Stu Helm, WNC’s Favorite Food Fan! - TribPapers

Stu Helm, WNC’s Favorite Food Fan!

Stu Helm with Duke Mayo’s Mascot, Tubbi.

Asheville – While I understand the need for “critics” in the media, I have never felt comfortable in that role. My preference is always to experience music, theater, and art, often overlooking the small flaws that make each event unique. For me, those missteps and mistakes are far more interesting than a smooth, polished performance that will be repeated flawlessly.

Like me, Asheville food writer Stu Helm is not a critic. He is not looking to focus on the results of someone in the kitchen having an off-day or a restaurant being shortstaffed. Instead, he allows for the humanity that comes with the creation of artistic cuisine.

With that perspective comes opportunity. Helm has removed the narrow parameters of being considered a “critic” or even a “foodie,” which has allowed him to grow not only as a writer but also as an entrepreneur.

WNC Restaurant Writer, Stu Helm.
WNC Restaurant Writer, Stu Helm.

He admits he has no culinary training or expertise, which I believe makes his approach to reviewing food more accessible to the average consumer. Helm started writing about food strictly for his friends and followers on Facebook. They noticed that he ate out a lot and would ask him his thoughts on meals and businesses.

His friends liked his reviews and suggested he get them published, which prompted him to contact Ashvegas founder Jason Sanford. Sanford not only loved the samples Helm sent, he published them as they were, swear words and all.

With that new outlet, Helm’s reader base went from a few hundred to over 8,000. (These days, he has over 16,000 followers on social media.)

That’s when Stu Helm stopped being a “critic.” He feels that there are enough negative commentaries on places like Yelp. So instead, he chooses to elevate the positive aspects of a restaurant. This change was motivated by receiving a kind letter in response to his negative review of Seven Sows, run by Chef Mike Moore. That conversation changed how Helm looked at the impact he could have by pointing out errors made by a small business having a bad night.

So he sticks to only writing his positive thoughts. Like me, if he doesn’t enjoy something, he just doesn’t write about it.

In 2013, Helm created the Stoobie Awards. They originated as a fun way to honor places that he felt excelled in one way or another. 2023’s Stoobies have over 90 nominees in roughly 25 categories, ranging from Burger of the Year to Deep Fried Thing of the Year. New to the Stoobies is Housemade Pasta of the Year. In 2023, he wrote about over 185 restaurants that he visited.

Helm is also a guide for Asheville Food Tours, a niche experience that has existed for about 15 years. In addition to being a unique way to view our city, their walking tour helps downtown businesses, which in turn also helps support the entire community.

He is not only giving those tours to out-of-town visitors but also to locals. Often, Asheville residents tell him they either did not know a restaurant existed or were unaware of how much they would enjoy that particular cuisine.

With all of that, Helm has still found time to do a weekly radio show on WPVM (103.7 fm), which is then replayed on Substack.

For him, the goal is to help the wider community by promoting the area with not just a great food scene but also local businesses.

Like many of us, he does worry that the continued rise in rent will push out the small eateries and leave our city with chain organizations. All his endeavors are to further the hope that downtown will return to a place frequented by locals again, rather than continuing the trend of Asheville residents avoiding the area due to an overabundance of tourists.

As he told me, “Our local food industry, from the farmers to the servers and everyone in between, is what makes our area so uniquely wonderful in cuisine. Western North Carolina has excellent eateries across the board. From James Beard winners to the best gas station diners, we have it all.” I believe that’s true. And if you’re looking for the best of any of it, Stu Helm can help you on your journey.