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Meat as Muse

Meat as Muse
Photos by Andrew Thomas Lee
Asheville Chef Elliot Moss’ Cooking Career is Indelibly Influenced by His Inner Artist

A steady plume of smoke rises into the night air on the south side of Coxe Avenue in Asheville, North Carolina. Behind a barbed wire fence on the fringes of downtown, amid warehouses, car shops, and the burgeoning development of the South Slope neighborhood, Elliott Moss settles in for an all-night vigil with a 200-pound hog.

The chef wears a yellow Duke’s mayonnaise t-shirt, a pair of Levi’s that fit just a touch more than snug, work boots, and his trademark cap affixed with a pin shaped like a marijuana leaf but patterned to look like a dripping slice of pepperoni pizza. One might say this is his uniform.

Elliott Moss is an artist. At the moment, meat is his muse. Tonight, his porcine companion will be washed in the transformative elements of smoke and fire. By daylight it will emerge as the main attraction for the neighboring brewery’s backyard barbecue. This hog, as with a host of others cooked over the last two years, is a foretaste of Buxton Hall Barbecue, Moss’s long-awaited brick-and-mortar concept with restaurateur Meherwan Irani, owner of Chai Pani and MG Road Cocktail Lounge. It’s 11:30 p.m. on Friday night. Shovel in hand, Moss tends to the oak logs piled in the top of his handcrafted burn barrel. Throughout the night, glowing deposits will drop into the bottom, coals like fiery tender to coax the hog into smoky submission.

Moss is joined by trusty sidekicks Dan Silo and Sarah Cousler, the two main cooks at his current pop-up restaurant, The Thunderbird, and his father, Terrell Moss, in town for a weekend visit. Moss jabs at the burning wood with the shovel, releasing a flurry of neon ashes into the midnight sky like a million tiny stars. Cooking a hog is a skill that requires patience and endurance, careful timing bolstered by the use of all the senses. As the wood burns down, Moss and his father intuitively load more logs into the barrel, instincts born and bred in Florence, South Carolina.

“I ate barbecue like people eat pizza,” says Moss. “We’d go to the store and get a loaf of white bread, a pound of barbecue, and cole slaw. That was our meal.”

Just down the road from his home in Florence was Scott’s Bar-B-Que, one of the most lauded barbecue shacks in the country. Moss counts pitmaster Rodney Scott as one of his biggest barbecue influences. If you taste Moss’ barbecue carefully, you can find whispers of Scott’s influence in the red pepper-laden vinegar mop.

Humble Beginnings

Elliott Moss featured in Meat as Muse
Photo by Andrew Thomas Lee

Moss comes from a working-class family. His father is a welder and his father’s father was a welder. “In the fifties, my father would barbecue chicken to make extra money,” says Terrell Moss. “Mama would make a washtub of potato salad and serve it with a half chicken and two slices of bread.”

Elliott Moss remembers gatherings at the police station where his grandfather would set up neighborhood block pits to feed the fire department and police officers. These days, Moss feeds crowds from his own block pit.

His youth was humble and centered around simple fare—chicken bog prepared by his grandfather along with quick rice dishes and one-pot casseroles made by a mother who worked long hours. Hogs were for holidays or special occasions.

In his free time, Moss made art and delved deeply into music. He took art classes throughout high school and spent hours crafting mixtapes, listening to punk rock, and designing record labels.

At age seventeen, Moss nabbed his first kitchen job working for Chick-fil-A. He began cooking primarily to feed himself and to impress girls. His Casanova hits were Italian-inspired creations like chicken parmesan made with Chick-fil-A chicken and frozen ravioli.

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The Path to Cook

After a move to Columbia, South Carolina, Moss realized that he wanted to cook for a living, but no one would hire him, a fast-food employee without “restaurant” experience. His opportunity came in 2005, when a local bar called The Whig came onto the scene. By law, the bar was required to have food. Moss approached owner Jonathan Robinson (who now owns The Admiral and Ben’s Tune-Up in Asheville) and asked if he could run his kitchen. “I opened the kitchen with no real restaurant experience,” says Moss. “It was just me. I cooked the food, I ran the food, I washed the dishes.”

Elliott Moss featured in Meat as Muse
Moss performing vertical rotisserie, brushing the chicken with a sweet chili vinegar mop. Photo by Andrew Thomas Lee

Moss moved to Philadelphia next and reluctantly took a head chef position at a small Italian restaurant in the neighborhood where he lived. “I think I learned a lot about myself in Philly,” says Moss. It was there, he says, that he had the freedom to experiment and was first exposed to fresh vegetables. He also began reaching into his past to cook dishes that reminded him of the South.

A year later, he returned to the Carolinas contemplating his next move. At that time, the fellows who opened The Whig were looking to open another bar, this time in Asheville. They contacted Moss to do the food once more.

The Unlikely Admiral

The Admiral opened in a gritty section of West Asheville in December 2007, a divey shoebox, formerly a third-shift bar. For an artistic punk rocker like Moss, the place suited him. For the next seven years, he wore it well.

