A Ramble Through the Kitchen


What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up—like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore—And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags—like a heavy load. Or does it explode? 

“Harlem” by Langston Hughes, 1951

Written by Cody Owens; Photography by Beau Gustafson

It’s 6:30 p.m. and Ashley Tarver is nursing the tequila shot she ordered half an hour ago. There was some confusion earlier when she asked for a tall soda water with lime as a chaser but the bartender brought her a mixed drink of tequila, soda water and lime which she politely declined and set aside. The condensation from the mistakenly made drink is now collecting at the edge of the bar where Tarver is seated. She reaches down and dabs the puddle with the napkin she had used to wipe away a few tears that had fallen as she was speaking to someone she just met about a dream deferred.

She’s telling him about the interior paint color, the would-be menu, the website (which is still online) and all the other minutia that goes into opening a new restaurant that was already done when she received a call from her business partner informing her that he was pulling out of their deal.

“Just like that,” she says, snapping her fingers. “The money was gone.”

Prior to that phone call, everything  had seemed to be on an upward curve. Tarver had already built a formidable infused olive oil company—Copper Pot Kitchen, which is still thriving—from the ground up. Entering into an agreement with the restaurateur seemed to be the next, thrilling step.

The Mediterranean-inspired restaurant, Za’taar Bar & Kitchen, was slated to open in Pepper Place this year. Suffice to say the hurt is not gone, she says, peeling back a disarming smile. But despite a few sullen moments that one can expect when recounting tough details about their recent life, she’s in relatively high spirits. Tarver finishes the tequila shot and the smile sticks. She orders another to have before dinner. She’s a rambler—one who’s never stayed down or in one place for long.

“People just assume that since the restaurant fell through it’s ok to just say, ‘Now it’s on to the next thing, you’ll be alright.’ It’s coming from a good place, but still,” Tarver says, choosing her words carefully. “People don’t realize the death of a business is like a death of a person. There’s all this stuff you have to clean up afterwards. I’m still dealing with that… Lamps! Like, what the hell do I do with all these lamps?”

The Road Around the Globe

When she arrives at Little Donkey shortly after 6 p.m. she sits at the end of the bar. She’s there to tell her story about what it’s like to try and open a restaurant in Birmingham, a city that has recently seen an uptick in accolades from prominent publications (see: Zagat, The New York Times, etc.) that label it things like, “a foodie destination,” and “America’s next hot food city.”

Tarver grew up in Vestavia and had no interest in ever working in a kitchen. She can’t recall what she first started cooking for herself, but she remembers her grandmother’s twice-baked potatoes, which she still cooks around the holidays.

She attended Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., where she studied Spanish language and literature. She says it was probably Gabriel García Márquez that sparked her love affair with Spain and its cuisine when she first read his novel, Love in the Time of Cholerain college. She reads it time after time. “It was inevitable, the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love,” she says, reciting from memory one of her favorite passages.

“This guy’s unrequited love led him to take his own life with cyanide, which smells like almonds. It’s always just stuck with me. No matter what it is that doesn’t love you back, can kill you,” Tarver says. “It reminds me to put everything you can into whatever you do and love what you do…Everything I’ve done has been a project of love.” She’s a romantic.

After college, Tarver started work at a literacy nonprofit in Washington D.C. as a case manager. “It was the best year of my life in that I had this cushy job and all my work was done by, oh, 11 a.m.,” she says. This was 2007. But there was something missing.

“I made myself sit down and write a list of everything I loved, (and) the overarching theme was entertaining. In D.C. cooking with friends made me happy.”

When she was 25 she started looking into cooking school, but didn’t want to commit to a three-year program. She found an “intense” one-year program in Buenos Aires, Argentina “by just Googling ‘international cooking school.’” Her parents had paid to put her through Rhodes, but Tarver was on the hook for her year at Mausi Sebess. “It provided a sense of confidence, but looking back I’ll always tell people that cooking school is bull— and the best way to learn is to just go get a job in a kitchen somewhere and work your way up and learn all you can,” she says. After her year in Argentina it was off to Spain. “I never have a plan. I just go do it.”

A Dutch friend of hers was working in a kitchen in San Sebastian that provided workers with room and board, so she decided to look for something similar. She emailed several Michelin three-star restaurants. She got a job at Restaurante Martín Berasategui, which she says was the best and worst experience of her life, but mostly the worst. “I know it sounds bad but I had never had to mop a floor before,” she recalls. “I remember showing up to the place with my giant American suitcase and no one is expecting me. There’s no office. They’re just busting it out. I just fling open the door and I see a girl and I tell her I’m here to work. She didn’t know what to do with me so she points me to Jefes de Cocina (Chef). I was a deer in the headlights with a suitcase. It was brutal.”

It’s 6:45 p.m. at the bar and Tarver continues to regale someone she’d just met with tales of her 6’5” Nigerian mentor  “who was a real S.O.B.”, the hierarchy of a male-dominated profession, living in cramped apartments with six men who would pee out the windows, moving to Morocco for several months to see if she could make it. Long story short, she’s worked in world-renown kitchens—including Highlands Bar and Grill—for the better part of a decade honing her craft, “happily stumbling from one place to the next, loving life as best (I) can.”

The Infused Oils

There’s something about the precision, the amount of thought and care that goes into each plate of food, and the gratification of the plate making its way to a table to be enjoyed, that has Tarver hooked. “It’s not like a project you’re working on in ‘Paper World.’ It’s something you just made with your hands and it fills something in me,” she says. “And it’s something that forces me to constantly learn and better myself. There’s no standing s“Everything has its time,” she says, now walking out to the parking lot. “I wanted to do something with my brain…I don’t even know where it came from, but I just had this idea to start making infused olive oils.”

v51a1676-edit-edit“Everything has its time,” she says, now walking out to the parking lot. “I wanted to do something with my brain…I don’t even know where it came from, but I just had this idea to start making infused olive oils.”

Even though she’s a little murky on the details of the origin story, this fact remains: the olive oil company she’s built, Copper Pot Kitchen, can be found in 300 locations, from Whole Foods to Sprouts, all after humble beginnings at the Pepper Place Farmers Market. She says she wants to go to Nepal next year as she pops the trunk of her SUV and reveals dozens of boxes of her product.

Ten years from now I promise you I won’t be in a cubicle. It’s a big world with a lot of opportunity,” Tarver says. “Everything in my life, every open door, window, street corner, every moment has led me to right here. I don’t know what’s next but I hope it’s good.” She hops in her car and rambles on into the night.

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