By Jonathan Ammons
One of the great pleasures of writing about food is getting the chance to sit down with the people who make your favorite dishes and enjoy a meal with them. Lately I have been inviting chefs to bring me to their favorite restaurants in town and show me what they love about them. So when I asked the once Chic-fil-a line cook turned James Beard nominated Asheville Chef Elliot Moss — formerly of the Admiral and Ben’s Tune Up — to pick a restaurant, he chose one that is near and dear to my heart, Cucina 24. We ordered a round of cocktails, some oysters and sidled up to the bar for a long and wonderful dinner.
While he’s sipping his beverage, I slide us into interview mode with a soft pitch, “So how have you been? You’ve been roaming around these days it seems, bouncing around like a beach ball lately?”
“Yeah, its good! Staying busy. Working out of different kitchens a lot lately. I went out to Knife & Fork a couple weeks ago. They asked me to come out and help with their new wood fired grill.” The server interrupts us to bring us a plate of White Anchovies, Radishes, Capers and Eggs. “I quit things at Ben’s [Tune Up] and didn’t really have a plan, and I knew I could just score some work if I really needed it. But, I’m just not going to take a job just to take a job. I cooked here at Cucina for a weekend, I cooked over at Mike’s place, Seven Sows, and I’ve done some private dinners over at Andy Herod’s house.” And those epic, sprawling pop-up dinners he has been serving from Spider Bush Manor, as its residents call it, are fantastic examples of just what great food he can achieve from a humble household kitchen.
From what I have gathered, Moss always talks this way, like a breeze drifting through the room. It comes across as being aimless or indifferent, like some wandering musician, acquiescing to the current and flow of any given trend until he finds a grill or stove to pull out the knife bag and begin again. But do not get me wrong, there is no listlessness here, there is a mast, a rudder, a sail. He certainly has a goal and an idea of where he is going.
In 1954 Akira Kurosawa exposed the world to an age old piece of Japanese history. With his film Seven Samurai he told the story of the Ronin, Samurai warriors disbanded and masterless during the feudal periods in Japan. With no one to work for and being true masters of but one skill, the art of combat, the Samurai became nomadic mercenaries, working for anyone who would allow them to continue to pursue what they believed to be their destiny, their calling, their purpose. And while Chef Elliot Moss may be no Samurai, it is almost impossible to look at his current mode of operation and not see a parallel between him and the roving rogue warrior of the Kurosawa filmography.
“Oh damn! We haven’t ordered the next course yet!” I realize, “What looks good to you?”
“Any of Brian’s fish stuff looks awesome on the menu tonight. That octopus for sure!” He continued, “I love Brian and what he’s doing here. I used to live in Philly and then I came here and there was no fresh fish anywhere. And I know that they always have fresh fish here.”
“Right, you know it’s fresh because, I’m pretty sure they don’t even have a freezer back there except for the cocktail ice!” I recalled, “But I’m surprised you have a thing for the fish being such a barbecue guy!”
“Dude,” he paused and lifted his hand for effect, “I eat enough meat, believe me.”
Following a James Beard nomination for his work at the Admiral, Chef Moss left to become a partner in Ben’s Tune Up, a local joint that started as an exceedingly ambitious venture seeking to blend a mix of southern and Japanese cuisine with a fantastic indoor/outdoor atmosphere. He explained that after some resistance from the ownership to move beyond the bar concept and into a more serious dining mantra, Moss found himself packing his knife bag and hitting the road. And with the prospects for his own BBQ place hanging precariously in limbo, it has turned into a waiting game for the highly respected Chef.
“So what actually went down at Ben’s Tune Up? What the hell happened?”
“I had this really weird opportunity to help them open, and I just decided to do it. I thought it would be good.” He twitches when he talks about Ben’s. The way one might when someone asks about the cute girl you were running around with for a month or two, long since gone. “I don’t know… I refuse to talk shit, it was as simple as the partnership just wasn’t working out and they made a decision of what they wanted the place to be that I didn’t want.” He explained, “They were definitely going for more of a bar and bar food, and there’s nothing wrong with that, I just don’t want to cook bar food anymore you know?”
“Did you have any desire to do Japanese food at all when you went in to Ben’s?” I asked as a distractingly sexy red wine and apple cider veal cheek with bacon, roasted pumpkin and house made goat cheese tortellini was arriving to the table.
“No. And I tried to get excited about it. But my passion will always be Barbecue. It just wasn’t working out. I don’t want to run a bar, I’ve done that. I want to run a restaurant.”
I feel for Chef Moss. The man was skyrocketing when he left Admiral to springboard Ben’s Tune Up into popularity. And personally, having just left a bar that I helped open, I had spent an entire summer in borderline poverty because I simply didn’t want to serve someone else’s cocktails. I didn’t want people’s perceptions of the kind of product that I would produce being tainted by what I was required to serve at whatever-the-hell bar hired me. In fact, I’d rather not make drinks in a bar or restaurant if it meant serving something I found to be sub-par, a principle Moss has clearly grabbed hold of with both hands.
