TUSCALOOSA, AL. — Fear isn't in Fuller Goldsmith's vocabulary.
The 16-year-old Tuscaloosa native, a teen celebrity chef in his own right, is back in the kitchen after overcoming cancer for a fourth time and told Patch on Friday that he doesn't plan to let the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic slow down his plans as he forwards his budding culinary career.
Fuller was recently the focus of a profile published by Seattle Children's — the hospital where he participated in immunotherapy clinical trials in January 2019 that resulted in his cancer going into remission. The piece was picked up by People and told how since the age of three, Fuller has received treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
After two months in Seattle, Fuller was able to return home and get back to work.
"I'm at home cooking and cooking at Southern Ale House a lot," he said. "I've just been trying to come up with new recipes during this quarantine."
Fuller works 2-3 days a week in the kitchen at the popular eatery, but even amid the sweeping public health changes spurred by the coronavirus, he's seen little adjustment to his routine other than the abrupt cancellation of events.
"It's just me going to the grocery store and picking out my stuff," he said of the biggest changes. "But that’s about it, I’ve been wearing a mask everywhere I go my whole life, so it's just nothing to me."
COOKING UP A CAREER
After returning once again to his craft, Fuller says his health is great and he is getting stronger every day as he works toward his dream of culinary school and opening his own fine dining restaurant.
The teen is well on his way, too, already achieving fame by winning "Chopped Junior" at the age of 13 and rubbing elbows with some of his heroes like Curtis Stone, Gail Simmons, Richard Blais and Guy Fieri.
"[Fieri] was very funny, very laid back and a really good guy and it was awesome to finally meet him," Fuller said.
These valuable interactions with renowned celebrity chefs have given Fuller a wealth of insight and lessons that he is already incorporating into his own career.
"I say just keep learning, there’s always new techniques going on every day," he said. "So they just taught me to just keep learning. There are always ways to improve recipes, techniques, all that stuff."
Fuller's mother, Melissa Goldsmith, has had a front-row seat to her son's success and watched him fight bravely through ongoing obstacles to become a culinary force.
"I think given all that he’s been through, it has taught him the only way to get through it is to persevere and never give up," she said. "And that is mirrored in his chef's life."
Goldsmith said her son was about 4-5 years old when he first showed an interest in the kitchen and it wouldn't be too long before Fuller would become the chef-in-residence at his home.
"He wanted to chop, so he would do lots of chopping and I was always nervous with knives," she laughed, reminiscing on those formative early years. "But he learned his knife skills and is really good. He would try to grill like his Dad did or make salad like me."
At home, Fuller said the crowd favorite is his take on shrimp and grits — a dish he described as somewhat basic, with attention given to not overdoing something simple. His special touch, he said, came in adding cheese to the grits.
His mother's favorite dish, however, is Fuller's homemade pasta, which is an offering the young chef admitted was a difficult thing to master.
"Anything is difficult when you try it new, but if I keep trying I hopefully get it down," Fuller said. "Pasta, I still struggle with that. I make it a lot now, so I think it's helping me master it."
As mothers will do, Goldsmith disagreed with her son's criticism of his own work, but did say his learning came with its own challenges, as is the case with the majority of chefs seen on television and in kitchens across the globe.
"There’s been some tears shed and some throwing of flour across the kitchen and it was something he had to master," she said. "I wasn't going to let him give up, though."
Fuller has been homeschooling for the last two years and says in the next two or three years his goal will be to attend culinary school to further hone his skills. In considering the range of educational options, the school that stands out most to the teen chef is The Culinary Institute of America at Copia in Napa, California.
"I just think great opportunities will come from Napa because some of my idols are there, like Thomas Keller and Curtis Stone," he said. "I just think it will be really fun to go out there."
Fine dining has been Fuller's focus of late, with a longterm goal of opening a restaurant in Birmingham similar to Hot and Hot Fish Club — an establishment run by one of his heroes and mentors, Chef Chris Hastings.
"I feel like I’ve learned so much from [Hastings] alone and when I go to culinary school, I feel like I’ll learn a lot more of the stuff that he learned when he went to culinary school," he said. "Hopefully, when quarantine ends, I'll be able to go back over there and cook a little bit at Hot and Hot."
He also spoke to his love of fine dining ingredients, revealing a knowledge and wisdom well beyond his years.
"I'm into really fancy ingredients, truffles, caviar, all that stuff," Fuller said. "I think, to me, that’s really fun to make. Everything has precision and you have to focus really hard on it, so that’s what I like."
'KEEP ON FIGHTING'
The challenges posed for the life of a chef can be numerous, but hurdles are nothing for Fuller, who said a lifetime of battling cancer has prepared him for anything life might bring.
In Seattle, Fuller received experimental chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell immunotherapy, which the hospital says engineers a patient’s own immune cells to target and eliminate cancer cells. Despite running a fewer that lasted a few days, Fuller experienced few other symptoms and eventually saw his cancer go into remission.
He still has to make regular trips to Children's Hospital in Birmingham once a month, but said the past 12 years gave him the mental strength to not let it impact his dreams.
"There were definitely the low points going through all the treatment," Fuller said. "But I always said to myself there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and good things will come from this one bad thing."
Goldsmith said, despite the ups and downs of his circumstances, her son has remained humble, positive and undeterred by everything ranging from his health to his teen chef celebrity status.
"He was so young when he was diagnosed that he doesn’t really remember, but he knows you still have to go on with life," she said. "He's not just going to wait around and be sick and he’s really got it in his mind what he wants to do. We’re still surprised. He really is talented and knows so much more than us. He studies his craft, is diligent in studying the art of cooking and he’s dedicated to it."
She then echoed her son's approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has changed their routine in only minor ways since the onset due to their previous diligence concerning Fuller's health.
"We’ve been quarantining for years, so when you’re immunocompromised, it wasn’t new," she said. "But we are very appreciative to the community for how supportive they’ve been. Tuscaloosa has always so supportive."
Apart from his notoriety, Fuller is still very much a normal 16 year old in every respect. He enjoys watching movies, playing video games — like Madden and Call of Duty — and eating at Tuscaloosa restaurants like Chuck's Fish, Evangeline's, Local Roots and his employer, Southern Ale House.
The myriad successes, though, are still intermingled with the adversity he has faced, which gave him an acute perspective when asked what he would tell others in similar situations who may be having a difficult time in their own battles.
"Keep on fighting," he said. "Don’t ever give up."