Meet Asheville's unlikely culinary superhero
Stu Helm was enjoying a successful career as a fine artist, illustrator and graphic designer. Then he got hungry. Championing the remarkable farm-to-table, Southern Appalachian, international food scene in the small city of Asheville, the Food Fan’s restaurant reviews garnered a ravenous following that he parlayed into food tours, podcasts and competitions. Fair warning: Stu ain’t your typical food critic, far from it.
Heads Lifestyle: How did you become a food critic?
Stu Helm: I started writing about food at the request of my friends here in Asheville, NC, where our local food scene has been growing bigger and better for years. I was trying all the new restaurants and my friends asked me to review them on Facebook. They liked my write-ups, encouraged me to find a publisher, and a guy named Jason Sanford of the notorious Ashvegas.com news and rumour blog published them, and it took off from there!
Stu Helm: The Food Fan Brundays flyer.
HL: Who in your life sparked your interest in food?
SH: My parents had an interest in good restaurants and international food. They would bring my sister and I to some pretty nice places even when we were still young. More recently, my girlfriend Dawn and I have discovered a love of great food and restaurants together.
I started writing about food at the request of my friends here in Asheville, NC, where our local food scene has been growing bigger and better for years.
HL: As a bit of a Renaissance man—you’re an artist, writer and podcaster—how did your talents combined to create the Food Fan?
SH: For a while, I illustrated my own food reviews. These days, I use my art and design experience to make my own logos and flyers for the various food-related events that I've produced, like the Asheville Coffee Expo, the Asheville Pie Fight, and Punk Rock Hot Dogs. I was lucky enough to do a podcast for two years that was also broadcast locally on public radio. It was a great way for me to cover much more of the food scene than by writing about it alone. I interviewed tons of people and got a reputation as someone who was fun and entertaining, and cared about good food! The podcast helped me to transition into doing food tours in downtown Asheville, which is maybe the best gig that anyone could ever have.
Ashville's 2018 Mac'N'Cheese competition poster.
HL: Asheville, North Carolina has become known for its vibrant food scene. How did this come to be?
SH: That's a long, complicated story, but I can try to condense it by saying that it's always been a town in which the surrounding family-owned, small scale farms have played a major role, and still do. I personally think it's the most authentic farm-to-table food scene in the country. Restaurateurs are on a first-name basis with the farmers who walk in the front doors of their venues with bushel baskets of fresh local produce, or who invite the restaurant owners to come inspect their livestock, just twenty minutes or so outside of downtown. Further, I would say that it's a Southern food scene, an Appalachian food scene, and an international food scene all concentrated into one very small, very cool city. I also have to give credit to the craft beer scene which opened up the whole wide world to Asheville, and brought hungry people with somewhat refined tastes, and a desire to try new things to our city.
I personally think it's the most authentic farm-to-table food scene in the country.
HL: You’ve made a name for yourself with your Asheville food tours. What is your most memorable food tour experience?
SH: Bar none, the time a guy stepped aside to adjust his colostomy bag. He was a great guy, and I gave him cover while he took care of business, and it all went smooth. That is something I will never forget. Even my boss, Paddy, said that was a new one on him, and the company is over a decade old!
Brisket sandwich from Isa's Bistro, Asheville, NC
HL: You’re not exactly what most people would expect in a traditional food guide. How do people react when they first meet you for a tour?
SH: Ha! You mean because I have a skull tattooed on my neck and I swear like a sailor? Yeah, no, sometimes people seem put off at first, but I'm a friendly person, and I make a lot of really bad jokes along the way on the tours, plus I feed them and pour booze down their throats, so they love me by the end. Little old ladies give me hugs, and bachelorette parties want me in their group pictures. I'm not even kidding.
Little old ladies give me hugs, and bachelorette parties want me in their group pictures. I'm not even kidding.
HL: Judging by your social media channels, you appear to be eating constantly. How do you not wear XXXL by now?
SH: Scientists will be debating that for centuries after my death.
HL: Do you cook or just eat?
SH: I love to cook, and I'm good at it too, according to the reviews!
2018 Asheville Coffee Expo flyer.
HL: You’ve never been shy about your cannabis consumption. What are your thoughts on pairing weed and great food? What about edibles?
SH: I live in a prohibition state, so it's still underground, but that doesn't mean it's hard to find weed or edibles. Of course, one of the reasons I love food so much is because I have a pretty much permanent case of the munchies. As for edibles, if they taste like ass, which they sometimes do, I'm like, Whoa, why would you do that to a cookie? Or weed? Other times, they taste great and I'm like, Yum, gummy worms, and now I'm high as fuck. I know a guy who knows a guy who makes some chocolate truffles that are dangerously tasty, if you know what I mean. I'll be eatin' 'em, like, Fuck, yeah, gimme another bon-bon, Hon, and then I'll be asleep for the next ten to twenty hours. I once ate a "cancer pop" from Colorado that had me on a cloud for three days, no exaggeration. Best three days of my life. So, yeah, if they taste good, and get me high, then I'm all about the edibles. Gim.
