In the Kitchen with Wesley Fulmer

By:Page Ivey

Date:11/5/2014

Wesley Fulmer became executive chef at Columbia’s Motor Supply Co. in March 2014. A native of Prosperity, SC, Fulmer takes his cooking cues from a long line of great chefs, going back to his grandparents.

He has worked for some of the best-known chefs in the country, including John Besh at Restaurant August in New Orleans and Susanna Foo in Philadelphia. Before joining Motor Supply, Fulmer was sous chef at the Atlantic Room at Kiawah Island Golf Resort. He and his wife welcomed a son to their family last summer.

Q: What chefs inspire you?

A: Early in my career, I think it was actually a guy where I waited tables when I was at the College of Charleston. He was the chef at the place I was working — it’s not there anymore — Cappy’s. During our time off, we would always have really big huge barbecues and grill-outs. I started, I guess, gathering the passion to actually make this a career path. Probably right there was where it started.

Of course, as I researched, I have grown very fond of the way Thomas Keller was doing things in terms of being very down to earth about his cooking and very ingredient-driven. I got to cook for Thomas Keller when I was working with John Besh in New Orleans. I cooked him rabbit. He came in the kitchen and said, “Who cooked my rabbit?” The sous chef pointed at me and Thomas Keller gave me a fist bump. That was great.

Q: If you could create a dream meal, what would it be?

A: It would definitely have to be barbecue. Whole hog barbecue. I probably couldn’t live another day if I didn’t say my granddad’s mustard-based barbecue sauce and that’s just for straight-up barbecue pork. When we start venturing out there, I get very ADD with it. I do like the tangy tomato-based and vinegar sauces, I think those work really good, but one thing about that is you have to eat that that day. If you let it sit overnight, go ahead and grab the mustard based. All that stuff they do out there in Texas, that’s just spiced-up ketchup. Some good old-fashioned cole slaw, potato salad and some good ol’ hash and rice, there ain’t nothing better than that.

Q: What was your first job in restaurants and food?

A: I went to Spartanburg to go to school and I was a utility guy at a steakhouse in Spartanburg — the Peddler, I think. I was responsible for putting the burgundy mushrooms on. And I thought that was best thing and at the end of the night, it was so great to take a baked potato and pour Bearnaise-like soup over the baked potato.

I learned that I love to cook and then all the memories from then on started to come back from my grandparents. My granddaddy was a championship barbecuer. Every time he would barbecue, fire up the grill, people would just come. It was right in the middle of Chapin. Went from 8 to 10 hogs to 14 hogs a couple of times. It was like something told me that I was going to be doing that for a while, but I didn’t accept it yet. So I continued on into my college career.

Q: Who or what most influences your cooking and why?

A: When I first got here, somebody asked, “Well, what are you going to cook at Motor Supply?” And I said, “My whole goal is to cook what people eat around here.” One thing that Chef John Besh taught me when I was working with him down in New Orleans: You cook with your heart, you prep with your mind. If you try to cook with your mind, you’re going to outthink it. You’re only showing people how smart you are; you’re not showing people what kind of soul you have.

Q: Is that why you are so focused on locally sourced products?

A: There’s a reason why I always make sure there’s okra in the fridge this time of year, there’s a reason why I got Asian pears from Chesnee, SC. I firmly believe in seasons and seasonality. With me, I feel kind of funny with barbecue around Christmastime. It’s just not the season for it. For me, with barbecue, you should be sweating, sweating before you eat it, then sweating while you eat it. It’s just something about it. I think one of the best things is after you barbecue, you put it in the fridge, wake up the next morning and that first bite of cold barbecue is awesome.

When I was in culinary school, it was a big thing to find your groove and professors were just pushing you to find your own style. They ask me, “Wes, what’s your style?” And I was like, “I think I’m just going to reinvent everything that I think is good.” I don’t mean that in an egotistical way. Sure, I’ll make mac and cheese, but I want to see what kind of ingredients I have to work with before I know what kind.

Q: What are five things that are always in your home fridge?

A: Butter; craft beer; some form of cheese, usually goat; organic milk; ranch dressing.

Q: What is the biggest mistake or most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done in the kitchen?

A: Being thrown off the line on a busy night as a line cook. I always tell people I’m a line cook at heart, and there’s a lot of pride that goes along with that. I think I had like 28 lambs on the grill at one time; to my dismay, I needed 29. And that’s the most depleted I have ever been. I was trying to keep up and I was pretty much directing the line and then the chef — Chef Besh — when I figured it out, I put it on the grill. He said “Wes, how long on that lamb?” I said “Three minutes.”

I got the fist down on the stainless steel and “I don’t have three minutes.” I thought he was going to send me home, but he sent an intern home and I had to work garde manger (pantry cook) for the rest of the night. It was a big hit to my confidence, to my ego, to everything.

Q: How do you come back from that?

A: Well, being a Gamecock fan, I’ll put it this way. It was kind of like losing to Navy in 1984 and coming back and beating Clemson the next week. What’s great and also a bad thing about our business — when you shine, you only can celebrate it for 24 hours. When you drop the ball or when you lay an egg, you only have to worry about it for 24 hours. Then you can redeem yourself. That’s something that a lot of careers don’t have. People are always going to remember the bad and the really great stuff. People aren’t going to remember all the hard work you did in between. As bad as things may be, you’ve got a chance to make it better.

Q: What new menu items can people expect at Motor Supply Co.?

A: Being an ingredient-driven restaurant like we are, it’s very important that you respect the ingredient. I’ve got whole rabbits down there right now that we’re breaking down. And people are like, “No, not rabbits, they’re so cute.” One thing that Thomas Keller said that has stuck with me is something like, “I give homage to that animal by using every single bit of that animal and not overcooking it, not over-seasoning it.” To me, I’m putting my love into that animal. I think it’s a great way to look at it when people are squeamish about it.

I’m always searching for a better product for something different as well. I think an example of that is when I got here, we were doing New York strips and a braised chuck flap. Those things were great, but I found a grass-fed flat iron steak that I like to put on the menu. I’m always looking for something new to put on the menu.

Q: What’s your best tip for the home cook?

A: Keep it real. I think one of the biggest mistakes that home cooks make is that they get a recipe and follow it verbatim. We’ve all got great instincts to cook. A recipe should be a guidebook or a map. From here, if you are going to Greenville, there’s 20 different ways probably to get there. What matters is that you get to Greenville; it doesn’t matter how you get there. If you’re not culinary trained, grab a techniques book, not a recipe book. Everything is technique.

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