Raynard Walker is running a cottage industry in wings at DreadLife Kitchen in Edneyville. The Hendersonville native started with a home-based catering company and then launched a food truck before he opened his brick-and-mortar space last spring in a former diner along rural Chimney Rock Road.
On a Friday night about six weeks ago, the line for to-go wings stretched almost to the door, with some customers carrying out stacks of boxes as high as their heads (it was, after all, March Madness season: prime time for wings). DreadLife serves both fried wings and the smoked variety preferred by some connoisseurs, and they come in nine secret-recipe flavors, including three different sauces based around honey. Last spring, the restaurant won the Asheville Wing War’s “People’s Choice Award” in the traditional category.
And there is something deeply traditional about what Walker’s doing with DreadLife. The vibe is easy, ultra-casual, and marked by a strong wave of regulars. “Everywhere I go now,” says Walker, “people say, ‘Hey, you’re the wing guy!’” He emphasizes the realness of what he’s doing, including using local farm produce in season.
“Basically, you can’t pull up anywhere around here and get the same kind of food I’m serving. Everything is authentic. Nothing is canned, ever.”
The DreadLife influence is marinated in family at every turn. Walker says he was 14 by the time he got to know his dad. So when he had his own son, Tykel Landrum, soon after, when he was only 15, he was determined to change the pattern, including working hard to manifest his culinary career.
“We grew up together,” says Walker, who’s hugely proud of his son’s accomplishments: Tykel was a star football player at Hendersonville High — “he was WNC’s best-ever receiver; you can look it up” — and now plays for Wingate University. (Walker also has an 11-year-old son.)
Family is also responsible for Walker’s recipes, though he always adds his own twists. He says he got to know Caribbean food because of women in his family, aunts and sisters, who dated Jamaican guys. Relatives from his father’s side are based in Florida, and they source him his spices from the islands
Jamaica’s flag colors are painted on the restaurant’s exterior and interior, and portraits of Bob Marley grace each side door, maintaining the title theme. But it’s definitely not the high-concept surge of, say, the Nine Mile juggernaut in Asheville. There aren’t any $10 rum cocktails on the menu at DreadLife, for instance; instead, the alcohol-free establishment is known for its sweet tea.
At heart, this is an old-fashioned soul-food place. Walker says his mother gave him a foundation in the Southern staples on the menu. “She always used to think she could cook better than me,” he jokes. But now, when she tastes one of his dishes, her approval suggests that he’s taken the lead.
At DreadLife, the prices are low and most dishes are piled high. The fried catfish nuggets with homemade tartar sauce are extremely satisfying, as good as any you’d find in a Gulf Coast fish house. The usual Friday-night seafood special is crab legs, but on this night, Walker’s rich, spicy Jerk marinade made its way onto salmon steak, too. (He also offers this classic flavor as a dry rub.)
Walker’s different flavors of wings are remarkably distinct, garlic parmesan being a highlight. Caribbean plantains are on the appetizer list, and so are such old-school Deep South sides as fried corn. The kids’ grilled-cheese sandwich is perfectly buttery from crust to crust, a seemingly minor point, but important nonetheless: the quality of any homestyle restaurant begins with its treatment of this basic item.
Walker is a savvy entrepreneur who doesn’t limit himself, and the menu features many all-American favorites. The Philly cheesesteak, which can be customized with chicken in three sauce flavors, is frequently mentioned in online reviews, and the loaded salad plates, including one with steak, are served with homemade ranch dressing. The chef/owner also does beef brisket and other classic barbecue, and his weekly specials include such detours as a Taco Tuesday and a Pasta Thursday. The South’s quintessential dessert, banana pudding, makes the regular menu, and sometimes homemade cake.
Down time is rare. When he’s not running the new restaurant, Walker still operates his catering business and his in-demand food truck.
“It’s a headache,” he admits. “It is. But somehow I manage to make it all happen.”
DreadLife Kitchen, 3591 Chimney Rock Road, Edneyville. Hours are Tuesday and Wednesday, 11am-8pm, and Thursday through Saturday, 11am-9pm. Catering is available within a 40-mile radius. For more information, call 828-595-9528 or check out Dreadlife Kitchen on Facebook or at dreadlifekitchen.wixsite.com/mysite.