Elliott Moss featured in Meat as Muse
Photo by Andrew Thomas Lee

What began as a bar became something much more than that. Inside a tiny open space barely passable as a kitchen, Moss slowly transformed The Admiral into one of the pioneering restaurants of Asheville’s contemporary food scene. “Elliott figured out what West Asheville wanted before they even knew what they wanted,” says Chef Brian Canipelli of Cucina 24 “He was doing things that weren’t being done. There were no rules. It was wide open. Different.”

“I knew about it [The Admiral] because a buddy said there was this restaurant in West Asheville with prison silverware and incredible food, you gotta check it out,” says Mike Moore, executive chef/owner of Seven Sows and founder of The Blind Pig Supper Club.

Moore admits that he would dine at The Admiral before he even knew Moss just to watch him cook. “I saw a guy who loved what he did and did it very differently. It was extremely obvious to me and profound,” says Moore. “I knew it at that very moment, that what I was seeing was an artist, Elliott’s own individuality.”

At The Admiral, Moss played with texture, color, and the rule of odds—artists’ principles executed on the plate. He summoned, too, humble inspirations in order to create his own distinct brand of Southern food; a long wait in the grocery store checkout line might inspire that evening’s featured dish, such as a Slim Jim hash.

“The way I approach menu writing and development,” explains Moss, “is to think about what I want to eat because I’ve gotta cook it and taste it and dish it out all day. Then I think about childhood memories…how can I incorporate flavors that I remember?”

In 2013, Moss ended his tenure at The Admiral, his third restaurant gig ever, with a nomination by the James Beard Foundation for Best Chef: Southeast.

To Japan and Back Again

The inward-thinking chef moved on to pursue new endeavors in Asheville: a Japanese-inspired yakitori concept at Ben’s Tune-Up and a barbecue concept called Buxton Hill (note the one vowel difference between this first “Hill” and his current project “Hall”). To prepare for Ben’s Tune-Up, Moss immersed himself in the study of Japanese cuisine, taking his education of Asian flavors and techniques, particularly fermentation, to heart. After a short stint at Ben’s Tune-Up and an ill-fated beginning with Buxton Hill, both concepts fell through.

When the news broke, Meherwan Irani, owner of Chai Pani and MG Road Cocktail Lounge reached out. Irani and Moss discovered that they had been similarly thrust into the culinary scene from unlikely beginnings. Irani had never operated a restaurant before he opened Chai Pani in 2009, and Moss had never attended culinary school or worked under anyone.“I was always really impressed with his demeanor, at how quiet and humble he was,” says Irani, who first met Moss through The Blind Pig circuit.

The two formed a partnership and decided to move on a new concept inside an old skating rink in the South Slope neighborhood. They would call it Buxton Hall Barbecue.

Elliott Moss featured in Meat as Muse
Moss inside Buxton Hall, the former skating rink that will soon be his barbecue joint. Photo by Andrew Thomas Lee

On the long road to restaurant development, Moss kept himself occupied the only way he knew how. He fed people. Filling his time cooking with friends in their kitchens, doing special events and Blind Pig dinners, he also began cooking whole hogs with frequency while in limbo, moving ever closer to his South Carolina roots.

And volumes of unused knowledge on Asian cuisine swirled in Moss’ head, just begging for an outlet. So began Punk Wok, the wildly successful pop-up restaurant that sprung up inside MG Road two nights a week.

Moss entered a new phase of creative expression, one ripe with ferments and pickles, that took foods close to his Southern-fried heart and weaved them seamlessly with Asian influences and technique.

During that time, Sarah Cousler and Dan Silo joined him in the kitchen while they awaited the opening of Buxton Hall. To keep his team gainfully employed in the interim, Moss replaced Punk Wok with The Thunderbird, a six-nights-a week nostalgia-fueled notion inspired by a hotel in Florence. Here, Moss riffs on the retro fare one might find at an old-school Southern buffet, and elevates it. Inside The Thunderbird, you can also find the artist brainstorming his next project. The Alabama white sauce on the fried catfish and grits entrée is a test run for Buxton Hall.

“Elliott is a person with such a specific vision and child-like joy with expressing his creativity,” says Nate Allen, executive chef of Knife & Fork in Spruce Pine, who recently collaborated with Moss at The Thunderbird. “That boy just wants fire and freedom!”

Waiting to Begin

As he awaits the opening of Buxton Hall later this summer, Moss continues to create, and jumps at every opportunity to cook a hog. His perpetually moving mind and deep-seeded love of barbecue propel him forward.

By daylight of the hog cook, the crew is weary and delirious. Moss has spent little time off his feet, and yet, as the morning birds begin their song, a new energy sweeps over the smoke-soaked chef. “It’s hard work,” he says. “But, it’s a different kind of work.”

Different suits him.

“The thing about cooking whole hogs this way,” says his ’cue compatriot Dan Silo, “is that it’s one hundred percent your own work, there’s no other source. You’re generating your own fire and using that fire to cook the animal. It’s just fire and animal.”

Elliott Moss Dishes on Hash
Elliott’s Traditional South Carolina Hash

It’s also a lesson in watching and waiting. Moss is good at waiting, especially when
it comes to opening his barbecue dream. As it is with the art of cooking whole hogs, timing is everything.

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