CHEF PATRICK O’CAIN is a man self-described as “33 going on 50.” And it’s no wonder. He is the Chef and Owner of local favorite Gan Shan Station. To say that he’s busy would be an understatement, but he did set out to find a career that was “hands-on.”
O’Cain, who was born in Asheville and grew up just north of downtown, is a true local through and through. “We’re few and far between,” he says. Not that he minds the diversity of our city. In his early career, O’Cain spent a good deal of time traveling and experiencing cultural diversity first hand. Through it all, he maintained a love of cooking, albeit as an amateur. He studied English and French and worked for a while in France as an English teacher. He then moved on to work in the publishing industry.
It was actually O’Cain’s teaching job in a French culinary high school that inspired him to pursue a restaurant career. So O’Cain decided to return to Asheville to get a more formal culinary education at A-B Tech. In his first year, he scored a job with Cúrate, where he worked for a couple of seasons before moving on to an internship at Sean Brock’s McCrady’s in Charleston. That internship turned into a full time job and it also turned O’Cain into a “culinary school drop-out.”
How does a local kid become an Asian chef? Growing up, Asian food was O’Cain’s favorite. His family prepared Asian dishes at home weekly, thanks to a Szechuan cookbook gifted to his parents nearly 40 years ago. “It’s funny, because we never went out to Chinese restaurants. We always cooked it at home,” he says. “So that’s where a lot of these taste memories come from and a lot of the inspiration comes from. It’s a pretty direct link to my childhood.”
Couple that with his time as sous chef at Xiao Bao Biscuit, also in Charleston, and he has gained a real knowledge of Asian cuisine. Is it authentic? Who’s to say. There are so many regions of every Asian country, that what is authentic to one might be strange to another. O’Cain takes his inspiration from a variety of locales – house made dumplings from China, ramen from Japan, curries from Thailand with an equally diverse drink menu of beer, sake, wine and non-alcoholic beverages.
Service Station Turned Eatery
It was also O’Cain’s time at Xiao Bao, which gave him the confidence to open his own restaurant. He assisted with the opening of XBB and learned a lot about operating a restaurant. “It was really a trial for myself,” he says. “Then this space came to the forefront and I just went for it.”
The space: a derelict old BP service station that had been empty for years. O’Cain had decided he wanted to come back to Asheville to be closer to his parents and the space on Charlotte Street really precipitated the move. “I had a vision of something that wasn’t here in the Asheville food scene, as well as something that wasn’t here on Charlotte Street.” The makeover of 143 Charlotte Street was definitely an improvement to the neighborhood.
Stepping inside Gan Shan Station, you may be surprised to find an old service station could be warm and inviting. O’Cain has developed the perfect mix of vintage, industrial and comfort. The kitchen is open to dining room with bar side seats allowing diners to interact with the chefs. The prep space is to your right as you enter, baskets of fresh vegetables and ingredients in plain sight to the diner. Plus, the restaurant boasts an amazing outdoor space, perfect for enjoying the great Spring weather.
O’Cain enjoys working with local farmers, Paper Crane Farms and the Culinary Gardener, to source ingredients. “The farmers end up being some of my closest friends,” he says. With Spring arriving, he will be revamping the Gan Shan menu to accommodate the available local ingredients. The menu is structured seasonally, with Spring having the biggest change, then lighter fare in Summer and richer dishes in Fall and Winter. They source as much locally as they can, but of course there are a lot of ingredients specific to Asian cuisine that cannot be found in WNC.
And as for libations, O’Cain stocks several options in beer and sake originating in Asia, which he compliments with some local craft brew. One of the craft options on tap, Starr Hill Beer from Charlottesville, Virginia, where his brother Robbie O’Cain works as Master Brewer.
What’s Around the Curve?
Later this year, O’Cain will be opening a second smaller Gan Shan location, Gan Shan West. Located in the East-West Asheville area known as Beacham’s Curve. Gan Shan West will have only 25 seats compared to the 100+ seats at the Charlotte Street location. West will offer several quick options, ideal for carryout as well as sharing an outdoor space with OWL Bakery. Beacham’s Curve is a booming area for West Asheville – already home to Urban Orchard, OWL Bakery, Short Street Cakes and Taco Billy – there will be several more restaurants and breweries making their mark in the area this year. How is O’Cain managing all of this expansion? With the support of a good team, of course. He concludes, “I’m very confident in their abilities.”
Gan Shan Station is located at 143 Charlotte St. Visit ganshanstation.com for menus, hours and more info.