Wesley Fulmer, the new executive chef of Columbia’s Motor Supply Company Bistro and a Prosperity native, left his hometown 15 years ago to travel the globe and hone his craft under the direction of some of the world’s most renowned chefs. Now, after spreading his corn-fed culinary roots as far as France, Fulmer is back. And this time, he’s the one in charge.
Fulmer sat down with The State to talk about his well-traveled yet traditional style of cooking, the future of his bistro and Columbia’s food scene. Here are excerpts from the conversation:
How do you hope to help revitalize the Columbia-area food scene?
Honestly, I don’t think it needs to be revitalized, so to speak. Long before I left, the seeds had been planted for the scene to grow and grow.
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What has Columbia been missing since you’ve been gone?
I would love to say they’ve been missing me, but that’s not the case (laughs). Honestly, I think Columbia’s gained a lot since I’ve been gone. When I left it was pretty stagnant for a young professional in my early 20s. When the opportunity came for me to come back to Columbia, I had my doubts, but after coming up here and talking to a lot of people that live here and seeing how progressive the town has gotten, it’s a real pleasure to see Columbia growing in that way. So as far as missing anything, I don’t think Columbia’s missed anything. I think they’ve changed in a positive way since I’ve been gone and its really good to see.
What do you bring to the table?
Anytime that you can get more talent, I think it helps the scene tremendously. Anytime you get people that have been to different parts of the country and been successful in different parts of the country, I think it’s a great thing. So as far as what I bring to the table coming up here in Columbia, I just bring my experience and my past accomplishments and connect it to all the great chefs that are here already.
You had a gig at Restaurant Christian Etienne in France. How does being a chef over there compare to here?
It’s a whole different thinking. Being in the culinary community in France is – you base you whole life on waking up in the morning, going to the market, seeing what available, bringing it to the kitchen. I think in America we get too caught up with dollars and cents … in France you never hear about how much money was made the night before, you hear about what a great dish they made the night before. So it’s a different mindset and it’s a lot more passionate, though we’re well on our way. We’re getting a lot of passionate chefs, especially here in Columbia. Everybody has a long way to go compared to Italy and France to see the passion that they have over there.
Next stop, Susanna Foo’s two-time James Beard Award-winning French-Chinese fusion kitchen in Philly. How do you mix your knowledge of Asian ingredients and cooking styles into your work today?
Being a – I’d say inexperienced chef at the time – I just wanted to get a big name under my belt. And my culinary teachers always told me that if you want to be great, you find the hardest chef, the hardest restaurant that you can and go to it and be successful. And I really wasn’t all that fond of Asian ingredients, so I made myself learn a cuisine that I really wasn’t into at the time, and it really made all the difference in the world.
Two years later, you headed all the way down to New Orleans to work under Food Network regular Chef John Besh in Restaurant August, which was nominated twice for the coveted James Beard Award for Best National Restaurant. How does that Cajun-Creole flavor find its way into your dishes?
If you look at Cajun cuisine and then look at Lowcountry cooking, there’s a lot of similarities. For instance, a lot of people call it Creole, well, Lowcountry cuisine was the first Creole in the United States … Creole just means a mixture of ethnic cuisine mixed into French, so it finds its way in everyday... The okra and tomato stew that we do with the half chicken – it’s pretty much a Creole dish. If you want to go with Cajun, I love the boudin sausage, and that finds it’s way into my cooking as well. And then the spices. I love using cayenne, and I didn’t really know how valuable cayenne was until I went down to New Orleans – and there’s a correct way to use it and an incorrect way to use it. You want to try to get the flavor of the cayenne pepper out and not just the heat.
Way before you learned anything from Besh and Foo, you cooked up your first food memories by helping your grandfather barbeque whole hogs and eating your grandmother’s award-winning pound cake. What did you learn about food from your grandparents that carries over into what you do at Motor Supply?
Just the love and the passion that they put into it. There was so much to do at my grandma and granddad’s house as far as keeping everything manicured and cut and cleaned and making sure all the fields were plowed. There really wasn’t that much time and to see them take off a whole day to make a meal was mind boggling to me. It showed me the passion that you need to put into food.
What is your signature dish?
Oh boy. I’d probably have to say shrimp and grits. With all the hoopla around shrimp and grits these days, I don’t like to pull it out too much, and I like to do it the traditional way. I did some research and it came from the Lowcountry subculture. It was shrimp you could catch readily, and then tomatoes and bacon and that’s pretty much it … and that’s how I do it, I have tomatoes and bacon and a little bit of butter and (I put it) right over the grits.