One of the reasons I love food so much is because I have a pretty much permanent case of the munchies.
HL: North Carolina is lagging in the legalization process even though 80% of voters support medical cannabis. What’s going on? What are your hopes for the future?
SH: I'm so sad and distraught about so many things right now. We live in the most fucked-up version of America I've ever seen in my 53 years on this planet, and I honestly have no idea what's going on. Among my many hopes for the future is that Donald Trump will soon be in jail, and everyone ever convicted of a cannabis-related crime will soon be out.
2019 Asheville Pie Fight Winner poster.
HL: Do you modify your tours if you know that your clients are burners? Any plans for cannabis-friendly tours once legal?
SH: Occasionally, we'll chat about weed on the tour. I point out the local headshop, which is on the tour route, and pretend that I don't know what happens inside. I hear they sell pipes, and maybe incense. The tour patrons all laugh, because, duh, I'm obviously blazed at all times, and then if there are any potheads on the tour, we might chat after that. And yes, one day, for sure, I will do stoner food tours. Get baked, eat things. Fuck yes!
One day, for sure, I will do stoner food tours. Get baked, eat things. Fuck yes!
HL: You’ve recently been doing food competitions. What’s that all about?
SH: Chefs love to compete! Here in Asheville a VIP named Kelly Denson has been hosting several large food fights for many years, including The Battle of the Burger and The Wing War. The restaurants compete, and a panel of judges, as well as, the public get to vote for their favourites, and awards are given out to the winners. They're a real good time, and a super-important part of our food scene. Well, the people and the restaurants wanted more, but Kelly had her hands full, so I stepped in and did some much smaller scale competitions for donuts, pizza, mac 'n' cheese, pimento cheese, pie, hot dogs, and more. They're fun, and filling, and we always raise a little money for a non-profit of one kind or another.
Grilled Shrimp from Buxton Hall Barbecue, Asheville, NC
HL: If you were a dish, what would you be?
SH: Good lord. Wellll… If I was a dish, I guess I would be a nice steak, with some bone marrow and a deep brown jus. Actually, that's totally possible! When I die, you have my permission to make me into that dish. This interview is my new Living Will.
HL: Heads was always one of your biggest fans. Tell us a little about Cheesy Graphics and why you made the move away from illustration and design towards food?
SH: Thanks, man! I appreciate you! The weird fact is that after a lifetime of drawing pictures compulsively, and over twenty years of doing it for a living, the muses just stopped singing one day. Boom! I had no more desire to create visual art. Zero! It was tough on me emotionally, to be honest, but food writing was already there for me, and has been one of the most fun and interesting career paths I ever could have stumbled down. Very recently, I've started a new writing project that does involve some visual art and design aspects to it, so maybe the muses haven't gone completely silent.
HL: Can we expect any Stu Helm Food Fan branded cookware in the future? Or Food Fan branded cannabis?
SH: Ha! Who knows?! I'm open to any and all marketing ideas, so shoot 'em way!
HL: What’s next?
SH: I'm currently working with Ashvegas and Shay Brown Events for the second live Asheville Food Fan Awards, in which I give out awards and accolades to the great people and places that comprise our local hospitality industry. After that, I'll start planning Punk Rock Hot Dogs 2020, which is my personal favourite food competition. In July of 2019, Chef Steve Goff of the AUX Bar won with his GG Allin-themed Toilet Dog. It doesn't get much better than that!
Stu Helm: The Food Fan.
"Stu Helm was born in 1966 in New Bedford Massachusetts, and has lived in Boston, Chicago, and now resides in Asheville, North Carolina. He has a BFA from the Art Institute of Boston, and worked as a fine artist, illustrator, and graphic designer for over 20 years, before making the switch to being a food blogger. Since 2013, Stu has been writing and taking pictures of the remarkable farm-to-table, Southern Appalachian, international food scene in the small city of Asheville, where he has become a very popular and recognizable independent media figure. Stu's reviews reflect his upbringing and sense of humor, and come with an adult language warning. His photos of food have been described as "beautiful," "epic," and "monolithic." He is very active on Facebook and Instagram as Stu Helm Food Fan, as well as on his web site stuhelmfoodfan.com"
Editor’s note: Our relationship with Stu goes way back to Heads’ print days when he created one of our most popular medical marijuana covers: In Case of Emergency Smoke Grass, illustrated numerous articles, served on our panel of cannabis experts for The Weed You Need, and created our all-time favourite burner, The Caveman. Heads wouldn’t have been Heads without the soul-affirming infusion of Stu’s humour and creativity.