Growing up in Spartanburg, SC, Aaron Edwards got his first restaurant job at the original Fatz Café. Though he started as a dishwasher, 18-year-old Edwards fell in love with the industry, and began working full time in corporate-style restaurants. His first job as a chef outside of that world was in Italian-style cuisine at Giardini Trattoria in Columbus, NC, learning from Jenny Partin, a chef who had previous experience in California at Michelin-starred establishments. Her husband Stuart Partin, who met Edwards at a consultation for pastry work, became another mentor.
After many overlaps in their careers, Stuart, then head chef at the Orchard Inn in Saluda, gave his opening position as sous chef to Edwards. Now, almost four years later, Edwards is the Inn’s executive chef.
How did you come so far, so fast?
When you have a good skill, it doesn’t take long.
What do you serve at the Orchard Inn?
It’s a high-end bed and breakfast that serves new American food. I’ve created Asian-style dishes, Italian style … I try to focus heavily on menu items that are in season. Right now, everything is starting to pop off [in local gardens], so we have had beautiful produce coming in. When I sit down to write the menu every week, I base it on what’s in season. Sometimes I use ingredients all month if they’re still available. I just had strawberries all over the menu for the past month, and asparagus because that was in season, too. Next, I’m working with peaches and squash. … I’ve been having more farmers show up at our door with truckloads of beautiful produce. I’ll get grains from one guy, sugar-snap peas from another.
Why is Italian your favorite?
It’s where I got started [at Giardini Trattoria]. I have always enjoyed making pasta and am especially good at risotto. To me, it’s absolutely beautiful, simple, and you get better the more you do it. I agitate the grains to release more starch, which creates a creamy rice without having to add fat.
How are you liking your unexpected career choice?
Honestly, it’s one of the best times ever to be a chef. The sheer volume of recipes, television shows, and documentaries helps so much. I’ve always been a bookworm, so I am constantly reading something and learning new tricks. … [But] I don’t even have my own recipe book — just a library in my head. Usually, I start with an ingredient, [which] leads to the next, until I have a full dish prepared. I do take into consideration the way it looks on a plate, but it’s my personal philosophy that taste is number one. Everything else is secondary.
You mentioned that you like to watch cooking shows. Who inspires you most?
When I first took the job in Columbus, I watched a lot of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” — every single episode. He changed the entire game. He made chefs cool.
What does your future look like?
I can’t imagine getting out of this game. The nice thing is, when you know how to cook, you’re guaranteed a job for the rest of your life.
Newman’s Restaurant at Orchard Inn, 100 Orchard Inn Lane, Saluda. 828-749-5471. www.orchardinn.com.