We’re just off the phone with Ash Fulk, the Trestle on Tenth sous-chef reppin’ NYC in the new season of Top Chef, which premieres August 19. It was hard to get too many spoilers out of him, since a Bravo rep was guarding Fulk’s every word, but we did manage to get a sense of his cooking style and personality. And we asked him a couple of trick questions (did he get tired from so much shooting? Who did he get along with best?), the answers to which indicate he won’t be packing his knives during the first episode, at least. Here’s your introduction to the dude with the bow tie.
Is Top Chef something you’ve wanted to do for a while?
I watched the first season, but after that I didn’t have a TV, so I didn’t watch the rest. I was out drinking with a couple of friends, and we made a bet. I said, “I should try out for that show,” and one said, “You’d never do it,” so on a whim I decided I would do it.
Was it a grueling tryout process or a breeze?
They do a pretty good job of making it as not grueling as possible. You do an audition video, you send it in, they meet with you at one point, they come into your restaurant and try your food.
Did the chef-owner of Trestle on Tenth have anything to say about it? Was he concerned it might turn the restaurant into a circus?
We’re not supposed to tell anyone, but I got permission from Bravo and went to him and basically said, “I’m going to do it, and can I put your restaurant down as a place, and am I going to be coming back here?” He said, “Absolutely.” We’ve definitely had many conversations about what it’s going to do for the restaurant. Basically, it’ll hopefully bring business to it. I’d hope that would make him have no reservations, especially in this market.
Have customers already come in asking to meet you?
I haven’t had anybody do that yet, and I don’t know what I’m going to do when it happens — I guess I’ll have to go out and say hi to a table or something, but frankly that’s not my style.
So what’s your personal style? Can we expect you to get a lot of camera time?
I’m a pretty serious cook at work, and when I’m not at work, I’m kind of silly and have a fun time. I like to play. I think all the chefs on the show this year are definitely characters in themselves, so Bravo is going to have a difficult time figuring out who gets a lot of face time.
Speaking of fun, what’s up with the bow tie?
When I walked in, we had choices of things we could wear, and I liked the bow tie. My boyfriend told me the bow tie is the next big thing …
Besides the bow tie, did you feel obligated to play it up for the cameras at all? And are you worried about how you’re going to come across after all the editing?
The producers do a really nice job of really highlighting who you are — they don’t really put you on the show if they don’t want you to be real and be your personality. But I’m nervous, of course. You hear all the reality-show horror stories about “Oh, that person is so sweet, how do they make him look like such a jerk?” I don’t know if I’m going to be able to watch it.
Did you get along with some cheftestants more than others?
I got along really well with Ashley. This season is all about cooking — there’s very little drama, at least that I experienced. Everyone is really professional — I don’t know if it’s going to be a great-rated season because of that, but we definitely got in there and cooked.
So let’s talk about cooking. Your style seems very locavore — was that a problem in Vegas?
It was an absolute problem in Vegas — we’re in the middle of the desert. Here in New York, you’re actually talking to farmers and hearing about this great crop of wild perslane that came in and putting it on the menu that night. I’m used to working like that. In a Las Vegas market, all the produce is coming from California or even farther away, so it’s been sitting on a truck for three days. You get what you think is going to be great corn, but it’s not as fresh or sweet, so your dish doesn’t have all the nuances that a dish you might do with a great corn normally has. There was a lot more manipulation that had to go on than I’m used to.
Other than that, what did you consider your biggest weakness going in?
Time is a big issue. I take my time when I cook, and the show really limits you. I enjoy cooking meats for a long time at very low temperatures, soaking beans overnight … At the restaurant I work at now, we have a lot of things that take 24 hours to complete.
Are you able to use recipes from the restaurant? To what extent were you being creative versus just executing your own or other chefs’ recipes well?
When you go on the show, you don’t bring any recipes or anything with you — they take every piece of literature, your iPod, anything that could possibly have a recipe. I didn’t really memorize any recipes when I went in, which, you know, whatever … I just made something completely born from the challenges.
Besides being stripped of your iPod, was there anything else surprising about the experience?
It’s a lot harder than it looks in general. I definitely have watched the episodes and been like, “I can cook circles around that guy — give me a half hour, and I can cook the best food ever.” But then you get in there and you’re like, “Wow, that’s really hard.” We all came in with this arrogant “we’re the best chefs in the world” attitude, and all of us got kicked down a notch.
What do you think helped you?
Since I didn’t go to culinary school, I was really influenced by all the chefs I worked for, who were some of the best unknown chefs in the country. Katie Grebow in San Diego taught me about flavor. Riko Bartolome at the W Hotel took me back to comfort food with an Asian spin. Since I was mostly in California, I really kept learning about local produce and using a great ingredient to make a great dish. And I’ve worked in a lot of lesser kitchens. A lot of the contestants come from a fine-dining pedigree, but I had my diner experiences back in the day. I think being able to push out 300 covers of eggs over-easy will help me because the challenges in past seasons have forced you to come down from the pedestal of fine dining.
Was it a grueling schedule? Did it tire you out?
The schedule is fair — there’s definitely a lot of work, but most of the chefs are used to working ten- or twelve-hour days anyway. We had a couple days off here and there if it was a particularly hard challenge or long challenge.
What about product placement — did it ever get annoying to have to work with certain things?
I don’t think there was any specific instances where it got annoying. Luckily, the products they gave us were good — we had good coffee and good beer …
How do you think this will affect your future as a chef? Are you worried that you won’t be taken seriously or that you’ll have to spend too much time on the Top Chef publicity circuit?
I have to be honest, I didn’t give it much thought. I auditioned on a whim, and I thought, “Well I got on, there’s no reason not to go,” and so I just showed up. It wasn’t till afterward, like right now, that I thought about how this would affect my cooking career. But the reality of kitchens is, if you can cook, which I can, you can get a job and people will take you seriously. They’ll let go of whatever celebrity status you have — hopefully, it’ll help, but if it doesn’t help, I can still go into kitchens and show them I can cook.
You can follow Mr. Fulk on Facebook. He “thinks you should come on out to Trestle on Tenth before we are all booked up!”