Jason bio (since Jason’s cooking all the time his doting spouse, Laura, took it upon herself to tell everyone about him)
Jason Sellers is one of those people I often envy for what appears to be an uncanny ability to do anything well. Here’s a case in point: we were hanging out at the Bywater with friends a few weeks ago. The Bywater is this really cool concept bar/recreation area on the French Broad River. I call it a kind of summer camp with booze: in addition to the bar, there’s about an acre of land with picnic tables, horseshoe and cornhole games, grills, and fire pits. You can bring your own food and grill out, sit by the river, play the games. You can bring your dog. You can tube down from the Wedge, climb out of the water, and head into the Bywater — at least that’s what a whole cadre of folks had done the day we were there. I haven’t tried it yet, but I will.
There’s a bimini ring toss game as well, the goal of which is to swing a ring tied to the end of a string in such a way that it lands on a hook attached to a wall. This is not an easy task. I stood there and threw the freaking ring over and over and never got it on the hook. Jason took one practice swing, then a second, then got the ring on the hook. And then did it over and over. In exasperated and highly competitive frustration, I gave up and got another beer.
So it’s this sort of thing that seems unnerving to me, Jason’s ability to do things with such seemingly little effort. But the truth is something altogether different — and the ring toss example works to explain it. I just kept throwing the ring, thinking that if I just threw it enough times, it would land on the hook. Which it didn’t. If it had, I would have then gone back and then tried to replicate the process by which I succeeded. And that’s kinda sloppy, no?
Not Jason. Jason’s the antithesis of sloppy. Jason measures everything that he does, and he weighs all the options before acting. He got that ring on the hook on the third try not only because he considered the problem of the ring and the hook — the weight of the metal in his hand, the length of the thread, and his position relative to the wall — before he let it go, but also because he paid careful attention to what he did wrong the first and second times; he doesn’t come at things backwards, doesn’t allow himself to continue to make errors. He gets it right because he takes getting it right very seriously — perhaps more so than anyone else I know. And once he gets it right, he keeps working to get it more right. He got the ring on the hook, but maybe he could get the ring on the hook with his eyes closed. Maybe he could get the ring on the hook using his non-dominant hand.
So back to Plant: Plant is vegan. Plant is a restaurant based on an ethical principle to which Jason adheres absolutely and to which his business partners, Leslie Armstrong and Alan Berger, adhere as well. And that ethic is, in fact, the driving impulse behind the place. Jason had been a long time vegetarian when I met him in 1997; we became vegan after we moved to Massachusetts in 1999. And Jason has always been a chef at heart, has always been interested in food and in the politics behind how and what we eat. He went to culinary school at the Natural Gourmet in Manhattan in 2004, and he worked in the city at Candle 79 before moving with me — very much against his heart’s desire to stay in New York — to Asheville, where he became head chef and kitchen manager at the Laughing Seed.
Jason has been working to get it right for a long time, and he’s succeeded in ways that seem inconceivable to me. And I should know: I’ve been present for the entirety of his culinary journey and before, when he was working in his masters in Linguistics at North Carolina State University and training Kung Fu, becoming the very badass salad-eating-vegan-who-can-put-you-through-a-wall. The food that he’s making now is the food he’s always wanted to make. It’s delicious, savory, entirely plant based, and incredibly refined in both presentation and flavor combinations. One of my friends declared, after eating lunch there today, that the space in which Jason works should be declared a holy pilgrimage site.
For Jason, getting it right is still something that can be improved upon; getting it right is just another place from which to start. And I can’t wait to see what happens now.
Jason’s first oven
Leslie always needs a new challenge and is – very obviously – impulsive and a risk-taker. Her undergrad degree is in political science and she took grad level courses in social work, special education, and counseling psychology. Her professional and volunteer path has been equally eclectic. She took late night desperate phone calls from sexual assault victims and joined them in the emergency and court rooms, helped guide criminal assault victims through the judicial maze, spoke up for children who were caught up in the system, and tried to keep families from letting a divorce destroy them all. She has also stood up and spoken out on many civil rights and social issues, including peace, veterans’ benefits, disarmament, nuclear power, and Bush impeachment. About 15 years ago, Leslie extended her advocacy tendencies to non-human animals and finally found her true life’s work.
As an animal advocate, she has tried every way possible to spread the word about this social justice cause, including writing letters to the editor and op-eds, conducting demonstrations and protests, making presentations, participating in informational tabling events, making vegan cookies, giving away vegan cookies, being a guest on radio shows, publishing a political cartoon, cleaning up pig, chicken, and goat poop, and doing some editing for a film production company. She’s now extremely hopeful that plant – with its amazing food and non-deprivation message – will do more to inspire and enlighten consumers than all of her other efforts combined.
Before plant took over her life, Leslie also occasionally found time to go to the movies with Alan, play with her friends, hike, meditate, and spend time with her two daughters, two step-daughters, and two perfect little crawling and toddling grandsons.
