Chef Eric Fulkerson grew up in Knoxville in a family who loved to cook.
"I grew up around the dinner table," he says.
His first teenage job was as a morning prep cook at his local Red Lobster.
But Fulkerson, now executive chef at Cleveland's Bald Headed Bistro, took his love of food and cooking to a new level when he entered Johnson & Wales culinary school in Charleston, S.C.
Now, at age 45, his resume is a culinary road map of places around the South where he's made his mark, most recently at the famed James Beard House in New York, where he was invited to test his skills against other chefs at the Southern Wing Showdown. The Beard House is named for cooking icon James Andrew Beard. The house was his residence for many years and is now preserved by a foundation as a stage for premier talent from across the country.
Upon his return from New York, Fulkerson reflected on his experience and the different facets of a career in the culinary arts.
Q Who influenced you to become a professional chef?
A: A very close, longtime family friend, Pete Taylor, was the chef/owner of Piccolo's in Knoxville. Pete was the first "professional" chef I knew.
Q How important is it for a chef to participate in contests, and why do you do it?
A: As a chef, contests are a great way to show off what you do. Every contest is different, and they vary in rules and ingredients, allowing us to show our diverse knowledge of food, time management, creativity and style. I never go into any event saying I want to win this. I go in thinking that I am bringing the best I have, and I hope the judges like it. If I win, that's cool. But I really see contests as more of a learning experience and a way to showcase what I do.
Q How many cooking contests have you participated in?
A: I did a couple when I was with Aramark at Boise State. I have competed in the FiveStar Food Fight three years in a row. The World Chef competition in Orlando a couple of years ago was my first really large cooking competition. I participated in the first Mac and Cheese Festival in Atlanta last year and took second place. And I was in the recent Mother Clucker chicken contest in Chattanooga. And then the Southern Wing Showdown in New York.
Q What was it like cooking at the James Beard House?
A: It was something I have always wanted to do. If someone had told me long ago that I would be there to cook wings or to even be invited, I would never have believed them. I am very glad that my reputation as a chef got me invited to the Beard House. That is what I am most proud of — the invitation. The James Beard House just made me all giddy and smiling because of its history.
Q Would you consider it the pinnacle of your career to date?
A: Yes, cooking at the James Beard House was the pinnacle of my career. I had my prep work done and had some down time, so I was sitting alone on the back patio, soaking everything in and relishing where I was. To be invited, and to know who had been there before in the same kitchen, is very humbling.
Q What did you cook?
A: The Southern Wing Showdown was sponsored by Taste of Atlanta and Springer Mountain Farms Chicken. I cooked bourbon-brined wings with a honey barbecue rub. I also served Bald Headed Bistro's signature Mac & Cheese made with caramelized Vidalia onions, pepper bacon, braised pork belly and Gouda cheese sauce.
Q Is it hard to cook "on the road" when you go to contests?
A: I enjoy the challenge. I've built a kitchen on a loading dock at one event. I've cooked off the back of my truck, over open-fire grills and in beautiful homes and kitchens. I can cook wherever it is requested.
Q What food do you enjoy cooking the most?
A: This is the most common question that I think all chefs are asked. I told myself I need to come up with a stock answer for this, and I haven't yet. So I see myself as knowledgeable in a variety of techniques and cuisines. I am huge fan of chicken. My favorite way to prepare it is to salt-crust an entire chicken and slow-bake it for hours. It's just incredible.
Q Where would you like to take Bald Headed Bistro in the future?
A: I would for us to get back to working with more local and regional farmers and purveyors to support the Southeast, specifically the Chattanooga/Cleveland area. We are just starting a relationship with Chattanooga Butter Co. A couple things are in the works with Big Green Egg and hopefully Lodge Cast Iron, too.
Q Do you like to follow trends?
A: I look at trends for a means of inspiration. What is happening in L.A., Atlanta, Nashville and New York don't always transfer over to Cleveland, Tenn., though. Knowing my market and writing a menu for that market is important. Specials, Chef's Tables, our Supper Club — those are the times when I try new trends and ideas.
Q One of the first things people notice about you are all your tattoos. What are your favorites??
A: I've always had tats. When I moved to Cleveland, I wanted veggies on my arm. And two of my grandmother's recipes are on my arm, too. And the knife tat on my arm, well, it's just cool.
Q Where will the road take you next?
A: The Winemaker dinner at Vine Vault in Atlanta on Aug. 3, followed by the Pick Tennessee dinner in Ooltewah on Aug. 14 and another Southern Wing Showdown in Atlanta in late August. And I've just been invited to the Chef's Taste Challenge in September in New Orleans. It's going to be very exciting with 10 chefs from the Southeast competing with farm-to-table ingredients for hundreds of people.
Q Any guilty food indulgences?
A: Buffalo Chicken Pizza and, if you know me, a PBR Tall Boy.
Email Anne Braly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: A previous version of this article gave the incorrect location for The Pick Tennessee Dinner. It will be in Ooltewah.