Chef K.C. Gulbro Talks Cooking and Succeeding as a Restaurateur

Chef K.C. Gulbro cooks on TV

MP recently sat down with nationally recognized Chef and Restaurateur K.C. (Kristopher) Gulbro. His passion for food came at an early age, working in the restaurant industry since he was sixteen and holding every position from dishwasher to line cook. After years of mastering his skills in the restaurant and hospitality industry, K.C. and his father Curt opened the doors of FoxFire restaurant in 2003. Being in business for over 18 years, the FoxFire family prides itself on investing in its employees and community while being able to adapt and persevere through difficult times. 

In April of 2021, K.C. and his award-winning team opened his second venture, Copper Fox Pub and Banquet Hall. Gulbro continues to incorporate his style, creating unique savory dishes and offering an exceptional dine-in experience. 

K.C. Gulbro

What initially got you into cooking?  

My mom got me into cooking. One of my early memories was helping mom cook spaghetti. Being the youngest of four boys, I was always left at home to help her while the older brothers worked with dad in the yard or went to practice for sports. 

When did you first want to follow an entrepreneurial path and become a restaurateur? 

When I was nine or so, I and the girl across the street would play restaurant. We would watch “Cheers” and pretend to own our own business the next day. When I went to college, I worked at a bar to pay for school. I learned from a husband and wife team how to price items properly and what different costs were. I realized I was learning what I wanted to do, so I pursued it.  

Cooking

Cooking is often seen as challenging to break into. How can we reframe how everyday people view cooking at home?

Cooking is like riding a bike. Sure it looks hard at first, but start slow and try simple recipes before making giant meals. Cooking is an art, a skill. Practice does make perfect. Do not be afraid. Accept that you will make mistakes, but always learn from them.

What are the absolute essentials someone needs to be able to cook well at home on a budget, and why?  

Here is what you will need when cooking on a budget: a pot, a pan, a rubber spatula, a sharp chef’s knife, and a cutting board. You need equipment to cook but start with the basics. If you can, I would throw in a Crockpot, but these are the cheap essentials. Use the pot to boil eggs, pasta, and chicken. A pan can cook many things. Cutting vegetables and breaking down chicken requires a good knife and cutting board. I would also include a cooking magazine or website. Pick up a copy of “Cooks Magazine,” watch Chef John on “Food Wishes” YouTube, or “America’s Test Kitchen.: These publications have researched for you and do a beautiful job teaching new chefs. 

Do you believe cooking is more a journey of personal exploration or is it a somewhat rigid set of rules and practices that should be followed? 

The best advice I ever received was from Chef Kramer from the College of DuPage. He believes a recipe is a road map that will get you from point A to point B. But that is all it is, a guide. It’s up to you, the chef, to make the recipe your own. Keep in mind that this is for cooking, not so much for baking. When cooking, you can change items and still get great results. Baking is a science; yes, you can change some things, but you do not have the same liberties as when cooking.

How can home cooks begin to develop and memorize recipes, and what should they avoid doing so?  

Like a great actor learning to memorize lines, it’s all about practice. When making your recipe, take notes before, during, and after you make it. Practice, practice, practice! Taste, taste, taste!  

Chef K.C. Gulbro and his father Curt
Chef K.C. Gulbro and his father Curt at FoxFire / Photo courtesy of Chef K.C. Gulbro

What three obstacles have you encountered when developing new dishes, and how have you overcome them?

1. Having Confidence in My Food

I remember helping mom make spaghetti and then watching my dad see if he liked it. A few minutes of tasting it felt like an eternity, waiting for him to smile so I could say “I helped!” and get a “that-a-boy!” How to overcome a lack of confidence is to practice! Like sports, professional chefs and home cooks need to practice, practice, practice. This means tasting your foods and having others taste them. Study and learn from others, check out cooking sites and, if you can, take classes. 

2. Time Management

At work, we can easily arrange cooking times to make a great meal. We can roast our beef and brine our pork chops to enhance the flavors, but at home, working 60 hours a week, cooking off-the-clock is hard. I have found scheduling and planning will help you overcome this. I love Crockpot recipes and meal preps, as they help me not only with my diet but also allow me to cook when I have time and to enjoy meals when I do not.  

