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Chef fuses together food and Augusta/Aiken connection

For the fusion food movement fans out there in Augusta who wonder what happened to their favorite restaurant, The Fuse, Head Chef Najmola bounced back from the expired lease at 10th Street and Broad and took it to Aiken, where it is now Fuse in Aiken.

“Y’all come,” he says to any Augustans who miss their place.

Fuse was founded in 2015 by sister and brother Karen and Eric Draper, out of the desire to deliver great food combined with craft beer to their guests, explained Chef Najmola, who was head chef in Augusta. “Eric was a visionary with a dream to create an environment born out of exploration, innovation, and creativity in dining,” said Chef Najmola, as he concocted his Fuse-only shrimp & grits in his kitchen at was formerly Up Your Alley at 222 The Alley in the center of downtown Aiken.

Chef Najmola said of the critical decisions to be made when they knew they would have to leave their prime location in downtown Augusta, “we looked all around, Augusta, North Augusta, Aiken and other areas. Aiken just felt right.”

The mission of Fuse has always been to discover and study various foods from around the world and to make the global exploration of fine cuisine available to all, explained the chef as he pulled his shrimp off the fire.

Fusion cuisine is cuisine that combines elements of different culinary traditions that originate from different countries, regions, or cultures. Cuisines of this type are not categorized according to any one cuisine style and have played a part in innovations of many contemporary restaurant cuisines since the 1970s.

When asked what nationality Najmola came from he laughed and said, “my father and grandfather were completely Pennsylvania Polish. I know it doesn’t sound Polish to most people, they think it should have a “ski” on the end of it, but they cooked Galumpies, Pierogi, Kielbasa and Sauerkraut. On the other hand, my mother’s side has deep Southern roots. My grandmother gathered her family around a table of pot roast, root vegetables and greens from the garden. I grew up spoiled on a natural fusion of cultures and didn’t realize it,” said the nearly always smiling chef.

Jani, Bruce, Bah Habah and Sam

The author enjoyed one of Fuse’s specialty dishes… smoked chicken benedict

When asked if he ever met Jani Bijas, the driving force in the triad including Bruce Shipman and David (Bar Harbor) Allen who opened Up Your Alley in 1982. It, along with The West Side Bowery, opened in 1981 by Sam Erb and his parents (Sam wasn’t old enough to tend bar yet) that created the energy that became The Alley section and attracted businesses of many types that transformed the downtown. Jani died of a heart attack earlier this year and several hundred people attended his wake.

Chef Najmola seemed genuinely moved when asked and said that Jani had been a huge source of advice and support as he kicked off Fuse in Aiken last October.

“Every Sunday like today, Jani would be sitting at the corner table in front of the windows (the place where I unknowingly had just feasted over my chicken Benedict), enjoying his tomato bisque and Prosecco. He was kindness personified,” said the chef.

“But, this is not Up Your Alley,” the chef said, although the physical layout has changed very little. “We have a distinct mission of our own. But as I’ve seen and as I’ve been told, I don’t think many of us would be here enjoying this perfect Sunday afternoon in September had it not been for the vision of Jani and Sam.”

America / Charleston / The World

Head Chef and Owner Chris Najmola (far right) used to prepare meals at Fuse Augusta on Broad Street. He now prepares dinners Wednesday through Saturday evenings and Sunday brunch from his new home in Aiken. He’s with Sean Butler and Toby White, who assist him as the chefs in waiting.

Fusion cookbooks warn writers against labeling the cuisine – it’s too complicated and there aren’t many rules. It’s what the chef thinks will taste good when you combine them all together.

Fuse in Aiken’s smoked pork loin comes with Marsala sauce, and the Pork Ramen starts with tenderloin and adds noods, nori, soft boiled egg, sexy onion, miso and duck broth. Go figure, but it tastes great.

Chef Najmola says his biggest influence is Charleston cuisine because of his work with many great chefs there who have already fused Southern foods with foods from around the world – hence his, and their, famous shrimp & grits.

It’s a Southern thing but you can bet the Argentine polo players in Aiken will love the launch of Grill and Chill events coming every Sunday night from 6 p.m., until, starting Oct. 3, when chef Najmola cook meats over a roaring open flame

Fuse in Aiken is open Wednesday through Saturday, 5 p.m., to close and for brunch on Sunday from noon to 3 p.m., You can look over their menu and mission at or on Facebook at facebook/fuseaiken. For information during open hours, call (803) 357-0685

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