The food at Never Blue is approachable, fun, flavorful and totally influenced by the life and times of Jesse Roque, owner and executive chef at the Hendersonville, N.C., eatery.
The Cuban, Filipino and Greek influences on the menu are the product of Roque’s Tampa roots. After working in kitchens in her teens, she studied for a time at Johnson & Wales in Charleston but left to take a detour into pastry. That’s why you’ll find an emphasis on devilishly decadent desserts at Never Blue.
Roque interned at the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach and shifted to other chef and pasty chef gigs at such places as the Charleston Grille inside the Charleston Place Hotel, which explains the sophisticated-yet-homey Southern eats on the Never Blue menu, like Lowcountry crab cakes with corn-sweety drop pepper salad and Cajun remoulade.
Study the menu and you’ll find glorious mashups that seem to come from everywhere at once, like gypsy cheese with fire-roasted poblano/smoked jalapeno pimento cheese, or fried chicken with housemade Thai cashew-peanut potion and lime-ginger sauce.
The restaurant was named for the Hendersonville road where her mother lived when Roque moved to this hidden-treasure mountain town. The restaurant occupies a sprawling structure that formerly housed a car dealership, a Zenith TV repair shop and then a dilapidated antique mall.
Last summer Roque was named 2016 North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association Chef of the Year at the North Carolina Chef Showdown. Recently, Roque took time to chat with us.
The way you meld Mexican flavors with traditional Southern flavors is really interesting.
I’ve been with my husband for 15 years and when we first met, he didn’t speak a word of English and I didn’t speak a word of Spanish. We communicated with a translation dictionary. As a cook, I asked him what kind of food his mom used to make. He grew up in Mexico and his mom is an amazing cook. It was a struggle to get my husband to eat Southern food. If I made shrimp and grits, or pot roast with mashed potatoes and collards, he’d say, “What is this and why are there no jalapeños?”
You also have so much Cuban influence on the menu. What was the Cuban food scene like in Florida in the ‘70s and ‘80s?
The Cuban influence on the Tampa Bay area was huge. It was Cuban sandwiches, of course, but also a lot of ropa vieja and carnitas. They have carnitas in Mexico, but in Cuba they’re totally different, in respect to the sauces. In Mexico, it’s tomatillos, but in Cuba it’s a vinaigrette with olives. That’s going to be on the spring menu. And I grew up eating a lot of marquitos (plantains with mojo sauce).
Your menu has some cool throwback item, too, like devils on horseback.
That’s my Southern background. I don’t think anyone’s ever gone to a cotillion in the South where there haven’t been devils on horseback. It’s hard for me to not fall into bad habits like cooking green beans to death, to army green. I remember my grandma taking a can of green beans and she would cook it on the highest heat for a long time! She’d take biscuits out of a can and put that in the oven at 500°F and we’d have to cut the biscuits out of the pan because they were burned on.
How did it feel to win Chef of the Year at the North Carolina Chef Showdown?
This was the first time both and my husband and I were out of the restaurant at the same time in nine years. It was in Raleigh and I told him, “I need you there to be my backup.” I was the only girl in the competition. I had no anticipation of doing anything extraordinary there; it was all Raleigh chefs. I was from far away; I was the lone female. And there’s an old-boy network of Southern chefs. I didn’t have any dreams of doing anything great. But then all of a sudden people were tasting my food and saying, “This is the best thing here.” When they announced that I won, I was standing off to the side, getting ready to clap for whoever won. When they said my name it still didn’t register. Then, the sea parted in front of me.
What was your dish? I know that you had to use ingredients from North Carolina.
I made a tostada and I wanted to make it interesting. I picked some dandelion greens along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and I had some candied peaches from the summer. I used some pickled queso blanco from Moon Forest Farm (the farm on Roque’s property). For me, vinegar is my therapy. When in doubt, I pickle it. My stepdaughter from Mexico tried that before the competition, and she loved it. For Green Goddess dressing, I used lamb quarters. When my girls were younger, their nanny was picking weeds and telling me it was kalitas, and it’s a food source. I was like, “Whatever.” All of a sudden, she was stuffing it into a tortilla and feeding my kids! I found out it was lamb’s quarter. I thought that was just for weird hippies who make medicine. Although everybody thinks I’m a hippie because I have dreadlocks.
So you have dreadlocks and farm called Moon Forest Farm…and you’re not a hippie?
No! I’m so far from that classification. When I’m interviewing people for a job and I ask about drugs, they’ll say, “Well, I smoke pot, the same as you do.” But I never even saw pot until I was in my 30s.
A lot has been written lately about kitchens not being the friendliest places to work for women and for moms in particular. But you’ve managed to do it your way.
Being a chef is a hard job for anyone because you’re on display, and it seems like everyone’s opinion matters but yours. I have to put on a smiley face for the people who want to tell me “You’ll be really successful if you’d only do this or that…” And there’s a big ego trip that comes with being a chef. Any time a woman is in a position of power, you’re obviously a bitch who also must’ve slept her way there. Some women just accept it. But I don’t. I got my first piece of hate mail the other day. It was a picture of me with my face crossed out, saying they’re boycotting my restaurant because I was rude to them, and it was probably just a creep who I threw out for being a creep. I’m not going to let it bother me. My skin has gotten thicker.