His Course to ‘Que

2015-09-10-11.32.00How Asheville chef Elliott Moss went from cooking fried chicken to Buxton Hall.

Food — barbecue in particular — certainly played a starring role in Elliott Moss’s upbringing. ‘Que was the cuisine of his hometown, Florence, SC, and his family cooked up whole-hogs for the holidays. But ask him why he started cooking at 17, and he won’t wax poetic about his now highly successful career being a calling since the crib.
“My friend’s dad was the owner of a Chick-fil-A, so I got the job pretty easily,” he quips. Like most teenagers, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to spend the rest of his life doing. The gig was steady and the pay good, so he couldn’t complain, especially once he was promoted to a management role. Plus, it meant he wasn’t welding, which might have been expected of him—his dad and grandfather were both welders.
“Most of the men in my family had really hard jobs,” he shares. Although welding wasn’t his thing, it wasn’t the difficulty that kept him out of the family trade.
“I really enjoy hard work, and running a kitchen is hard work. I think a lot of people don’t understand how hard it is.”
Fast food, he says, really gets a bad rap—written off as too easy, or amateur cooking. But he swears by it as the best culinary education he could have received. “I feel like people who start in fast food have a leg up on kids straight out of school, where they can’t teach you volume and how to order, organize, and clean.”
He quickly discovered, though, fine dining folks don’t see drive-thrus that way. After eight years on the line, he was ready to move on—he just couldn’t get hired. Then, he caught a break.

platequote

A Series of Serendipitous Events
In 2005, Moss’s friends opened the bar/restaurant The Whig in Columbia and brought him on board, taking a chance that he could handle a formal kitchen. There, he started to connect to food and cooking in a different way, and began to feel fulfilled by his work.
“With food, you get gratification instantly,” he notes. “You can see someone eating something you’ve just made and feel the sense if they like it or not.”
But he didn’t feel satisfied in Columbia. So, he headed to Philadelphia with $3,000 in his pocket. “I thought that was going to last me a few months, but it lasted two weeks,” he laughs.
He sauntered over to the restaurant across the street from his apartment to see if they were hiring. They offered him a job on the spot, promoting him to chef a couple weeks later. Its menu was a far cry from what he had been cooking: The eatery served up Italian fare in a predominately Muslim and Jewish neighborhood. That meant no pork, Moss’s favorite protein. He started experimenting and branching out, working for the first time with local farmers and seafood suppliers.
Moss says he wouldn’t trade his time spent in Philly, sampling a wide array of ethnic foods and learning about cultural diets. But he missed home—he missed Southern food.
He and his then-fiancé, now wife, settled on Asheville to be closer to their families. And the guys who gave him his big break at the Whig decided to open the Admiral, granting Moss culinary carte blanche.


Where’s the BBQ?

That was 2007. Moss was excited by the opportunity the Admiral presented, but equally enthusiastic to be back around barbecue.

“I was always hearing about North Carolina barbeque growing up,” he shares. But he soon found himself asking, “Where’s the ‘que?”

“When I moved to Columbia, I took barbecue for granted,” he says. “There were just a ton of barbecue joints around my hometown.”
Seeing only a handful in Asheville, and none doing it like they did in Florence, the seed was planted for him to bring a whole-hog, SC-style joint to town.
Moss admits that it took him a while to settle into the mountains, literally and figuratively. He stayed on at the Admiral until 2013, while Asheville started to “grow on him.” Then he bounced around, launching Ben’s Tune-Up and two pop-up restaurants: Punk Wok and the Thunderbird, both at MG Road, Chai Pani’s craft cocktail bar. There, he formed a partnership with owner Meherwan Irani that the two hope will go down in hog history.
“Asheville’s definitely my home now,” Moss says, no doubt owing, in part, to the fact that these days the smell of a whole hog cooking over a wood fire fills the air around the South Slope, where he and Irani opened their barbecue baby, Buxton Hall, in late August.

Now Serving: Nostalgia
“Buxton Hall is 100 percent nostalgia,” Moss describes. “Everything I’m doing has a story from my childhood or is a dish I ate growing up, including those you can only find in the area of South Carolina where I’m from”—think chicken bog, catfish stew, and barbecue hash and rice.
Unfortunately, Moss notes that many of his favorite joints are changing the way they do things, from the traditional whole-hog, wood-fired method to quick-cooking cuts and gas flames. “I remember how the barbecue of my childhood used to taste, and it doesn’t taste the same anymore. It’s sad. I’m trying to help preserve that.”
Moss continues, “If I couldn’t cook with all wood, and if I had to compromise and just cook Boston butts, then I wouldn’t be doing Buxton Hall.” He’s working with local farmers to get pasture-raised pigs.
The fire’s the thing—a connection that, in a way, carries on his family’s welding roots.
“It’s something special that you can build a fire and watch it all night,” he says, adding, “that you can take a whole animal and respect it and cook it whole and have a product that comes out perfectly. It doesn’t get more gratifying than that.”
The fire burns 24 hours a day at Buxton Hall, which affords Moss and his team a unique opportunity: “There are a lot of coals and embers, a lot of energy,” he shares. “I’ve got to find a way to utilize that.” He envisions endless possibilities.
“I don’t want to put any rules on anything. Five years from now our dinner menu might seem a little strange for a barbecue restaurant.”
But today, the focus is on serving up great barbecue and creating a ‘cue culture. “I know we’ll always have barbecue, and hopefully it’ll be the best in town,” Moss says. Down the road, he’d love to see Asheville known as a whole-hog, wood-cooked barbecue town, with joints dotting the landscape just like Florence. In fact, he hopes some of his opening crew will start more smoky spots. “I’d just love it.”