knew the best ingredients were the ones grown in the hills and valleys of Appalachia, just like my grandmother had done,” Dissen said.
As Dissen takes the next steps in his culinary journey, no ramp, morel, or fiddlehead fern will be left unturned. His Appalachian roots will continue to influence his craft moving forward, as he pays homage to the land, upbringing, and real food from the mountains. And he continues to spread the gospel of Appalachian cuisine wherever he goes.
“Cooking with my heritage is how my cuisine will continue to evolve. I know that fresh food tastes the best, and being able to showcase the amazing heirloom ingredients from our region will be how I continue to showcase the beauty and richness of Appalachia.”
Photo Credit: All Photos Courtesy of U.S. Embassy in Doha Qatar-USA 2021 Year of Culture