His father was from North Carolina, but Ash Fulk didn’t really fall in love with barbecue until he went out and visited his family after his grandma died. On that trip, he started getting acquainted with southern fare, and he began requesting fried chicken and mashed potatoes or a trip to a barbecue restaurant each year for his birthday.
By that time, Fulk had been cooking in California since high school. “School was never my thing,” he says, so a girlfriend helped him get a job in the kitchen at a restaurant where she was a server. His first task there was to dice an onion, a chore that took him an hour and a half. “I knew nothing,” he says. But he kept going back, and eventually, he worked his way onto the line and then decided to become a chef.
He moved to New York and spent a few years as chef de cuisine of Trestle on Tenth — fueling his barbecue habit at Dinosaur on birthdays — and then did a season of Top Chef. When he came off of that, he was trying to figure out his next move when a friend suggested he try his hand at barbecue. “I was trailing at Le Cirque when I got the call from Hill Country,” Fulk says. “I was like, I like barbecue, why don’t I just do that?”
Hill Country Barbecue Market was one of the early barbecue entrants in the New York market, and it made its name on Texas-style smoked meats served by the pound on butcher paper. Fulk learned the ropes of the region’s brisket in Manhattan, and then last year, he saw Hill Country through an expansion to Brooklyn (345 Adams Street, Brooklyn; 718-885-4608).
In this interview, Fulk weighs in on the evolution of New York City barbecue, why there are so many Texas-style parlors in the Big Apple, and how food television has helped normalize the industry.
People are really obsessed with the rules of barbecue. How does that play out at Hill Country?
People are obsessed, passionate, and angry — there’s a lot of tension. That’s one thing I liked about Hill Country — we’re serving a lot of beautiful southern food and traditions, like green bean casserole. We stay out of the fray that way, and we’re not in competitive barbecue. We’re doing good old Texas food here; it’s like a little bite of childhood.
Was it an intimidating world to enter?
It wasn’t something I’d done. I went from having microgreens in a quart container to having 22 quarts of salt, pepper, and cayenne — and that still not being enough. The volume seems more intimidating that the culture. New York City’s barbecue restaurants are welcoming; it’s not like down south. Everyone eats at everyone’s spots.
Tell me about the evolution of barbecue in the city.
When I first moved here, there was Dinosaur, and then Hill Country opened. But it’s happened the same way it has all over the nation. When the economy downturns, people return to roots food, and that’s when this really took hold. Barbecue was a natural growth of that. It’s a very viable business — you just need a smoker. Delaney spent nothing and made this thing happen. He almost has a cult. You also have Morgan’s, Hometown, Mighty Quinn’s. Everyone started to show up. And there happen to be a lot of Texans in New York.
Tell me about Texas-style. Why do you that style dominates here?
It comes from the tradition of smoking overnight the bad cuts that no one bought so you could sell it the next day. That’s how they did it in central Texas. It’s a lot of dry rubs and a lot of smoke; the rub should enhance the flavor of the meat and make it sing. Some of the other styles are about hiding the flavor of the meat because they’re poor cuts. But in Texas, you get good quality meat. Nowhere else in the world cooks brisket like Texas. And it dominates because it’s the best. New York always likes to be the best.
Talk to me about opening this second location of Hill Country.
Being in the kitchen at the restaurant on 26th was great — I came into a restaurant that was established and had figured out its system. That was a great first experience, and it gave me a lot of freedom to improve systems. Opening is very different. We’re lucky to have built an incredibly beautiful restaurant, and I was lucky to be a part of the process early on. It’s a little like putting a quarter in a slot machine — you open the doors, make the best food you can, give the best hospitality you can, and hope people show up. We’ve done well, thank God.
Any big surprises or disasters?
We accidentally got the wrong smokers dropped off. They were bright silver, which is not our vibe. We have a phrase here: “Well that seems about right.” Nothing super major, though. We opened in the middle of winter, and the other day, I was remembering how cold it was. At one point, it was snowing on us in the kitchen.
How has the industry at large evolved since you arrived?
Everything has gone closer to casual styles, including the old fine dining guard: Look at Le Bernardin’s lounge. That’s a pendulum swing. New Yorkers realized they don’t have to pay $445 million for a meal all the time. It’s like, let’s have full meals with a fast casual vibe. Like when Alex Raij opened El Quinto Pino. There’s this build-your-own meal culture — it’s less the chef is going to tell you when and where to eat.
