by John Adamian

It may have all started with a fried bologna and egg sandwich. That’s one of the culinary inspirations that comes to mind for Kristina Fuller when she thinks back on her formative food experiences. Fuller is the young, impressively tattooed and driven head chef and co-owner of Crafted: The Art of the Taco and Crafted: The Art of Street Food, two inventive and inspired Greensboro restaurants that take elements of Southern cooking and place them alongside international cuisine in affordable and dynamic settings.

Fuller says she remembers her grandfather frying up breakfast.

“My mother and I used to live with my grandparents when I was a lot younger, and every morning my grandfather would bring me into the kitchen and sit me on the counter while he was cooking, and he’d make me fried bologna, egg and cheese sandwiches,” says Fuller. “It’s good “” if you don’t dislike bologna, it’s a great sandwich.”

As significant taste memories go, those bologna-eggand-cheese sandwiches might explain how Fuller got her feel for humble, assertive and satisfying, down-home food with plenty of protein to make the engines run.

Beyond that, Fuller just learned to be at home where food was being prepared.

“She was always in the kitchen,” says Fuller’s mother, Rhonda, who is a partner at the restaurants.

Taco Time

Fuller, 31, opened up her newest restaurant, Crafted: The Art of Street Food, in May. But she’s been exploring bold, affordable creative cuisine in one way or another since opening The Bistro in the Sedgefield section of Greensboro in 2008. If The Bistro, which closed in 2013, had a slightly more high-end menu, it was where Fuller zeroed in on her taco obsession.

“When we had The Bistro I would sometimes do a taco special, and, well, they were selling like crazy,” says Fuller. “Then I started to develop and play with taco specials every day.” Her taco fixation was serious enough that Fuller considered getting a food truck to serve tacos during the day while The Bistro, which was only open for dinner, was closed.

A shifting restaurant culture and her own desire to reach more people was part of what led Fuller on the taco trajectory.

“Our price points [at The Bistro] were anywhere from $12 to $32, and I loved the creative aspect of those menus that I could take on, but it was about three years into it that I’m starting to recognize that the trend is changing toward smaller, more affordable, but still very much chef-inspired, cool food, and that’s the food I wanted to do.”

The taco “” like the sandwich, or the pizza “” has plenty going for it. The flexibility of what you can put in one “” once you decide that you’re okay breaking with Mexican tradition. The relative (or at least theoretical) portability. You can generally eat one with your hands. The affordability. (One can still find plenty of first-rate $2 tacos in this world.) The humble of-the-people appeal.

“I personally love to eat tacos,” says Fuller. “But I also love to play with my food. That’s part of being a chef. With tacos it doesn’t require utensils. I like just eating with my hands. I’ve always enjoyed eating a taco. The tortilla is more of a vessel than it is the star of the show. You can put anything in a tortilla. You think of it like a sandwich “” there’s no wrong way to make a sandwich. You can put anything between two layers of bread and it’s a sandwich, so why can’t we do that with tacos? Why can’t we get creative with it? There is no standard. There is no stopping point as to what you can and can’t do. You can do anything.”

To her point, Fuller has conceived of and executed all kinds of unexpected combos slapped inside a tortilla. Peruvian-inspired ceviche tacos. Vietnamese-inflected bahn mi tacos. Down-home fried-chicken-collards-andmashed-potato tacos. You get the idea. She’s not exactly worried about winning the Diana Kennedy award for authenticity with her tacos. Which helps explain why the menu at Crafted: The Art of the Taco states in bold letters: “This is not a Mexican restaurant. This is a taco joint.”

That said, they’ll gladly give you the traditional cilantro, chopped onions and radish with your pork taco if you want to keep it Mexicano style.

But despite the extreme flexibility of the taco, there are, in fact, things that you probably don’t need to have wrapped in a tortilla. Like noodles, for instance.

“I love pho, and I love ramen,” says Fuller. So, once her taco joint seemed to be humming along with its own natural rhythm “” the place opened strong in 2012, serving more customers than they had planned, and has remained popular ever since “” she started thinking of ways to explore the non-taco side of her culinary vision. That’s what led her to the idea for Crafted: The Art of Street Food.

A Feel For the Kitchen

It all could have played out differently. When Fuller was in high school in Burlington she worked with her family in the mortgage business and with rental properties. That gave her both a taste for hands-on work and at least a passing familiarity with numbers, two useful things when it comes time to balance the books at the end of the night or to hang a shelf in the kitchen.

But Fuller, from her time cooking with family, had the feeling she wanted to be in the food industry. A high school internship at B. Christopher’s, which was then at its original location in Burlington, gave her the chance to test the theory.

“That’s what I wanted to explore “” being in a restaurant and under pressure, washing the dishes “” to see if it was something that I truly did love enough, as far as the culinary arts go,” she says. “I loved it from the start. Right out of the gate I was like ‘This is awesome.’ I enjoyed going there every day.”

