A NYC Chef Falls Hard for an Appalachian String Musician and Together They Build a Destination Cooking School in the Mountains of North Carolina
Ariel and Sebastiaan Zijp at their The Farmer’s Hands cooking school in Mars Hill, NC
It was a sunny spring morning when Urban Exodus visited Ariel and Sebastiaan Zijp at their The Farmer’s Hands cooking school, farm and homestead in the lush mountains of Madison County, North Carolina. Ariel’s parent’s greeted us and then went back to helping build a new outdoor kitchen for their summer workshops and events. Chickens were happily scratching about, Sebastiaan’s 16 varieties of garlic were beginning to erupt from the soil after their long winter’s nap and the intoxicating aroma of fresh blossoms clung to the air. Touring their two acres, it is easy to see the hard work and sweat equity they’ve put into their 150-year-old farmstead in the four years they’ve owned it.
Ariel and Sebastiaan met in the old-time string band music circuit in the early 2000s. Ariel was taught string music as a child, a tradition in her Appalachian community. Sebastiaan, born in Africa to Dutch parents, learned to play traditional string band music while working as a chef in New York City. Working 80+ hours a week, string music became Sebastiaan’s way to unwind and relax. At a string music festival in North Carolina, Sebastiaan locked eyes with Ariel and they formed an instant connection. Over the next couple of years, in and out of relationships, they sent hundreds of letters to one another. Their pen pal status hadn’t taken a turn towards the romantic, but when Sebastiaan began dreaming of leaving NYC behind he couldn’t shake the feeling that he needed to move to North Carolina to be closer to Ariel. It wasn’t long after Sebastiaan moved to Asheville that he and Ariel realized their destiny was with one another. Working another stressful chef job in Asheville, the couple began dreaming of building a business together and escaping from the rapidly growing city.
They knew that Asheville, with its established local food scene, would make it difficult to draw customers to a place in the rural reaches. They would have to build something unique and special that was still close enough to the city to benefit from Asheville’s foodie tourism. Their farm, located in mountains north of Asheville, was in rough shape when they bought it but they saw the potential. They wasted no time and tilled up their lawn, built garden beds, planted flowers, herbs, fruit trees and vegetables and started raising chickens, ducks, rabbits and honeybees. They pride themselves on following sustainable and organic practices and living and learning from the land.
Ariel and Sebastiaan restored the farmhouse themselves, with help from their parents and continue to make expansions as their business grows.
With only a handful of cooking schools in the area, The Farmer’s Hands offers farm-to-table cooking classes, monthly themed suppers and hosts small weddings and events. Their summer season suppers are served family-style outside in the garden to 30 guests and their more intimate plated winter suppers host eight guests. About 90% of the food served at their suppers and used in their cooking classes is grown onsite. The remaining 10% they try their best to source locally from other farms. In September of 2018, several months after we visited, Ariel and Sebastiaan welcomed their son Oliver into the world. It was serendipitous timing, as he arrived during their slow-down into winter. Now that their dinners are booking out months in advance, they are working on further developing the cooking school element of their business. Success has come quickly to this hardworking couple. Their shared vision for an oasis where people can come to eat amazing locally-grown food and learn how to cook delicious meals using fresh ingredients has come into focus.
Why did you decide to leave the city?
Sebastiaan lived in NYC for 8 years as a professional chef. He decided to leave the city because he was tired! Some weeks were 100 hours long, 6 days a week, no time off, no sunshine, and on his days off, all he could do was sleep and do laundry. Not exactly a sustainable existence.
Why did you choose Madison County, NC?
We both were drawn to the Asheville area for the amazing local food scene and Appalachian String Band music. Ariel got her Bachelor's Degree at Warren Wilson College, 10 minutes from Asheville, and during that time met Sebastiaan at a music festival in West Virginia. They both became friends and eventually through months of writing daily letters to each other, Sebastiaan decided to move to Asheville to be closer to her, the music and the food. About 10 months later they bought their homestead together in Madison County. They both love the Asheville region but wanted to be a little farther out, so they could have a small farm and be a part of a rural farming community, while still having the art, music and food scene of Asheville.
What was the hardest part about making the transition from city to small town?
Honestly, when I made the transition from city to country, I was so incredibly over city life, that there really wasn’t a “hard part”. I had gotten everything I could from my time in the city, and I was more than ready to move on.
How have your professional lives changed since moving away from the city?
When you own your own business and are starting it from scratch, everything is Small Scale. Unlike my time in the city, there is no restaurant marketing budget, manager, chef and owner. We are doing everything ourselves, and while that can be stressful, you are no longer dealing with those difficulty restaurant owners that want a say in every menu, or the hot head chef. You are in total control of decisions and the scale that you want to be at and that's a beautiful thing.
What roles do you and your partner play in your business? Do you advice for couples considering building a business together?
Ariel works off farm full-time as a farmland preservation coordinator for Buncombe County Soil and Water, and the farm business is Sebastiaan’s main job. We work together as a team growing food, flowers and herbs and hosting our farm dinners and cooking classes. For our events, Sebastiaan is the food aspect, and Ariel is the aesthetics/quality control. It works really well to have found this division of labor, and if either of us is in a time crunch we both pitch in.
