Written by The Smoky Mountain News
Ricardo Fernandez is a renowned chef, master gardener and also a former national diving champion, but there’s one thing he can’t do.
“I’ve tried to get my hair to grow back, but it doesn’t work,” he laughed.
At 62, Fernandez has been a resident of Haywood County for about 25 of those years. In Western North Carolina culinary circles, he is well known for launching one of the first farm-to-table restaurants in the region, with that love for food, friends and fresh produce still in the forefront of his life these days.
“It’s not just about cooking,” he said. “It’s about a social interaction, about sharing and offering something to everyone there.”
Founder of the Mountain Cooking Club, Fernandez hosts an array of monthly classes at the Fines Creek Community Center in rural Haywood County. Consisting of around 250 members, each class attracts upwards of 40 folks from all walks of life and culinary interests.
“You have foodies who write everything down, you have other ones who just want to see how everything is done,” he said. “And you have others who don’t even know how to cook an egg or some who bring a friend for the social aspect of the event.”
Food has been at the center of Fernandez’s life since he was a child in Argentina. He was raised in Buenos Aires, the son of an Italian and Spanish household, one where food was the common connection between friends, family and strangers alike. His family came to the country from Europe as part of the migration during the troubles of World War II.
“Since day one, there’s been a spoon in my mouth,” Fernandez said. “I was always around family and food. That’s the lifestyle of Italians, where food is one of the most important things in our community.”
And though he had an early appreciation for food, Fernandez’s first love was being in the pool. A competitive high diver, he was the Argentinean national diving champion at age 20, which eventually led to him coming to the United States in 1972.
Once in America, Fernandez’s competitive swimming career transitioned into teaching and coaching, bouncing from New Jersey to California to Florida. He worked with world-class athletes alongside his own aquatic dreams. But, due to a freak accident, everything changed.
“I flew off my roof taking down Christmas lights,” Fernandez said. “I landed on my back on the hard concrete. I don’t know how I didn’t kill myself in that fall. It was the end of my sports career.”
And though it was the culmination of his diving years, Fernandez and his wife, Suzanne, decided to take their love of food to the next level. They launched an import/export company in Florida, one that cornered the market in terms of fresh produce from Argentina, Chile and Brazil. The business garnered 30 distributors nationwide, with Fernandez becoming the largest importer of Argentinean wines.
“Then we would set up fine dining events and tastings around the United States,” he said. “It was a gradual change, a change that led to us becoming fully involved in the culinary industry.”
Towards the early 1990s, Fernandez and his wife found themselves in Western North Carolina. Initially, they were looking to open up a bed and breakfast somewhere in or around Waynesville. And though they did do plenty of work and events for their friends at the nearby Windsong Mountain Inn, the couple still was unable to find the exact property they were looking for.
But, on a trek through downtown Waynesville, they came across an unoccupied building at the corner of Church and Montgomery streets. Formerly a dry cleaner, the location had potential. They decided to open a restaurant. But not just your “same ole, same ole” spot, they were looking to do something completely different, something folks around these parts had never seen before — a farm-to-table fine dining establishment.
“What we were doing was unheard of at the time — we were a UFO that landed,” Fernandez chuckled. “It was Italian and Mediterranean, with many dishes never introduced in this area until we opened. We used the freshest ingredients possible — grass-fed beef and local produce based on the seasons.”
Opened in 1994, Lomo Grill because a haven for curious foodies and fine dining enthusiasts in Southern Appalachia. Nowadays, the farm-to-table concept is a main ingredient for culinary survival, with many chefs and restaurant owners around here pointing to Fernandez and his wife as the first to take the step into the future of food in Western North Carolina.
Lomo then hatched a bakery downstairs to complement the already buzzing restaurant above. Both businesses enjoyed many years of success, but Fernandez knew it was time to move on. The couple sold Lomo (now Frogs Leap Public House) in 2010, and also the bakery (which became the short-lived Nico’s Café, and currently is the Montgomery Street Market operated by Frogs Leap).
Fernandez took to his 35-acre Wildcat Ridge Farm in Fines Creek, where he and Suzanne began growing thousands of award-winning orchids, flowers they used for catering gigs or sold to wedding planners. But, that dream was derailed when two hurricanes swept through in recent years, completely tearing apart of the property. Not to be deterred, they shifted their focus to peonies and fig trees, a move that has resulted in hundreds of the plants dotting the landscape.
And yet, Fernandez never stopped being in the kitchen. He would host dinners and workshops at the farm or for friends who would find themselves at Wildcat Ridge. He enjoyed sharing his food and wine wisdom, something that led to the creation of the Mountain Cooking Club.
“I’m at a time in my life where my ego is really low. I’m pretty centered,” he said. “Suzanne and I have a great life, and I want to share it. I want to share my knowledge. I have no problem sharing my recipes. It’s about fun. Consume, eat, and play with what’s available locally. We change clothes for each season, just like your body wants different foods each season.”
In what some might see as a full circle moment for Fernandez, he recently led his first culinary tour of Argentina last year. With 20 people in the group, he showcased the incredible food, wine and culture of his homeland. The trip was such a success that Fernandez already has another lined up for October. This second go-around will focus on wineries and also include a journey to southern Patagonia.
“Life is good,” he said. “It’s a passion of food, passion of wine, and passion of people.”
Want to go?
Chef Ricardo Fernandez will be hosting a Mountain Cooking Club “Serving Up Love” class from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 6, at the Fines Creek Community Kitchen in Clyde.
Fernandez was the former co-owner/head chef of Lomo Grill. The classes celebrate local ingredients and seasonal fare. His classes combine his native Argentine cuisine with influences from Spain and Italy, the home of his parents.
The menu for this class will include a three-course dining experience: Thai shrimp and chicken soup, crispy chicken thighs with salsa Verde, and rum walnut Bundt cake.
Class fee is $65 plus a $1 Mountain Cooking Club 2016 membership fee (for those who didn’t attend the January class). To reserve your space, please mail a check (payable to Ricardo Fernandez) to Suzanne Fernandez at 3553 Panther Creek Road, Clyde, North Carolina 28721. Reservations confirmed upon receipt of payment.