By Tim Rutherford
ASHEVILLE NC -- The fire rarely goes out at Buxton Hall BBQ, the new South Slope mecca for slow cooked pork fans.
If an impassioned foodie came breathlessly shouting that Elliott Moss had opened a shrimp joint it would not surprise anyone who knew the chef came out of South Carolina’s Lowcountry. After all, it’s our heritage that shapes our passions. But the long-time chef of Asheville’s acclaimed The Admiral didn’t do that. Instead he opened a barbecue restaurant just off the heart of downtown.
In doing so, Moss is rocking the barbecue map. He’s cooking whole hogs over live coals – a tradition that was nearly lost in Western North Carolina.
Who says? Jim Early is the CEO and founder of the North Carolina Barbecue Society. His book, “The Best Tar Heel Barbecue: Manteo to Murphy,” chronicled more than 140 Tarheel barbecue joints. He hit all 100 counties and ate at more than 200 places to compile the list. What he found was a stylistic dividing line:
“East of Chapel Hill, you find whole hog cooking -- chop it all together. They use a vinegar-based sauce (12 Oaks vinegar, salt, pepper, water, some sugar and crushed red peppers). The white meat of the hams and dark meat of the shoulder are combined. “West of Chapel Hill, they cook shoulders and take the vinegar-based sauce and put in tomato sauce, puree -- or ketchup -- and add a sweetener.”
Moss is no stranger to the spotlight. His stint at The Admiral earned rave reviews from The New York Times, GQ Magazine, Food & Wine Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Conde Nast and several other regional and national publications. He was a James Beard foundation semifinalist in 2013 for “Best Chef Southeast” and was invited to cook at the Annual James Beard Sunday Supper in Atlanta
Followers of the Asheville food scene have enthusiastically tagged along as Moss flexed his culinary chops at projects like Ben’s Tune-up, Punk Wok and The Thunderbird. For months preceding the opening of Buxton Hall BBQ the buzz was almost deafening. It’s safe to say that no one was disappointed. The conversion of the former skating rink is industrial with a few chic appointments. The open kitchen is alive with action and plenty of open flame cooktops. Front and center is a whole smoked hog, splayed open for its tasty bits to be plated.
Ms. T.J. and took seats at the bar, which gives a panoramic overview of Buxton Hall BBQ’s 130 seats. Service is solid, the drinks list intriguing and the selection of locally-brewed craft beer, obviously impressive. We sampled lots of dishes and walked away grinning like fools after sharing a piece of banana pudding pie. Buxton Hall BBQ will be a regular stop on my trips to Asheville. Now, let’s hear from Moss himself:
Five Questions with Elliott Moss
HMG: I’ve known other chefs branded with the “fine dining” label who have successfully opened very traditional barbecue restaurants. In some ways, it’s a paradigm shift – but still requires the precision and passion that goes along with fine dining. What is it about barbecue that lures you into the fire and smoke?
EM: I really didn't know what I wanted to do with my life until I was around 21. My grandfathers, my dad and uncles, and a lot of my family were small business owners and hard workers. I'm drawn to hard work. I'm drawn to cooking food for people because I see it as an art form. There’s instant gratification in seeing people's reactions and seeing clean plates come back. I knew I wanted to cook for a living and ultimately I wanted to own my own business. Being a chef is gratifying hard work. I moved to Asheville in 2007 to open the kitchen at a place called The Admiral. After 5 or 6 years I felt like I put in the hard work and felt like it was time for me to move on and try something else. Barbecue had been on my mind since the very beginning of me moving to Asheville. Barbecue has been such a huge part of my life and really up until opening Buxton, I really didn't realize how much it was a part of me. Buxton Hall is a dream job. I'm going on 36, and it's taken a long time – but I've found what I'm supposed to be doing. I could go on for hours about the inspirations behind Buxton.
HMG: While many pitmasters are devotees of gas-fired smokers, you’ve chosen to take barbecue fans down the rabbit hole with live fire, whole hog barbecue – a rapidly disappearing art. What challenges does that present in the preparation and cooking?
EM: Back to the hard work part. I wouldn't do it if it was easy. No offense to gas smokers or BBQ joints that use them. I just grew up loving the wood flavor from making coals. Burning the wood to get the smoke is so different than the flavor u get from the smoke off the coals. There's something about the intense heat (maybe the days of me working at my dad’s welding shop on summer breaks), hot as hell with long sleeves and hot sparks everywhere? Bryan Furman (Owner and pitmaster at B’s Cracklin’ BBQ in Savannah, Georgia, and a colleague of Moss) was a welder, maybe there's something there – staring at the fire, the smoke, the late and long hours, the grease, the wood splinters, the burns, achy joints, I love all of it and wouldn't want to change any of it. Sourcing the pigs is also the fun part. Building relationships with the pig farmers here in Western North Carolina. Whole hog is big in eastern North Carolina partly because of all the hog farms. I'm trying to grow these pasture-raised hog farms with business and look at the farmers as almost business partners. The more money we make, the more money they make. I want Asheville someday to be a whole hog BBQ destination. Hopefully I can inspire some young cooks or kids coming to eat with their families to open there own whole hog joint. And hopefully we can help raise a bunch of hogs and grow some hog farms in the area.
HMG: You’ve gotta sleep sometime…how demanding is manning the fire and monitoring the cooking for you and your staff?
EM: The fire is the heart beat of Buxton. If it goes out, well it can't go out. And that's talked about constantly. Right now the fire goes out around 10 Sunday night. We're closed Monday but we start it back up Monday night around 10. Other than that, the fire burns 24 hours straight for 6 days. It's hard work and mentally demanding work...But that's why I do it.
HMG: You have said you want to explore your creativity with side dishes and other menu items that aren’t so typical to a barbecue restaurant. What is on the current menu that steps beyond the usual baked beans and potato salad and still gives you a creative outlet?
EM: The sides are right now the hardest part. I've never run a kitchen tis big and I've never worked in a restaurant this huge. We can feed a LOT of people every day. It's been a big thing to figure out. How can I make 100+ portions of sides that are consistent and quick to fire? I took that part for granted. The sides are the sleeper part of this that's keeping me up at night trying to figure out. Once I get the ordering and systems down, we can all start playing around. I want to use all of that smoke, pig fat, cooking in the embers and letting the pig fat drip on them. It's just gonna take us some time to figure it all out. I've got time, and I don't plan on going anywhere anytime soon. Oh, and Asheville has awesome produce and awesome farmers. The sides will have that same growing connection like the pig farms. The more money we make, the more money they can make.
HMG: If you find a genie’s lamp tomorrow, what would be your one pie-in-the-sky wish?
EM: It's funny, I have a genie-ish lamp in my office and at first I was like, “How do you know I have a genie lamp?” – anywho…That's a tough question. Right now my answer: I want Asheville to be a whole hog BBQ destination. I want a ton of whole hog joints and I hope that I can help inspire my opening team to open their own places. Using what I taught them, things that my chef friends inspired them with, having a surplus of hog and vegetable farms. That's my wish. And if it's not my staff that's doing it all – maybe it's all these kids that I'm showing the hogs to.
Buxton Hall BBQ
32 Banks Ave.
Tim Rutherford produces HunrgyMansGuide.com. He is a freelance writer, photographer, social media content producer and marketing campaign developer. Send him a note at email@example.com.