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Take Me to the River

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Take Me to the River
Written by Brennen Jensen | Photos by Kieran Wagner

In their home state of West Virginia, chef William Dissen and his father cast their rods for trout and tranquility

A mist rises from the pond on a chilly morning.

It’s a cold October morning at the Greenbrier, the grand resort spilling over some 11,000 mountain-valley acres in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Icy fingers of frost trace across the capacious lawns, fog collects in the shadows and lowland spots, and only the most anemic of sunbeams brighten the autumnal-toned peaks of Greenbrier Mountain to the west. The thermometer reads 28 degrees. Time to wade into a frigid stream after trout.

Father-and-son fly fishers Jim and William Dissen prepare to do just that, confident that weather reports are correct in predicting temps will hit 60 as the day wears on. The Greenbrier’s veteran outdoor guide, Jacob Ott, fits them for waders in the Hunt Cabin, a chinked log structure overlooking a pond where ducks stir like ghosts in a diaphanous, clinging mist.

From left: Waders at the ready inside the Greenbrier's Hunt Cabin; Jim Dissen, ready to take on the trout.

“This is the hardest
 part for me,” Jim remarks while playfully fighting
 with his cumbersome, 
rubberized river gear.
“I’ve held up pretty well
 at 77, but I think my warranty is running out.” 
Less of a challenge for him was just showing up this morning, as he’s a retired attorney with a house on the Greenbrier property. His son, meanwhile, had a tougher time clearing his calendar. He’s been the executive chef and owner of Asheville, North Carolina’s season-driven, farm-to-table favorite, the Market Place since 2009. And just last year he expanded eastward to open the similarly focused Haymaker restaurant in Uptown Charlotte, and the fresh-casual Billy D’s Fried Chicken at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro. When not at one of these outposts of locavorism, he’s probably on the interstate driving between them. Add two young children to the mix and you have a harried restaurateur and father for whom a quick fly-fishing outing with the old man is a real treat.

Jim Dissen waiting for a bite.

And there is further significance to this outing. Though William wielded pans from California to Wyoming to South Carolina before planting his culinary flag in the Tar Heel State, he’s a proud West Virginia native son and Mountaineer alum. “This is home,” he says, sliding a leg into his ponderous waders. “It’s always good to come back here and spend time with family. Fishing is something my dad and I try to get out and do when we can.” The pair has had rod-and-reel adventures as far away as Montana, but William’s fondest memory is of boyhood when his dad helped him pull his first catch—a catfish—out of the Kanawha River flowing through the state capital and their hometown, Charleston. “Dad actually had it mounted for me,” he adds with a chuckle.

From top: Guide Jacob Ott ties nymphs and preps the poles; the anglers are off.

And the Greenbrier, itself, is a homecoming. The resort awarded William a scholarship to help him attend the Culinary Institute of America and he later spent a season toiling in Greenbrier’s renowned culinary apprenticeship program under Certified Master Chef Peter Timmins. You learn skills at culinary school, but you hone them in exacting, high-pressure, high-volume kitchens. The Greenbrier is all that. “Oh, it was like a boot camp where you come out the other side a much stronger chef,” William says of his time serving under a demanding, salty-tongued top toque.

His West Virginia roots also inform his cooking. While the terms “locally sourced,” “seasonal,” and “farm-to-table” are routinely splashed across menus today—William’s included—he internalized these concepts long before they were culinary buzzwords. It’s an approach to food that’s in his blood. Well, half of it anyway. His father is a city boy from Pittsburgh, but his maternal grandfather was a Mountain State coal-miner-turned-farmer.

“They lived off the land back in the holler in a very traditional, old-school Appalachia way,” William says. “They foraged for different ingredients—ginseng, mushrooms, ramps. They grew a large garden with bees for honey and pollinating. They had a cow for milk, a goat for a lawnmower, and chickens. They had a canning cellar where they’d put things up. I remember playing on their farm as a child, running through the fields and splashing in the creek. I remember sitting on their front porch shucking corn and stringing green beans. As a hyper kid, I was sometimes bored. But fast forward to right now and those are all memories that I treasure.”

Grandma’s pies were a standout, he recalls. No formal recipe, just seasonal fillings, innate knowledge, and loving hands. Oh, and her buttermilk biscuits and gravy. To die for. He carries a bit of this with him every time he enters the kitchen: A chef who trained under continental masters and drilled in the classic techniques but who also embraces and celebrates homespun Appalachian cookery. He knows the ways of “leather britches,” green beans strung together and dried until leathery. “They’re an umami flavor bomb—almost like meat,” William says. He can forage for and pickle ramps, knows what types of forest hardwoods yield Bear’s Head Tooth mushrooms and other fungi, and maintains a larder filled with preserved ingredients. A use-everything, waste-not-want-not ethos reigns at each of his eateries.

“Funny, the Brooklyn hipsters are trying to pickle or can or ferment stuff because it’s the cool DIY trend of the moment, but my grandparents were doing it because that’s how you sustained yourself,” he says. “Generations survived by farming, hunting, and foraging.”

William knows it's all in the wrist.