“I got a lot of offers, but I didn’t want to work just anywhere and for just anybody.” He explains, “I did that for six years at the Admiral, and I left to try to start my own thing. But it is fun being able to cook dishes for chefs that I have a lot of respect for like Brian [Canipelli] at Cucina. And that’s so important, just being in their kitchen and learning.”
“What is it that you love about what Brian does here?” I asked as we cut into the veal, the pumpkin puree seeping through the pores of the meat.
“I’ve just been a fan of this restaurant forever. I came when they first opened and it was pretty good. But I came back a year later expecting the same thing and was totally blown away. The fresh pasta is always good here, and what he does with vegetables and meat. I think he is definitely the most under rated chef in town. He doesn’t get nearly as much attention as he should. I’ve been in his kitchen, I’ve worked with him, and just the way he treats his employees… it’s just awesome. When he first opened, he was definitely trying to be an Italian joint, and then he steered away from that a little, which has been huge for what he’s able to do.”
“But at the same time, I feel like he has maintained the idea of rustic Italian cuisine; minimizing his ingredients and really reducing the elements to something that brings out the essential parts of each flavor. And I think a lot of chefs either don’t know how or don’t know that they have the freedom to do that.” I said, trying to figure out how to evenly divide the last remaining bits of the gorgeous octopus that had been delivered to the table.
Moss recently attended an event with several other local chefs seeking inspiration called Cook It Raw in Charleston focusing on Barbecue. Cook It Raw, as an organization, seeks to host events bringing together chefs and regional food producers from all over the world, and has held events in Japan, Italy, and Poland, to name a few. In this case, thirty chefs from all over the world came together to prepare their interpretations of Barbecue for over 500 people. “These guys from Canada were just killing it!” Moss says, getting really excited for the first time in the conversation. Clearly now we are talking about the things he truly cares about. “They were cooking tongue over open flames… even over hay! They had this dish that was like baked beans, but instead of beans they were pecans that were still the flavor of the beans! Then he brought some dairy in from Canada… it was just one of the best things I’ve had in a long time. And then we went to Atlanta the next day and did a James Beard Dinner.”
“What was that like?”
“Annie Quatrano of Star Provisions and Abattoir — she’s like the Mark Rosenstein of Atlanta — hosts a James Beard dinner down there every year. And a bunch of other chefs from the South who have either won or been nominated for a James Beard Award… there were like 27 chefs from all over. We each had to pick an ingredient and work with it. I told her that I didn’t think I could do the dinner since I didn’t work anywhere right now and she said ‘just come represent yourself!’ So I went up there. Everyone was there, Sean Brock and everyone. It was really amazing to be around all that company.”
Ashley Christensen (Poole’s, Chuck’s, Fox Liquor Bar), Vivian Howard (Chef and Farmer), Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman (Andrew & Michael’s Italian), and Josh Keeler (Two Boroughs Larder) all represented their restaurants for more than 100 guests for a fundraiser for the Beard Foundation. “Annie owns a bunch of restaurants that are all right next to each other, so we each got teamed up and sent to different kitchens. And outside it was set up with banquet style tables. So they’d call you and be like ‘your dish is up!’”
“Was that a big transition? Moving from restaurant life to cooking small plate dinners?”
“It’s kind of fun. We did the very first Blind Pig and I’ve done a few myself…”
“Even though you guys did catch the house on fire at that dinner!” I recalled.
“Yeah… well… It’s pretty easy to get used to. I think I sometimes can take things like [Blind Pig] for granted. But at that [James Beard] dinner, it was like ‘Oh, I’ve been doing this for years now!’ So it wasn’t really hard at all. It was a really fun experience. I’m really grateful to have been able to do it.”
But there’s something that’s been on my mind from the beginning that I admire, and I cannot help but ask: “From what you’ve done so far, you seem to have said ‘I’m not going to compromise my ability to do what I want to do in the kitchen to just make money. I can make money without a kitchen.’ Which is kind of like stepping off into the clouds and hoping that they will catch you. And especially in a city where it is already hard to find a job, are you feeling like you’re crazy for stepping out like this or are you finding that it’s actually working?”
“It was definitely really scary, but it seems to be working itself out.” He said, pensive at the thought of having to stay in a kitchen making ramen when all he wanted to make was barbecue and southern food, “And I thought yeah, I’ll just start a supper club and go from there. I’m still going to do the Barbecue joint… That is my whole goal. But its going to be a pretty unique barbecue restaurant. Very vegetable driven, meat will be the staple, but the sides are going to be super seasonal and local.”
And there he is, Asheville’s own ronin chef, freed up to wander from kitchen to kitchen, all with the hope and vision of fantastic pork, somewhere just over the horizon. So keep your ears to the ground, we’ll want to know what this wandering culinary master dreams up next. Since I spoke with him, he has been hosting regular Monday “Punk Wok” dinners at M.G. Road. in downtown Asheville. Crazy experimental takes on Asian cuisine, modestly priced cocktail specials and loud punk rock. My advice is to show up early though, as the food tends to sell out pretty early.