3. Ingredients Can Present Another Challenge

Right now, we are in a pepper shortage. Sriracha is going to be scarce. Soon, you will see mustard prices go up as seeds are short. A good friend is dealing with this now– he cannot make his jerk marinade because peppers are nowhere to be found. One way of overcoming this is either growing your products or finding a reliable source. To compensate, my chef friend found frozen scotch bonnets, which saved the day. As a chef, you have to find alternative options. If you cannot find something fresh, try frozen. If you cannot find a certain kind of pepper, try another. Study, taste, practice, and you will succeed.

Entrepreneurship

What are three things you see that are often overlooked by restaurateurs you encounter? 

1. Customer relations

One thing that restaurateurs forget is the customers. At FoxFire and Copper Fox, we ensure that ownership knows the customers. We are on the floor daily, touching base with the tables and ensuring they are taken care of. We appreciate customer feedback and listen to our staff when they have feedback to give as well. It is through those suggestions we can adapt our concepts and make necessary changes to not only survive but thrive. 

2. Employee Relations

There is a fine line here, but some restaurateurs will either get too involved or ignore their staff. I have known owners that get disenfranchised with their restaurants because they drain their employees by getting too personally involved with them. I have also seen other owners that do not even know the names of their dish staff. 

At FoxFire and Copper Fox, we walk that fine line. When an employee is hired, I personally participate in the application and interview process. I want to know who is working for me. I always say, would I invite this person to Thanksgiving? Will they fit with our “family”? I tend to fall into the over-caring section but have kept it professional. 

Owners, if you do not know the people working for you, that will cause division. Employees will feel like you do not care, and if you do not watch, then why should they? Just knowing their name is a great defense against theft and a morale boost. 

3. Take Time Off

My dad always tells people, “manage yourself with mercy.” 

As a kid, I would roll my eyes just hearing it, but as I got older and started working more and more, those words made sense and have helped with my success. Don’t forget you own the restaurant, not the other way around. 

In the early years of FoxFire, I hardly took a day off. The only work I delegated was to the front of the house to wait on tables and seat guests. Not managing myself with mercy by taking a day off or spending a night away, resulted in massive burnout, killed personal relationships, stressed out my family, left me with a creativity block, and hurt employee morale. 

Too many restaurateurs will become slaves to their brand. Like a tiger mom on steroids, they will never leave the restaurant alone. They watch their restaurant even when they are at home or out to lunch. I am not suggesting you be an absentee owner. Just take time for yourself. Make a balance between life and work. One of the best tidbits I learned is that to keep life balanced, you must break it into three parts: work, home, and “you” time. If you cannot balance the three, one or two will suffer.  

Chef K.C. Gulbro rides on the world famous Tail of the Dragon in TN
Chef K.C. Gulbro rides on the world-famous Tail of the Dragon in TN in his free time / Photo courtesy of Chef K.C. Gulbro

How can other restaurateurs be aware of these things from the beginning? 

Make yourself aware, and do not take it for granted.  

What do you wish you could have done differently as a restaurateur, and why? 

I think finding the work/life/home balance earlier in my career would have led to more success.
Delegate. A professor once told me to teach those below me to do my job. Do not be afraid to show them the ins and outs, so they get good enough that you can promote yourself and focus on the next task. Young entrepreneurs are sometimes afraid to teach, either out of fear that employees will steal their ideas, or because they worry they will become obsolete.

How do you deal with doubt?

Practice. When it comes to recipes, refine them through practice. Test them as specials or with your staff. At home, cook with your roommates or your significant other, or invite friends for dinner. Test, try, repeat. Always learn, and bring joy into your cooking. Through practice, you start to believe in yourself.
I tend to get competitive. For instance, I am on a chef’s summit for Certified Angus Beef ®. There are chefs from all over, and many are famous in the chef circle, on social media or even TV. There is a small cooking competition that will be taking place, and yes, I have doubts, as I am here meeting many great chefs for the first time. I just have to remind myself that I am here for a reason, I know my flavors, and this is also a learning experience, and we are all in it for fun. Are we all going to compete to do our best dish? Heck yeah! I can believe in myself by remembering that this is supposed to be fun. I have done this before, many, many times.

Cover photo courtesy of Chef K.C. Gulbro.