What do you get when you combine a father’s culinary lessons with job experiences and observances, and sprinkle on a bit of shrimp, andouille sausage and bacon?
You get something that just might bring home the gold.
At least that’s what Kyle Fusco is hoping for. Fusco, who is the chef at Eagle Creek Brewing Company, will represent Statesboro and the Magnolia Midlands region as part of the competition at the Jekyll Island Shrimp & Grits Festival on Sept. 16. He will go up against chefs from Sweet Potato Café (Atlanta Metro), Honey Café (Classic South/Millen), Southern Soul Barbecue (The Coast/St. Simon’s Island), Aubri Lane’s (Historic Heartland/Milledgeville), Johnny Mitchell’s Smokehouse (Historic High Country/Cartersville), Valhalla Resort (Northeast Georgia Mountains/Helen), The LOCAL Kitchen & Bar (Plantation Trace/Tifton), The Jekyll Island Club Resort (Jekyll Island) and defending champion, West Egg Café (Atlanta).
The first place winner will receive $2,000 in cash, an official award to display in his or her restaurant, a feature on SouthernLiving.com, inclusion in state-wide news coverage and the right to return to defend the title in 2018. The winner will also have the opportunity to cook his or her winning recipe for Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal.
There are also second and third place spots, with $1,000 and $500 cash prizes, respectively. Both of these winners will also receive an award to display in-restaurant as well.
Fusco was approached by Eagle Creek owner Franklin Dismuke in May about entering the contest. Fusco says the restaurant battled with another on social media for the right to represent the region in the contest and won. The recent Georgia Southern graduate says it was a group effort that helped them win, with everyone employed at Eagle Creek hopping onto social media sites and asking for votes.
Starting out at Troy University in Troy, Alabama to pursue a teaching degree, Fusco worked in restaurants to pay the bills. But he found it was a great way to express his creativity as well.
“I think it’s kind of funny that I went to school to be a teacher and got a side job at a restaurant, and by the time I’m done with my degree, I’ve changed to learn how to run a business for myself,” he said, laughing.
Fusco has no formal culinary training, and says that the basis of everything he’s learned he got from his father, who was Italian, and was in culinary school when he was drafted to serve in Vietnam. He’s also learned as much as he can from co-workers and former employers.
“I’ve sought to absorb as much as I can everywhere I’ve been,” he said.
Fusco got his start at Yanni’s Steakhouse in Troy, while he went to school there.
“I remember being the bus boy and busting my tail to become the dishwasher, because he made 25 cents more an hour and I wanted that raise,” he said.
One of his fraternity brothers was the general manager and part-owner at the restaurant, and he took Fusco under his wing, showing him the basics of running a kitchen and a restaurant. The aspiring chef caught on fast.
“I discovered that the more I know, the more money I can make and the more fun that I have,” he said.
Once he transferred to Georgia Southern, Fusco went to work at now-closed 119 Chops, and says that’s where he learned the “bulk of fine dining etiquette” from owner Richard Toms. He then worked for a couple of years at Gnats Landing, running the kitchen there. But after his graduation, he wanted to do something different – something much more hands-on.
Fusco was approached about working with Eagle Creek during their transition to becoming a brew pub, and he found it to be a good fit.
“They gave me the reins to create the menu and create all the food, all the dishes. It came together pretty quickly,” he said. “I designed the menu around the fact that I’d be the only person in the kitchen, so I didn’t want things to be overly complicated. I wanted to set it up where one person could manage it.”
Fusco kept some of the more familiar menu favorites, but added some new things of his own design as well. His shrimp and grits is one of those newer items, and has become a hit. It’s offered each Friday, and often sells out.
“I’m really proud of this one, because I think it’s going to bring home the gold, I really do,” he said.
The recipe includes two kinds of cheese in the grits, which are cooked with homemade chicken broth and cream. He uses fresh shrimp from Prosser’s in Brooklet, and adds andouille sausage, lime juice and chili powder.
Fusco says he’s tweaking the sauce he uses, and believes that this will put his recipe over the top and win the competition.
As for facing last year’s champ, Fusco isn’t particularly intimidated, even though this is his first competition.
“They are a literal breakfast joint, so I’m going up against the king of Georgia when it comes to shrimp and grits,” he said. “But I’m going to have a little something extra in our sauce. I’m going to take it up an extra level.”
He’s most excited about the opportunity to see how other chefs operate, not just within the confines of a competition, but in their day-to-day business operations as well.
Everything will be provided on site for the competition, part of the Shrimp and Grits Festival that lasts all weekend on Jekyll Island, Sept. 15-17. Chefs will not be allowed to bring any ingredients, and will be provided with two Bunsen burners and one chafing dish – there will be no electricity, Fusco said.
“You will have to be really creative and organized in the process of what you want to do, and build things in the right order,” Fusco said, adding that they are allowed a team of four people. He plans to have a team of three people.
The dish must include five Georgia-grown ingredients, which restricts Fusco a bit.
“That keeps me from doing some of the things I want to do, but we have to play by the rules. So as far as tweaking (to prepare), there are some things I can use and some things I can’t,” he said.
He’s been practicing the recipe for months.
“I’ve eaten it just about every day since we entered the contest,” he said, laughing.
As for his future plans, Fusco said there are three words to remember: Food by Fusco. It’s his brand, his Instagram moniker and his future. He plans to travel and develop his skills more, and open a food truck or two, all on his way to opening a unique Italian restaurant that he says will be unlike anything anyone has ever seen or experienced.
In the meantime, he’s thankful for the opportunity to represent the Boro in this competition, and thanks everyone who voted for Eagle Creek and for him.
“We are the underdog in this. This is the first time we’ve entered in this. So there’s no pressure on us at all. We shouldn’t even place because we’re the new guys. All the rewards are certainly enticing and it’s hard not to think about,” he said. “But I’m trying to come away with more knowledge than I’m coming into it with. That’s the thing I’m most looking forward to. I love a good challenge.”