How anyone could love washing dishes in a restaurant might seem like a profound mystery to anyone who’s ever done dishes in a restaurant. But Fuller is a little hardcore in that regard.

When I ask her what she says to people who don’t necessarily have experience but who want to get a start in the restaurant business, she says: “Well, are you willing to start from the bottom and learn? Are you willing to come do the worst position “” which is dish[es]? But in our restaurant, [the dishwasher] is so important because we have such a high turnover, and if you can’t keep up with the dishes, more than likely you’re not keeping up with the food.”

Chef Chris Russell, of B. Christopher’s, remembers Fuller from that pivotal high-school internship. “I knew then that she was going places, for sure,” says Russell. “She had the drive that early on in her career. She was very inquisitive. Always asked the right questions. She was always underfoot. She was always there, and that was refreshing.”

As Russell sees it, Fuller had talents and qualities that would have served her anywhere.

“She could have excelled at lots of things,” he says.

But attracting and retaining promising young people to restaurant work is one of the things Russell strives for.

“The industry loses a lot of potentially great people because their first experience in the restaurant business may not be a positive one,” he says.

That may be a kind of change that Fuller is contributing to in her own way, chipping away at the semi-romantic myth of the hot-headed pan-flinging (generally male) head chef hazing newcomers.

“What stands out the most about her is I think she’s genuinely just a nice person,” says Russell. “You know, there are lots of great cooks out there, lots of good chefs “” but I think it’s sometimes tough for those of us that try to keep a bigger heart in this industry, and she certainly does that.”

The idea that chefs are the new rock stars is an oftrepeated one, but this is a place where it seems appropriate: On the one hand, you have to pay your dues, to be willing to do the grunt work, whether it’s scooping out food-gunk from a bus tray or, as a would-be rock god, lugging your gear to a crummy bar and playing for indifferent crowds. But the barriers to entry into the field aren’t impossibly high: learn to play a few chords and belt out a tune and you’re on your way to the stage, or master a nice sear on a scallop, demonstrate your ability to fry an egg well, and you might be able to start scaling up the ladder of a kitchen somewhere.

But that’s not entirely true. As Fuller can tell you, the food industry isn’t so easy to crack into everywhere. Before opening up The Bistro, with the help of her mother Rhonda, who also is a manager/proprietor with the Crafted restaurants, Fuller moved up north “” a little over 10 years ago “” thinking that her work experience (she’d been employed by B. Christopher’s and other regional restaurants at the time) would be enough to get a food in the door with the David Changs of the world. It didn’t work out like that right away.

“I kind of just up and decided that I was gonna move to New York and try to work in a kitchen up there,” says Fuller. “I had quite the rude awakening. “¦ Here I am in New York basically walking into any restaurant that I pass and filling out applications, and turning in resumes. Most of the responses that I got were ‘We’re looking for someone that has experience working in New York.’ And, you know, I was willing to wash dishes, I didn’t care. I was beginning to get discouraged.”

It’s a little hard to imagine Fuller discouraged, if only because she presents a kind of calm, single-minded, no-B.S., psychic-jujitsu focus and poise to the world. As she tells it, she couldn’t get a job in the food industry in New York, so she started working retail and slinging Philly cheesesteaks at a sub shop, just to pay bills and stay busy.

An off-hand venting session to a bartender friend at a Brooklyn watering hole led to an encounter that gave Fuller the chance to prove herself in the big city.

“Here I am griping and moaning because I can’t get a job,” she says. “About three or four bar stools down is this guy and he walks over to me, ‘Hey, I hope I’m not creeping you out eavesdropping on your conversation about trying to get a job.'” Turns out the guy was head chef at a new restaurant, and he invited Fuller to demonstrate her kitchen skills during a night of service where he worked.

In a made-for-a-movie moment, the line cook who’s supposed to be showing her the ropes gets in the weeds and Fuller holds down the station, even floating to other cooks to assist during the rush, demonstrating a cool head, fast hands and a team spirit. The managers ask her to stay for the entire shift and offer her a job. And that was her serendipitous break into the New York restaurant world. She worked there for eight months before deciding to head back to North Carolina. But she got to eat a lot of tacos and sample a lot of Asian, Mexican and Central American food before she left.

Her experience as a diner and a shopper “” more so than her experience in the kitchen “” are what shaped future course.

“What was great about New York is that I was able to eat really authentic cuisines, because I was living out in Brooklyn,” she says. “I was able to eat pretty cheaply at the neighborhood taquerias, because it was affordable. I was able to eat really cool food. That’s when I really started expanding my palette. I was able to shop in these types of markets and get ingredients that I had never worked with before and taste food that I had never tasted before. That’s when I was like ‘I want to do this type of food.'”