And fishing. The first flies hit the water at half-past nine. Ott chooses to put into Howard’s Creek where it makes a lazy bend near the Lodge at the Greenbrier Sporting Club. Mist still cloaks the water and a Sycamore sends yellowed leaves circling lazily downward in the stillness. A startled kingfisher rattles off downstream; the air is perfumed by the wild mint trampled earlier on the shoreline.

But the trout aren’t biting yet. Not that William seems to mind. “There’s something very Zen about getting out on the water and being with nature,” he says, throwing a cast, mending his line (flipping the slack upstream), and letting the nymph drift leisurely in the current. Cast, drift, repeat. With his wife visiting her native India and the kids with the grandparents, his cellphone is on should any issues arise. But as for the restaurants? “I told them not to call unless something is burning down,” he says. Forty feet of chilly water might separate father and son, but they’re together in the quietude of the moment.

And the meteorologists were right. The late morning sun burns off the mist and chases away the chill. Soon enough, the fishing warms up too. “Got one!” William shouts, and after a brief tussle Ott nets a lovely Rainbow trout with iridescent, gem-like skin earning every bit of its name. As this is a catch-and-release area, the finned beauty is but a temporary trophy in William’s hands. That suits him, because as someone who Fortune magazine twice named Green Chef of the Year, promoting sustainable seafood is one of his pet causes. He’s part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Blue-Ribbon Task Force, a collection of activist chefs pledging to promote responsibly farmed and sustainably caught seafood to the public and lawmakers.

A rainbow-colored reward (soon to swim back to safety).

Jim snags the next rainbow. Ott holds it in the net a moment so Jim can admire his catch. “Mine is definitely bigger than William’s,” he says with playful braggadocio. Ott’s final fishing spot, a quiet stretch near a groomed golf course fairway, is chosen for its sandy bank, allowing easier access for Jim’s cold-stiffened legs. But soon enough, Jim’s knees aren’t the issue so much as the potential to throw his back out from hauling in so many fish. It’s a honey hole, alright. Ott is kept busy releasing the slippery beasts as Jim beams. “Nice job, dad,” William says, finally walking over from the downstream spot where he’s landed a few himself. “Oh, I’m a natural,” Jim says, mugging as usual. “I’ve got the skills. At this point I should be a guide.”

When the shadows start to lengthen and a hint of chill returns, it’s time to pack it in. Just because the day’s trout are all safely back in the stream doesn’t mean there isn’t a fish dinner in the offing. And just because a chef is on vacation doesn’t mean he won’t whip up a fabulous meal, especially when he gets to cook in what he calls his favorite way: “by harnessing fire.” In this case, a simple circle-of-stones firepit in front of the Hunt Cabin. While waiting for the somewhat damp ash logs to burn down to cooking level, Ott reveals another skill. Not only does he know where the trout are biting, but also where the Greenbrier keeps the bourbon in the cabin. A bottle of Booker’s 107-proof appears on a picnic table. Campfire and whiskey? Legs are thawing out now.

These trout are no less tasty for being farm-raised, especially when cooked over fire with ham fat.

William soon has country ham slices rendering in a pair of cast-iron pans. Two trout from Waynesville, North Carolina’s Sunburst Trout Farms—one of his go-to sources for responsibly farmed fish—hit one pan, each stuffed with lemon slices and thyme. A medley of veggies hits the other. The heady aroma of wood smoke and sizzling ham fat is intoxicating—maybe that’s what’s bringing the ducks and geese back to the pond. As a finishing touch, cubed butter gets tipped in with the trout, along with more thyme and whole garlic cloves. William furiously spoons the rich, browning goodness over the fish.

Roasted veggies round out an angler's repast.

Away from the fire, he assembles a roasted beet and smoked trout salad with green goddess dressing. This descriptor doesn’t begin to cover the mélange of tastes, textures, and colors in the bowl. Alongside brined and hot-smoked trout he created back at the Market Place are clusters of trout caviar—flavor-bursting, briny pearls of orange that Sunburst makes. There are crisp slices of pinky-white watermelon radish, tangy pickled ramps, and the minerally herbalness of magenta spreen, a form of wild spinach. The roasted veggies get a garnish of marigold petals to try and compete with this artful salad dominated by greens, purples, and pinks.

Amid the reflective afterglow of an excellent meal, the October Hunter’s Moon, two days shy of full, rises over Kate’s Mountain to the east—for a few dramatic moments, the looming orb appears to be suspended by the ridgeline’s treetops. The last waterfowl come wheeling in from the gloaming to splash in for the night. Lengthening shadows draw dark slashes across the uneven bulk of Greenbrier Mountain to the west.

Jim selects a cigar out of a box pulled from somewhere. He lights up and pours another couple fingers of Booker’s into his glass. Silence reigns as everyone takes in the understated majesty of a West Virginia autumn evening. “You know,” Jim says after a spell, “that one fish I had on the line must have been a 35-pounder. Biggest trout I’ve ever seen.” William looks up briefly from where he’s wiping out a cast-iron pan. He shakes his head ever so slightly and smiles. It’s good to be home.

An eye-catching salad of radishes, pickled ramps, smoked trout, and trout caviar.

Roasted Beet and Smoked Trout Salad

Pan-Roasted Trout

Cast-Iron Roasted Vegetables