Food & Drink

Silver Cousler’s Southern Filipinx Restaurant Is a Celebration of Their Intersecting Identity

“I think the restaurant that I open will be different from anything the South has experienced.”

silver cousler
Photo: Silver Cousler, Johnny Autry, Charlotte Autry; Design: Grace Han for Thrillist

Silver Cousler is a chef who honors whole hog barbecue and has spent over a decade in the kitchen. They are preparing to open up their first dream restaurant, Neng Jr.'s—a 20-seat space that will be a culmination of the ten years Silver has spent in Asheville and will celebrate their intersecting Filipinx and southern identity. Neng Jr.'s will be Asheville's very first Filipinx restaurant. As told to Kat Thompson.

Filipino food is wacky. Take Filipino spaghetti, for example. It sounds familiar, but if you were to get it as a customer and didn’t know about it or Google it, you’d be like, “Wait, what is this sweet, bright red spaghetti sauce with… hot dogs in it?” Banana ketchup is wacky! Halo-halo is weird! It’s kind of strange and it’s hard to describe—it’s just unlike any other cuisine. It’s very creative but it’s very wacky and I love that aspect of it.

I’ve lived in Asheville for about ten years—I was 20, just a week shy of turning 21 when I got here. I started washing dishes at a Japanese place and realized that once I was washing dishes, I also had to do a lot of side prep stuff. That was when the professional aspect of cooking got introduced to me. Before, I had some nods to it in conversations. I lived in Portland, Oregon for three years prior and I had these feelings of envy for cooks, even though the career seemed slightly depraved. The way the language around how aggressive and hard it was; there was just something about it that really turned me to it.

It’s always been a dream of mine to open a restaurant. I kind of went back and forth for a year and a half to see if running a restaurant is really what I want to do. We are not provided, as an industry, the tools to succeed because it’s so systematically racist in general—from the tipping standpoint to how the front of house and back of house payment is divided. I think a lot of that can disappear just with equitable pay all around. I know it’s not always possible for all restaurants, but with my restaurant it's absolutely possible and I’m going to make it happen.

Neng Jr.’s will be in this old venue space. To me, it was the last local good venue in Asheville and they decided to close because they were realizing that they wouldn’t be able to safely have any shows until 2022. They really kept racial equity in mind which was just amazing; they’re really good building owners and landlords. Obviously, when you have a dream to open a restaurant, you have these specifics in mind but what I’ve been told throughout the years is that it never turns out exactly how you envision it to be. I can settle with that a little bit. Because of how small it is, I’ve been able to think really carefully about what I want in it and who I want involved. That feels really special for me. 

When I think about the connection between Southern food and Filipino food, right off the bat, I think about barbecue. Barbecue became something I felt really passionate about maybe five years ago, when I helped open this barbecue restaurant here in Asheville called Buxton. It’s all whole hog, pasture-raised meat, really good farms and ingredients, but also all-wood cookery too. There’s this whole big thing in the barbecue world of gas versus wood but it correlated back to my experience visiting the Philippines. I would go to Batangas, this province in the Philippines. That’s where I saw a pig get slaughtered for the first time. There, nobody really has a regularly functioning stove so everything is kind of makeshift and super creative. People live this way and I got to see it and I have this beautiful opportunity to have this be part of my life. I always thought it was special but I could never really wrap my head around it until I was getting so passionate about food. I was really mind blown just about how, as individuals, everyone has all of these training wheels to get us ready for the next step. 

Now, in retrospect—when I think about my experience working at this barbecue restaurant—it really trained me to better understand this intersection of Filipino food and Southern food. The dipping sauce for North Carolina barbecue is heavy vinegar sauces and that’s a big thing in Filipino cuisine too. Heavy vinegar flavors, sour flavors, nothing too spicy but definitely different nuances. It’s really a unique cuisine and I feel like Filipino food has been so ambiguous and hard to pin down. I’m really excited about Filipino cuisine getting more mainstream as far as the last five years. Even me announcing Neng’s, it’s been so crazy to see all of these messages from other Filipinx people being in support.

My mom is definitely my inspiration. She’s a Filipino immigrant and she moved here in the ‘90s and I could kind of watch her growing up in the ‘90s. She would miss Filipino cooking and she didn’t really know how to cook when she first moved here and she taught herself how to cook just by making these connections at the Asian market. Even though there are these iconic dishes like adobo, everyone knows adobo, and pancit and lumpia, there are still very different ways in which people execute them. I’ve been to a couple Filipino places in the U.S. and every time I order pancit it’s always been different. I have never had a version similar to my mom’s, so if I make that dish, I’m presenting it the way my mom makes it. I’m here to present the Filipino food that my mom made for me and then reflect my influences on it—but not try to manipulate what she serves to me.

I think the restaurant that I open will be different from anything the South has experienced. I want Neng’s to be a launching pad not just for me, but for anyone who is involved or comes to eat. I want people to see where good food comes from. I want to facilitate people to dream really big and to believe that you can make something happen for yourself.

To learn more about Neng Jr.'s and support the restaurant's opening, visit here.

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Kat Thompson is a staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn
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