Alan has had a varied and interesting professional life. He’s an MBA and CPA but don’t let that fool you. He’s definitely not the stereotypical accountant-type. As a matter of fact, he only lasted a few years at one of the big eight accounting firms before he decided that there was more to life than ledgers. On a quest to learn and grow and experience, he taught at the college level, owned a small headhunting firm, ran his own firm doing taxes for a wide variety of oddballs in San Francisco, handled the finances for a famous music producer (even got to manage one of Santana’s concerts), ran a few different non-profits, including ones that dealt with domestic violence and wild life rehabilitation. For nine years, he ran a national animal advocacy group and became a respected leader in that field. In his spare time, he served on the boards of other non-profits including ones that dealt with such issues as visual impairment, AIDS, and homelessness.
Alan has two grown daughters and a grandson who all live in San Francisco. His older daughter Sasha is an interior designer who – despite annoying interference from Leslie and Alan – is largely responsible for plant’s elegant interior.
After living in San Francisco for most of his adult life, Alan moved to the east coast 8 years ago and in 2004 he and Leslie moved to Asheville. They owned and operated Rosebud Video Store on Charlotte Street for about five years and during that time, Alan became known around town as Mr. Rosebud (a title he secretly enjoyed). Alan came out of retirement and gave up his leisurely lifestyle of taking courses, bowling, and playing bridge and poker in order to create and manage plant. He always wanted to own a restaurant and, as a long time ethical vegan, is excited about being part of a business that reflects his belief system. Oh, and he’s thrilled to be eating Jason’s amazing food every day.
how the three of us came together to create plant
In 2004, Alan and I were living in Charleston, SC trying to figure out what our next life plan would be. Now some people (including me) might think that sitting on one’s screened porch watching the egrets and kayaking with dolphins in the waterway across from our house is sort of a swell life. But Alan lived in San Francisco for most of his life and after 18 months in the low-country of SC could not figure out a way to come to terms with blood-sucking insects and heavy hot sultry air (not to mention the political climate). So, since he moved to the east coast for me – I figured I could leave the dolphins and water birds (and most importantly my older daughter Lyndsay) and move to the mountains for him. Although I may have reminded him a few times that I made a big compromise for him, I knew I would love living in the freakiest town in the whole southeast (hell, I’d argue the whole damn country).
The plan was to move to Asheville and buy a small business to help pay the bills and pass the time. We looked at all sorts of profitable but boring opportunities (think bulk mail) but were more into finding something that was exciting and interesting (no one ever accused either of us of being money-motivated). Alan is a real foodie and has always wanted to run a restaurant and I thought selling vegan food would be a great way to be an activist. So we had the business broker show us what was available at the time. The only one that was in our price range was a nice little coffee shop. We thought it would be just the right size for us to manage by ourselves (what we lacked in experience we made up for in undeserved confidence). But after much mulling, we finally collected our wits and decided that owning a restaurant just wasn’t the right move for us at that very moment.
Instead, we bought a small independent video store on Charlotte Street and renamed it Rosebud (if you don’t know which famous film the name pays homage to – look it up). I threw out all the misogynistic slasher films and added an animal rights lending library and Alan made sure that Rosebud had in stock every important movie ever made in any language. (I constantly had to remind him we were a store and not a library.) We loved the customers who became friends and shared pieces of their lives with us, the conversations that were mostly downright radical , our staff who were like family, and the sense of community we felt each and every day (when walking around town, Alan beamed when someone called out to him, “Hey – there’s Mr. Rosebud”). But, after almost five years, we were ready to take a break and then move on to our next adventure.
That’s where Jason comes into the picture. A few years ago, we met him and his wife Laura and liked them both a lot and LOVED the vegan food that Jason created at The Laughing Seed. Then one night about three years ago I was in the Laughing Seed and Jason gave me a little of his coconut milk “ice cream” to try. For my whole life, I’ve been a frozen desert freak and consider myself quite the connoisseur. What Jason does with coconut milk and other choice ingredients, like mint and chocolate and hazelnut, is to absolutely die for and downright sinful. Before I even finished that first bowl of his concoction – I decided that somehow I had to join forces with this vegan genius. As it happened, Jason was wide open to suggestions about how he could grow and expand as a creator of vegan deliciousness and we began scheming and planning. Soon thereafter, Alan joined in our crusade and we decided not to limit ourselves to deserts but to explore all possibilities. During the past two years, we looked at (with varying degrees of seriousness) existing restaurants, rental property, food trucks, carts, and wholesale ventures. But nothing seemed to be just the right fit for what we wanted to do. A few times along the way, Alan and I got discouraged about ever finding the right opportunity in Asheville. And if it was winter when that happened….I pushed for a move back to warm sunny Charleston. But finally, finally, we found a spot that seemed like a true possibility. It wasn’t the perfect set up but close and we knew we could make it work. As a true Ashevillian, I must point out that the universe must want us to be at 165 Merrimon. This space used to house the coffee shop that Alan and I considered buying six years ago when we first moved to Asheville. What can I say…it was meant to be!