What would you like to happen in New York City restaurants?
Only barbecue. No, I’m kidding. I like where it’s going. We’re taking the stuffiness out of the food. It’s about taking the chef and letting ’em have fun, and feeding people good, honest, clean, beautiful food. Like Roberta’s, which does simple things beautifully. I think we’re going to stay there — and far away from overpriced for the sake of price. Also, we keep having these nostalgic re-openings — we’re looking for that simpler time in America. Tavern on the Green is this great symbol of New York, and it’s about American tradition. That’s really kind of like barbecue.
What has food TV done to the industry?
Originally, food TV started out damaging — it was a lot of 30 minute meals and cooking out of a can. Now, it’s much more responsible, and there’s such a variety, so people can seek out what they want. And it’s done nothing but help. Take BBQ Pitmasters — it creates this familiarity of barbecue, and it gives a good vernacular to guests, who then have a nodding acquaintanceship to what you’re doing. It normalizes the industry, and it’s helpful for the guests. They’re more comfortable taking risks and trying the new weird thing. That’s nothing but good. All boats rise with the tides.
Talk to me about pressing industry issues.
One big problem is rising costs — and how to not put that onto the guests. There’s a drop dead point where people will stop paying for certain types of food. But high prices of corn have forced up prices in the cattle industry. We’ve all heard about limes, but that’s not the only produce in the shortage. We’re pricing some people out of restaurants, and that’s a shame.
What are your goals?
For this restaurant, I really want to spread Hill Country. I think it has a great vibe, it’s a great place to go, and it gives people that nostalgic moment — it takes them back to Texas, to grandma’s green bean casserole and mac and cheese, and they think, everything’s gonna be okay right now.
Any advice for chefs just getting started?
Be sure that you want it. I don’t mean that in that teachery “well if you can imagine doing anything else…” sort of way. You can do many things. Be sure that this is what you want. It’s a lot of sweat, blood, long days, and sore feet — so you have to be sure. I always tell young chefs to get a 5,000 piece puzzle, put it on the coffee table, and stand up and put it together. That’s what being a chef is: It’s frustrating, your back hurts, and you’re standing and putting it together. Food TV has given this industry a lot of glamour, but you can’t lose sight of the hard work or you’re going to be disappointed.
Best bar for a beer or a drink:
In the summertime, the Frying Pan. You can’t beat it. For a fancy cocktail, Clover Club. It’s beautiful and not pretentious. Or my front porch.
Best special occasion restaurant:
I love Gramercy Tavern. Service there is just awesome. Mike Anthony is one of the greats.
Best no-occasion restaurant:
Carmine’s. I live on the Upper West Side. I love their caesar salad. I have that and a glass of montepulciano at the bar.
Quintessential NYC restaurant:
Katz’s. Or Prune. That’s very New York.
Best dish you’ve had recently and where you had it:
Vivian Howard — the chef and the farmer — did a meal in Oxford last October. She made the best bite I had all year. It was chicken and rice, and when I took a bite, it felt like that scene in Ratatouille. It took me back to a moment in childhood. I could feel the California sun eating this dish. I looked at the chef across the table, and he was having the same moment. I was literally weeping at the end of the meal.
A dish you could eat forever:
Fried chicken and mashed potatoes. And rice and a fried egg. That would be my last meal.
Something you love about NYC restaurants:
Every restaurant you walk into is so different. It feels different, looks different, the staff is different, and it’s managed differently. And everyone is striving to be the best — you really feel that.
Something you wish you could change:
It is kind of changing, but wish I could change the pretension. It’s about food. Food is not elitist. It’s something we all need, it’s the first thing we cry for, and it’s the first thing we’re satisfied with. Food can be served on beautiful plates, with sauces made from gypsy tears, but it should still be accessible.
An underrated restaurant:
Georgia’s Eastside BBQ — it’s not really a super barbecue restaurant, but it’s a cool southern food restaurant. Get the rib sandwich.
An underrated person:
Porters. They make restaurants happen every day. Look at every surface — all those surfaces were cleaned by a porter. You can tell when you go into a restaurant that has a bad porter team. They’re so important. I thank them every day.