Photos by Andrew Thomas Lee
In a newly renovated, decades-old gas station tucked in the bucolic Blue Ridge Mountains, Chef Patrick O’Cain is serving up food you would be more apt to find on a street corner in Chiang Mai, nevermind in a sleepy Southern mountain town. Gan Shan Station is just two miles from O’Cain’s childhood home –“Gan Shan” loosely translates to “Sunset Mountain” in Chinese, the Northern Asheville neighborhood where O’Cain grew up.
After cutting his teeth in Charleston under the tutelage of Chefs Jeremiah Langhorne and Daniel Heinze at McCrady’s, O’Cain was offered the opportunity to help open up Xiao Bao Biscuit as sous-chef. After a particularly grueling year opening the restaurant, the owners sent O’Cain on a three-week journey through Northern Thailand, Tokyo, and Taiwan to explore the regional cuisine. “That was my first time in Asia. Food is everywhere, from street corners to convenience stores. I was very surprised at how integrated food was in every facet of life there.”
But how does a rising chef in the heart of the low-country get hooked on Asian cuisines typically found in far-flung pockets of Queens? Surprisingly, it was a well-worn copy of a 1970s cookbook on Szechuan home cooking that sparked his initial interest in flavors of the East. “My uncle gave my parents Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook over forty years ago. My parents used it for all occasions. We had mapo doufu and Grand Duke’s Chicken with peanuts on a regular basis.” The menu at Gan Shan was inspired by his childhood favorites from Mrs. Chiang’s cookbook. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see the chefs walk around the restaurant with well-worn, Xeroxed copies of the cookbook for reference. It’s the unofficial bible.
The Blue Ridge Mountains are abundant with local resources of which O’Cain is passionate about using in the Gan Shan menu. “We have an organic miso producer, local mushroom farms, and nearby farmers who have been growing more and more Asian greens.” Within a forty-five minute drive, there is a burgeoning Laotian community that is growing heirloom sticky rice that Gan Shan is serving up in dishes such as Seared Wreckfish and Massaman Curry Chicken. “The difference between freshly-grown rice and the stuff you buy at the grocery store is just amazing. It’s a totally different experience.”
Gan Shan has also established itself as the go-to spot in Asheville for the freshest seafood in the area. “We’ve become a destination for locals who want the freshest fish in town.” O’Cain has maintained a strong relationship with Mark Marhefka, a renowned Charleston-based fisherman, who he first met running kitchens in South Carolina. O’Cain says, “If he doesn’t have fish that week, we’re not going to have fish on the menu, and that’s it. There is no middleman – we treat it with the utmost respect.”
The restaurant is housed in a sixty-year old gas station that’s been owned by the same family since the 1940’s. The former Gulf station was completely gutted and renovated to fit O’Cain’s open restaurant style vision. “I wanted an open kitchen — open space. I like to be able to see what’s going on in a restaurant, the activity, the smells from the kitchen. I think people are genuinely curious to see how a professional kitchen works. We’re a show, you come to a restaurant not just for the food, but for the experience.”
Gan Shan Station is located at 143 Charlotte St. in Asheville, NC