The Bistro: The House That Meatloaf Built

In 2010, business partners Scott Mastej and Ron LaRocque launched The Cork and Bean Coffee Shop in the historic Bryson City Bank building. 2013 saw a rebranding as the Cork and Bean Bistro, with a full restaurant menu; "kind of a mountain social house and eatery," says Mastej.

And then in 2015 the business partners opened the a boutique hotel just upstairs in the same building. Today the combined establishments are known as the Everett Boutique Hotel & Bistro. For the kitchen of their sophisticated Bistro, LaRocque and Mastej recruited a heavy hitter.

Chef Neil Ravenna was born in Vermont, and attended culinary school in upstate New York. By age 30, he had earned the position of Executive Chef at the University of Alabama. During his nearly two decades there, Ravenna also served as director of a culinary school focused on preserving Southern cooking and culture. Even then, Ravenna found himself in greater demand. "Chambers of Commerce would put on 'How to Open a Bed and Breakfast' presentations," he recalls, "And I would do the food part." He lectured expertly on sustainability topics and sourcing local food.

After time spent as a personal chef in Miami, Ravenna was ready for a change. "I missed Vermont, but I didn't want an eight-month winter," he says with a laugh. In 2015 he was thrilled to discover Bryson City and the Bistro. Revealing his independent and creative streak, he explains, "It's perfect because it's not a corporate gig. The Bistro is privately owned, so it was a blank palette where I could do whatever I wanted to do."

That mindset meshes well with Scott Mastej's approach. A former Coca-Cola executive, he too longed for the excitement and freedom that comes with independence. And when he made the jump, it was momentous; without prompting, he recalls the date. "I left corporate America on June 25, 2005." Initially he and LaRocque opened a rustic furniture store in Bryson City, but when the former bank building became available, they took another leap, this time into coffee and wine. "And it just grew from there," he says with a proud smile.

Ravenna says that there are definite Southern overtones to the Bistro's menu, but only as a starting point. "Our cuisine has been described as 'Southern food, turned on its side,'" he says. The menu changes seasonally, and Ravenna encourages his kitchen staff ("most everybody that I have in the kitchen has been to culinary school and/or doing this for a long time," he says) to come up with ideas. Recipes start with something relatively familiar, but then the chef makes inspired ingredient changes that take the dishes (and their flavors) to unexpected places.

"We put an étouffée on the menu," he explains, "But it's not a traditional étouffée." The Bistro's take on the beloved Cajun dish features a sausage made of smoked duck breast, wild boar and cranberry right alongside the more traditional andouille sausage. "It's served with brown in stead of white rice, and I put a rosemary and red pepper shortbread -- with red pepper jam -- on top of it," Ravenna says. "I take a recipe and make it my own, changing some of the ingredients to fit our locale."

Though a typical home cook might take slight issue with the assertion, Ravenna characterizes the Bistro's signature entrees as "nothing complicated." But his approach is clearly diner-focused. "I don't dictate what the trends are," he insists. "The public does that." He and Mastej laugh conspiratorially when asked to name the Bistro's most-requested entree. "The House that meatloaf built" is how they refer to the restaurant. The Bistro's meatloaf uses humanely-raised and -processed Creekstone beef, local sausage, lamb and bison, all wrapped in nitrate-free, applewood-smoked bacon. It's drizzled with a sweet red sauce, and the elevated-traditional plate is finished with hand-mashed red baby potatoes and grilled green beans. "Simple, comfort food," beams Ravenna.

The Bistro's preparation of local rainbow trout is also massively popular. Whenever possible, the Bistro features locally-sourced yields from the regions farmers, brewers, distillers and other food and beverage artisans.

Scott Mastej lists some of the Bistro's guiding principles. "Starting with as few as possible ingredients, keeping them as local as possible, using organics when possible," he says. Ultimately, the goal is for the guest to "have the closest relationship with the food as they can, as if they were making it from scratch themselves."

"I cook for the aww," Ravenna says. "I want a customer to smile and say, 'Aww!'"

"Our slogan is 'Eat with integrity and live with gratitude,'" Mastej says. "And Neil lives that every day with the kitchen."

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