Community Over Commutes

Saluda-raised chef has made Purple Onion her own 

Lena Koenig knows a thing or two about hometown tastes.
Portrait by Karin Strickland

Being raised in a small town like Saluda, 26-year-old Lena Koenig, head chef at the Purple Onion, understands the importance of community. Her mother worked in the Wildflour Bakery just a few doors down from the restaurant where, today, Koenig is making her own culinary stamp. “She was one of the first people there at 3am, so we went with her,” recalls Koenig, who was homeschooled, along with her four siblings. “I would knead bread and do the cutting and bagging.”

Her father owned a solar company and was an avid cook himself, so she was constantly learning about fresh food. “My parents didn’t have a steady flow of income, but we didn’t act like it,” says Koenig. “My dad liked to garden, so he’d use things he had grown [to cook with]. We all worked together to create food for five.”

The Purple Onion’s philosophy is similar to that of Koenig’s family — to work as a team, or rather as a family, and get the job done efficiently. General Manager and chef Chambli Stuber, who trained Koenig, and Operations Coordinator Emily Lamar are in the process of purchasing The Purple Onion next year. Koenig and Stuber sat down with Bold Life to talk about running a foodie destination like a family restaurant.

You practically grew up at the Purple Onion …

Lena: All the kids [in Saluda] ran in the same group — even Chambli and I worked at the Wildflour Bakery together. She was an older cool kid there. Both of my sisters began working at the Purple Onion while I was serving and working as a garde manger [cold-food] cook at O’Charley’s. But I didn’t like the commute or working in a large establishment, so I came here. This place is great about seeing your potential and worth and helping you grow. 

Do you get to be inventive with your cooking here?

Lena: Honestly, when I cook at home, I think of simplicity and feeding my four-year-old son. As far as cooking in the restaurant goes, [we get] fresh produce and fish and other things that are fun to play with. We are a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant, but we also work with Asian, Southern, French, Italian, and Indian styles.

Chambli: We have a great connection with [local] farmers, gardeners, and fishermen. Frank, our fisherman on the NC coast, will text us on Tuesdays and tell us what he’s getting out of the ocean literally as he’s on the boat.

How do you get creative with fish?

Lena: If it’s going to be a lighter fish or sweeter meat, I’ll not go so heavy on the sides so that I can make the fish the focal point. We don’t want to mask the flavor, especially since it’s super fresh off the coast.

Where do you find inspiration?

Lena: Food & Wine magazines inspire me, as well as cooking shows. I just made a Posole soup from a recipe in a magazine, actually, [with] braised pork ribs and butt … it has hominy within it and is topped with fresh cilantro and lime juice.

Chambli: I had never thought of using ribs in the soup, but that’s what made it interesting to me. She also put lots of coriander. That’s our favorite spice, so it turned out amazing.

You seem familiar with food culture.

Lena: I was born in Monheim, Germany, where my dad is from. We have lived in the States for most of our lives, but we took school trips to Paris and Barcelona … most of everywhere in Europe. My parents thought it was important to see new places. They didn’t want us to be oblivious. 

Chambli: Her parents are inspirational. All of their kids are well educated, well traveled, and are hard workers with a great work ethic.

Any plans for culinary school?

Lena: Obviously, I do a good job at learning and making the food that I do without traditional schooling, but I’d like to have school under my belt to feed my curiosity and fill the need for knowledge. 

What’s something that most people don’t know about this place?

Chambli: Our kitchen is incredibly small. It’s 10 feet by 14 feet, and that includes the dishwashing station. We’ll have two dishwashers and two cooks, and 250 [orders] to complete in a four-hour shift. Lena cooks off of a 10-top burner and a four-deck pizza oven.

Lena: It makes us a tight-knit group, though. We get along because we have to.

The Purple Onion, 16 East Main St., Saluda. 828-749-1179.
www.purpleonionsaluda.com. For special inquiries and reservations, e-mail thepurpleonionsaluda@gmail.com.

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