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It’s springtime in Appalachia and William Dissen is excited about ramps. “We’ll take the leaves and ferment them or purée them, or we’ll take the bulbs and pickle them to use on menu items throughout the year,” says the chef.
He’s FaceTimed me from Asheville, North Carolina where he’s just accomplished a major feat for his three restaurants. The recent HACCP (read: hazard analysis and critical control points) approval of his Fermentation and Fruit Preservation Program by the state’s health department means Dissen is now legally able to employ the processes which he uses to ferment and pickle the pungent wild leeks in his kitchens. At Haymaker, his seasonal farm-to-table restaurant in Charlotte, diners who order the toast with mushroom ragu and housemade ricotta can thrill at the jolt of garlicky tang those pickled ramps deliver in each bite.
Dissen has long been invested in preservation techniques as a way to cook sustainably, reduce food waste, and extend the shelf life of seasonal Appalachian delicacies like ramps, which appear in the mountains for just a few weeks each spring.
“If I’m buying product that’s starting to turn and I throw it away, it’s like throwing dollar bills into the trash,” he says. “So if we can find ways to dehydrate or ferment or pickle something, we’re adding value to it, we’re adding seasoning to a dish to make it taste better, and I can create an item that has some heritage to it.”
His mastery over processes such as salt-packing locally-foraged ramps and leaving them to ferment over the course of a week, or canning blemished tomatoes that farmers are otherwise unable to sell, stem not from a scholarly motivation, but from his own cultural background. He was born and raised in West Virginia and spent much of his upbringing on his grandparents’ farm, where they preserved everything from okra to runner beans to sustain their family. “These are things that people have been doing for thousands of years,” he says.
That’s not to say Dissen hasn’t learned a thing or two as he’s built his career as a chef. His program extends beyond historical preservation techniques utilized by his ancestors to include the modern cooking technologies of vacuum-sealing and sous vide cooking. He crafted one of the first HACCP plans in North Carolina to implement these processes over ten years ago. That plan went through a long-winded path of bureaucratic approval, disapproval, and reapproval until the pandemic brought about new challenges that increased Dissen’s passion for preserving.
Among those challenges: being short on staff. He realized that sous vide cooking allowed him to put out consistently good food with less labor. “You’re able to cook something in a water bath ahead of time, and then when it’s ordered, you can simply sear it off, and have a beautiful product every time,” he explains. One of Dissen’s favorite vegetables to prepare this way are baby carrots, which he vacuum seals with their own juice plus fresh thyme and salt, and then cooks them at 84°C for an hour before “shocking” the pouch in ice water to strain the juice. “To order, we roast the carrots in cast-iron and deglaze the pan with the carrot juice and fresh lemon juice, finish it with a little butter, and serve it with preserved lemon yogurt, wild sumac za’atar spice, and a powder made from the carrot tops,” he says.
These days, fermentation, pickling, and sous vide are processes that we, as diners, see often on menus. Lauded institutions like Noma in Copenhagen have worked to spread the word about the various benefits of preservation, and many cooks found a new interest in taking on these kitchen projects over the course of lockdown. Dissen agrees when I posit that many respected kitchens are preserving ingredients, in some capacity.
“Most restaurants are doing it and hiding it in a closet somewhere,” he says. Yet, he notes, these are scientific techniques that have to be carefully and properly executed, otherwise diners are at risk of foodborne illness. Taking the step of getting a stamp of approval from the health department enables Dissen to be fully transparent with his customers. Hopefully, it will also encourage other chefs to go out and get their own certifications. “I think our win is going to be a bigger win for the whole state in the food industry, I think you will see a slow trickle of chefs and restaurants applying and starting to get approved for these processes, which is going to advance our cooking, make our food more delicious, and make our restaurants safer places for people to dine,” he says.
For Dissen, the milestone of receiving the certification is also a celebration of his Appalachian roots and the passion he has to promote and engage with the region’s rich food culture. He talks about how the Cherokee Nation first settled in the area tens of thousands of years ago because of the fertile soil and temperate rainforest seasons. “There’s very clean water from the streams and rivers, and there’s wild and medicinal herbs and plants growing everywhere, so it’s kind of like a foodtopia,” he says. He talks about sitting on his grandmother’s porch, shucking beans and corn, and helping her stuff mason jars to can off. And he talks about drying out “greasy beans” — an heirloom bean with shiny skin that’s native to Appalachia — in the sun, only to rehydrate them in the wintertime as a way of adding flavor to dishes. “This umami bomb goes off when you soak the bean and rehydrate the chlorophyll in the cell structure,” he explains, excitedly.
“We preserve these heritage ingredients so that in the months that don’t provide, when it’s cold and desolate, we can pop open a can of sunshine,” Dissen says, adding, “we can’t all live in California, unfortunately.”
Even as ramp season winds down, there will be abundance to come in Appalachia throughout the summer months. That means there’s plenty of preservation work ahead. Come mid-summer, wild wineberries will appear in high-altitude areas, and Dissen will move swiftly to make jam or vacuum-seal and freeze the sweet, tart berries to use later on in the year.
I ask what would be his ideal way to enjoy wineberry jam, and he rhapsodizes about cornbread. To make it, he sources a special cornmeal blend — 75 percent Tuxpeno white corn and 25 percent bright-orange speckled Cateto Flint corn — from Farm & Sparrow, a local mill that makes cornmeal and grits from indigenous corn varieties. “Just serve a slice of that very simply with butter and some of the wineberry preserves on top. Super delicious.”