Food Focus

Like those foundational fried-bologna sandwiches, Fuller’s appreciation of affordable “” but good “” food has to be one of the reasons for her success. Her readiness to adapt, her gauging of customer feedback (she checks up on diner responses through social media), and her attention to freshness and quality have guided some of the streamlining of her menus and her success. She could load up rice-heavy burritos, but, after an initial trial of serving rice as a side at the taco restaurant, she and the staff decided the rice couldn’t be kept just-right enough during a night of service, so they chucked it from the standard offerings. Likewise, her philosophy about making as much of her food as vegan and vegetarian-friendly doesn’t go unnoticed by those steering clear of meat.

Poke around in many restaurants and you’ll find a lot of people who pursued “” or are pursuing “” careers in acting, or writing, or painting, or music, or anthropology, or whatever. That’s one of the things that can make work in the food industry exciting and fun. Plus everybody loves food. But Fuller is one of those rare single-minded lifers. She’s not a frustrated poet or anything like that. When I ask her what she’d be doing if she weren’t in the kitchen, she appears almost stumped. She certainly wouldn’t be working as a mortgage broker “” she knows that.

“I don’t know,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to do anything that requires being behind a desk.”

But then she comes up with a response that’s sort of a cheat of an answer:

“Bartending “” I like the front of house,” she says. “I need to be doing something creative, something with my hands. If I wasn’t on the cooking side of it, I’d probably be on the bartending side of it, because it would still allow me to be creative and to come up with different stuff, because that’s what I’m constantly thinking about.”

At least she has outlets for that constant thinking. In addition to her work at her own restaurants, Fuller has also worked helping shape what’s served at some other area restaurants.

“I just come in as a culinary consultant,” she says. “I help design the menu, I help develop the recipes and train the staff on the different menus. I sit down with [restaurant owners and managers] and they tell me what they’re going for. They come to me with a concept, keeping price point, customer base in mind. I enjoy doing it because it’s another creative outlet.”

You can see, and taste, the hint of Fuller’s culinary fingerprint on the menus at Hops Burger Bar and 913 Whiskey Bar, which she helped design. Like Fuller’s restaurants, there’s a global perspective “” Cuban, Mexican, Asian, etc.

“” filtered through a Southern sensibility. Expect collards. Expect pork. Expect smoky and acidic accents. Expect pimento cheese to be used in exciting ways.

Fuller is highly regarded by local restaurant people.

That peer respect is partly what landed her on a reality cooking show.

“I was on ‘Cutthroat Kitchen’ about a year and half ago,” she says.

Fuller got the call because someone from Competition Dining, the good-spirited statewide culinary contest designed to boost interest in local restaurant and chefs, had passed along her name to the producers.

“[Representatives from the Food Network] sent me a couple of emails, which I ignored,” says Fuller. “I’m not the biggest fan of ‘Cutthroat Kitchen.'” Then they called her at work. When asked if she’d seen their emails, Fuller said yes. Self-promotion being the mantra of the age, evidently the Food Network wasn’t used to being ignored. The network representative asked why Fuller didn’t want to participate.

“So I said ‘Since you’re asking, I’ll be honest, I don’t particularly like that show. I don’t like the premise behind the show, I think it’s pretty absurd,'” says Fuller. “We’re all striving to do the same things “” to do great food. To me, sabotaging another chef is just something I would never do. “¦ I’d rather be in a competition where we’re all on the same playing field, and if I lose it’s because you out-cooked me.”

Free airfare to the taping out in L.A. helped her overcome her philosophical objections.

“I agreed to do the show thinking any publicity is good publicity,” says Fuller. “I went and did it. It was quite the experience.”

(As you might guess, a would-be taco played into her creation for the show.)

Fuller says she was a fan of cooking shows before being a contestant on one. But the experience provided a peek behind the food-tv curtain.

“It gave me a new outlook on what goes into reality cooking shows,” she says.

Fuller doesn’t rule out more appearances on foodcentric television shows, but she’s got a few other things lined up. First, she’s going on a blitz of a palate-titillating vacation in Southeast Asia at the end of the year “” hitting Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong and elsewhere on a trip that’s as much about tasting culinary inspiration as it is about sight-seeing. She’s also thinking that at some point in the future “” when things settle “” she might sit down and write a cookbook. But before all that Fuller and her mother are scoping out ways to expand Crafted: The Art of the Taco into, if not a taco empire, at least a taco fiefdom, with a possible second location being considered for another city nearby.

“My focus is to keep doing what we’re doing here in Greensboro and maybe to expand to other cities. .. What we’d really like to do is take that taco thing, because it did catch on so quickly and it continues to stay just as busy if not busier than it was on day one, and expand that. That’s one of those concepts that you can really just plop it in any city and it would do well, as long as we keep a hold on what’s happening.”

So don’t be surprised if Crafted: The Art of the Taco opens an outpost in Winston-Salem or Burlington before too long. !