Jacob Sessoms Talks Beans, Work Outs and Getting Out of the Way

Interview by Jefferson Ellison, done in partnership w/ AVLtoday.

Jacobs Sessoms is many things: a talented and beloved chef, a husband, a community member, a business man, a father…. incredibly hot (I’m sorry but it’s true). The first time I ever met him was out at a bar - I was with a friend who he’s worked with in the past - she introduced us, we spoke and he went on his merry way. The next time, I was at his new space with Luis Martinez, El Gallo. Sessoms was my waiter. I was with a different friend (I'm quite popular), who happens to be Sessom’s work neighbor. Once again, we spoke, did the pleasantries and then he continued to serve me tacos. Both times, I’ve been struck by how normal he was. Here is a man on top of his game, and he’s introducing himself without any qualifications and serving me braised meat! A man of the people. How chic.

Through our conversation, I realized that it wasn’t the humility that shocked me, it was the calm. Sessoms is a very busy man - he owns like 100 restaurants and has like 100 more in the works. He’s got a family, kids, passions, etc. And yet he doesn’t seem to break a sweat. He seems relaxed, approachable and as if everything is in order. And while I’d venture to say that many things in his life are hectic, I also think Sessoms is right where he wants to be. Following his own path, making his own rules, in a town that he’s decided to call home.

Paulo Coelho says that “The world lies in the hands of those that have the courage to dream and who take the risk of living out their dreams - each according to his own talent.” And by that logic, it would seem that it's Sessoms' world and we’re all living in it. No wonder he’s so calm.

Because you're from Nashville, I HAVE to ask. What is your favorite country song? Don't Roll Those Bloodshot Eyes at Me -Wynonie Harris

Now on to your work. What is the Most Important Lesson You Learned from Your Time in New York. How to approach ingredients. They are the most important aspects of what we do and where to source those. Jonathan Waxman fortified my farm to table approach. Anthony Rose taught me to relax, be calm and be cool.

If you weren’t cooking what would you do? I would probably be living on a shoestring, driving around the country riding my bike and hiking across foreign countries. Eating the cheapest foods I could find and not participating in the system. Sooo… the exact opposite of what you do now? Precisely!

Describe yourself in a meal? I am a bowl of perfectly cooked beans. [Silence]

Ones that are meticulously sourced from some ancient people and when you cook them they completely transform into something different. You can add a piece of cornbread with butter in there too, if you want.

A profile on you says that local chefs see you as a pioneer in the Asheville food scene? Do you agree with that? Are you comfortable with that idea? Yeah, I mean I'm fine with it. With the exception of a few chefs that came from out of town, most chefs in town have come through my kitchen. I don’t think I created Asheville or put it on the map, I was just here at the right time.

In comparison with your peers, you found success pretty young. Has that warped your perspective? Are you finding it harder to keep up with yourself or are your bigger than your stomach? I am exactly where I want to be. I'm perfectly happy where I am. I can do more, I can do less. I’ve reached a point in my life where my practice is to be happy where I am. There are far more important things in the world than me opening a restaurant.

How has the Asheville food scene changed since you opened Table in 2005? Dramatically. Most of the restaurants that have opened are here to serve the growing tourist business. After we became Beer City USA, what drove the market was a desire to serve those kinds of tourists. And that’s new.

Do you have plans to expand outside of Asheville? I have a day job. I work with a real estate company in Atlanta, so I'm sure we’ll work on projects down there in the future. Post-COVID, whenever that comes.

As someone in food, what is your diet like? I'm a person of moderation with everything but exercise. I am terribly addicted to exercise. I eat whatever I want, but by and large I don't eat processed food. But if I want pizza I’ll eat pizza.

How often do you work out? Two hours a day, minimal.

Least favorite health food trend? Intermediate fasting and no carb eating.

You recently opened El Gallo. Tell me more. Luis Martínez who is the chef and partne, was originally a cook and barback at Imperial Life, upstairs. Phenomenal human being. He went on to get his degree in marketing and graphic design from UNCA. We reconnected and started it as a pop-up. My father died last year, and we called him the rooster. Shortly after that I got a rooster tattooed on my back and that’s how we picked the name. Its phenomenal to work with him again. He’s a really positive force.

How did you know it was time to expand from the pop-up to a full on restaurant? Coronavirus hit. Luis and I wanted a change. I wanted to change Table and wasn’t concerned with re-opening it in its current form and Luis wanted to make it something permanent.

What are your goals for El Gallo?

Cook great food that brings a traditional, regionally specific Mexican cuisine to Asheville and provide space between El Gallo and Imperial that is not strictly a White space. How? Mainly by getting me out of the way.

If you could have a day eating at each of your restaurants. How would that look? Breakfast at All Day Darling.

Lunch at All Day Darling.

Espresso at All Day Darling.

6 tacos at El Gallo.

The food industry - specially food media - is going through a time of adjustment. The conversations around culinary appropriation and access are rooted in the notion that historically, women and People of Color have done the cooking in the households and now White men are seeing a lot of success. Is that a fair criticism?

100%. Do you have any trepidation around your career and how you maneuver this space? It’s effective altruism. Judge your platform and where you're coming from, and decide … Am I better off ignoring my privilege or using my platform to work diligently to make the world a better place? I can better serve the company by opening more businesses and making a concerted effort to hire from disenfranchised communities.

Thomas Keller once said that food isn’t the point of a restaurant? Do you agree? To you, what is the point?

Community. Commodity. Socializing.