December 08: A cook in the house

December 08: A cook in the house

Ashley Hightower is nothing if not driven. She’s got her own catering business, Dinner at Home; she and her boyfriend, Carter East, just started a second business as in-home personal trainers, Fitness at Home; and they’re both dedicated athletes who log miles running and biking.

In their spotless house off Avon Street, where Hightower’s lived for two years, the kitchen is quite an ordinary space but, she says, plenty serviceable for an off-duty cooking pro. “For a small kitchen it has a good layout,” she says. “It works well; I’m used to it. It’s also easy to clean.” Near the tightly drawn work area is a small table looking out through glass doors to a deck and a classic Albemarle view.

Inside, it’s function first. “I’m not a gadget person,” says Hightower, who nonetheless confesses love for her Cuisinart, immersion blender (“Carter’s been making his weight-gainer thing with it”) and convection oven (“It roasts potatoes better than my oven”). And, she says, “I have a lot of bowls. And sheet pans.”

Knives are lined up on a magnet strip on the wall. “My sister came and was like, ‘All right, that’s scary,’” she says. Of course that’s how the pros do it, but Hightower can work her magic in all kinds of kitchens—whatever her clients happen to have. “Sometimes you show up and it’s the greatest thing. On the other hand I’ve worked in kitchens that are like a galley.” Having no gas stove at home isn’t her first choice, but being flexible on the job prepares her to make the best of what she finds.

So what do the pair eat at home? Says Hightower, their meals are influenced by her travels in Italy, where “everything was so simple.”—Erika Howsare

“I want to be a good cook with natural stuff. Have a bigger garden [and cook] whatever I can pull out of the garden or get at the market. I read [Barbara Kingsolver’s local-food bestseller] Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and was like, ‘O.K., we have to do this.’

“We had a [CSA] share from Roundabout Farm. [I’d say] ‘We have to use this Savoy cabbage. I may not feel like cabbage, you may not feel like it, but we’re having fried rice and cabbage.’ The food starts to dictate the meals. But I found some great recipes. When we had eggplant I’d grill all of it; tonight we’ll have it with pasta and cheese, next night we’ll have it with something Asian. Now that [the season] is over I’m like, ‘No, no, I’ll have to go back to the other way [buying food at grocery stores].

“We sure get a lot done in this kitchen. Carter’s boss gave us a basket of tomatoes and we ended up canning them. We had tomatoes covering countertops and jars everywhere. It’s a little bit of a hassle but it’ll be so exciting to open a jar in the middle of winter.

“[Carter’s way of eating] is the carb/protein/vegetable balance for the athlete. He’s so regimented with this amount of protein, this amount of carbs…I’d be like, ‘I had a long ride but I just want salad and lots of bread.’

“It’s frustrating to have a bunch of food for someone else’s party and then one little corner—‘There’s our beet greens!’ One day this refrigerator is totally stuffed, the next day it’s empty. There’s weeks where I cook dinner every night and weeks where I make scrambled eggs and toast. You clean as you go; by the time dinner’s ready, there are only two plates to be washed.”