Have knife, will travel: An interview with nomadic chef Elliot Moss

FIRE STARTER: Wandering chef Elliott Moss plans to light a fire under the local culinary scene with a “vegetable-driven” barbecue venture.

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’ve invited chefs to accompany me to their favorite local restaurants and show me what they love about them.

When I asked the former Chik-fil-A line cook turned James Beard Award-nominated Asheville Chef Elliott Moss — formerly of the Admiral and Ben’s Tune Up — to pick a restaurant, he chose one that is near and dear to me, Cucina24. We ordered a round of cocktails and some oysters and sidled up to the bar for a long and wonderful dinner.

While he sipped his beverage, I slid 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.”

“Yeah, it’s good,” Moss said. “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 interrupted us with a plate of white anchovies, radishes, capers and eggs. “I quit things at Ben’s and didn’t really have a plan, and I knew I could just score some work if I really needed it,” Moss continued. “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 Seven Sows and I’ve done some private dinners over at Andy Herod’s house.”

These private affairs are the epic and sprawling pop-up dinners Moss has been serving at Spider Bush Manor, as the residents call the home. They’re fitting examples of just how great a meal he can achieve, even in the confines of a humble household kitchen.

From what I have gathered, Moss always talks the way he did, like a breeze drifting through the room. His style of communicating might come across as aimless or indifferent, but there is no listlessness here. Moss certainly has a goal and an idea of where he is going.

Still, Moss’s current situation makes me think of the ronin, the samurai warriors who found themselves disbanded and masterless during the feudal periods in Japan. With no one to work for and mastering but one skill — the art of combat — they became nomadic mercenaries, working for anyone who would allow them to continue to pursue what they believed to be their calling and destiny.

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 ambitious venture seeking to blend a mix of Southern and Japanese cuisine with a fantastic indoor/outdoor atmosphere. Moss wanted to move beyond the bar concept and into a more serious dining mantra, but instead found himself packing his knife bag and leaving Ben’s Tune Up. And with the prospects for his own barbecue place hanging precariously in limbo, it has turned into a waiting game for the highly respected chef.

As a distractingly sexy red wine and apple cider veal cheek with bacon, roasted pumpkin and house-made goat cheese tortellini arrived at the table, I asked Moss if he wanted to do Japanese fare when he was at Ben’s,

“No,” he said. “And I tried to get excited about it. But my passion will always be barbecue. I got a lot of offers, but I didn’t want to work just anywhere and for just anybody,” Moss explained. “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.”

As we cut into the veal, with pumpkin puree seeping through the pores of the meat, I asked what it iss that Moss loves about Canipelli’s approach.

“I’ve just been a fan of this restaurant forever,” he said. “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. … He is definitely the most underrated chef in town. When [Canipelli] 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.”

As I tried to figure out how to evenly divide the last remaining bits of a gorgeous octopus dish, I had to ask a harder question. After garnering such acclaim, it was amazing to see Moss uncompromising in his vision and his goals — so much so that he would rather not have a kitchen than cook something he was not passionate about. I asked, “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,” Moss said. “I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll just start a supper club and go from there. I’m still going to do a barbecue joint.’

“That is my whole goal. But it’s 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.”

So what’s in store from this ronin chef? Even with a James Beard nomination under his belt, as well as successful pop-up dinners (and an upcoming one at Punk Wok at MG Road this winter), Moss will be relentless, scheming about new means, methods and menus to feed us great food — wherever he is and whether he has a kitchen or not.

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com Follow me @jonathanammons

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