As far as advice? Be patient, be kind, be fair, and always communicate with each other, no matter how hard the conversation might be. Have a special time for business discussions, try to make a separation between business and free-time and don’t forget to find time to play and relax. It can be really hard to work with your partner, but when you create something amazing together it's even more rewarding because you can share in that success together.
What inspired you to start your cooking school?
When we started doing farm to table dinners on the property, people were really excited about Sebastiaan’s cooking and constantly asked him how he was making some of the dishes. Ariel noticed that while explaining Sebastiaan was very calm, patient and well spoken with his answers and that they were very well received by our guests. We loved the idea of growing quality food, but more importantly teaching people delicious ways to prepare the abundance of local food we have available in our region. There are so many culinary talents and traditions that are lost over generations and Sebastiaan has the passion to keep these traditions and skills alive. Through starting our cooking school, we hope to make cooking fun, teach about quality ingredients, skills and techniques (not just recipes) and create a community experience.
What are some things you had to learn the hard way about running your own business(es)?
We tried everything the first year, way too much, and then figured out what our strengths were and what was our niche. We did farmers market, CSA, farmstand, farm to table dinners, airbnb, you-pick flowers etc. Then we cut back to what actually works, based on our own happiness, time management, as well as feedback from guests. We found our niche to be farm tours, farm dinners, and cooking classes and its bloomed and grown since then. It's important for partners to know their roles in the business,
What do you appreciate most about the life you’ve created here?
For our personal life, we love getting to work with our hands, grow our own food and medicine, cook our own food, and share that with our friends and community. We love the therapeutic aspects of this lifestyle, just the beauty of walking through the gardens, harvesting herbs, and picking flowers. Living this way has dramatically increased our quality of life, our appreciate for the natural world and our relationship to food.
On the business side of things---Getting to be my own boss is amazing but requires great self-discipline and organization. I also find that having full control of what I do unbelievably satisfying.
Is there anything you miss about living in a more urban area?
Although Asheville has a pretty great food scene, the food in NYC was just so diverse and so amazing. I had three outstanding Ramen shops within walking distance from my apartment, not to mention the amazing Indian, Korean, Japanese, Thai, Ethiopian and many many other ethnic cuisines that are not represented here.
Would you ever consider moving back to a big city?
No, we love the peace and quiet. We love the stars, the lightning bugs, the birds and the fresh air. We love the slow pace, and have found that even on our vacations we prefer small towns and countryside to spend our downtime.
What advice do you have for people who want to leave the city but don’t know how to start planning their exit strategy?
If you are thinking about leaving, take a transitional time, do something you’ve always wanted to do and that will help you figure out your next step. Sebastiaan left the city and worked on a farm for a year, and that was such a transformative year-- that left him excited and ready for the next step.
Did you have any experience growing food prior to moving here?
Sebastiaan was born in Africa and lived there until he was 7. His father was an agriculturalist for the Dutch government, so they were stationed all around Africa on different agricultural projects. Sebastiaan took a year sabbatical on a farm in Pennsylvania, raising pigs and growing vegetables.
Ariel grew up on a small organic vegetable farm in Concord, NC run by her parents. She started her own operation in high school, then worked went to Warren Wilson College and worked on the college vegetable and herb garden. During the summers and after graduation, Ariel worked on a variety of farms ranging from herb to flower to vegetable operations in the Asheville area.
What advice would you give to someone interested in growing their own food?
Start small, learn how to do a hand full of things really well and then expand. Don’t grow things you don’t love, and dont do so much that you get overwhelmed. Otherwise you might not have any fun growing food, and therefore not try again. Remember that nature is a crazy, beautiful, unpredictable and uncontrollable source-- there will be losses, there will be freezes and life will go on. Take time to appreciate the process and all the plants and critters involved.
Do you notice a trend of young people wanting to leave city life behind? If yes, why do you think that is?
We are definitely noticing a large trend of people moving within Western North Carolina, leaving the city and searching for a small scale homemade life. People are moving away because they feel the need for community. From my experience, a city can be the loneliest place on earth, everybody is in their own little world, keeping their heads down, and not really connecting with people. Since we have moved away from the city, we have a huge community of friends and neighbors, and that feels amazing!
What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities?
Living the good life is still hard work. The hours are long, finances are tight, and it's not as glamorous as everyone's instagram looks….That being said, we love it! We love driving down the road to our friends farm and hanging out on the back porch until the sunsets. We love the small town mindset of supporting the local country hardware store or diner, and we love slowly gaining the trust of the elders in the community. We were the first to own our home outside of the original family that built the house (165 years ago), and initially we were unsure how we would be received by the community. The first spring, we tilled up our lawn and started a large kitchen garden, our neighbors would drive by slowly and wonder what we were up to. This caused a lot of community members to pull in and ask us about ourselves and what we were doing. We gained a lot of respect this way, and became accepted into the little community. I think when coming into a small rural community, you need to tread with respect and be open to learning from the elders in the community. For us, it's been imperative to living happily on our little farm.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
This year we are expanding the cooking school aspect of the business, offering classes 2-3 times a week throughout the year. We are on a weekly farm tour called “Asheville Farm to Table tours”, and received a grant to build an agri-tourism event structure. The structure will allow us to have large outdoor cooking classes in within April-October without the threat of rain. We will also be able to host events, and other community events on farm with the use of this structure. We are working on rebranding and increasing our marketing.
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