Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Chef Tre Wilcox takes path of an outlier
At age 36, Wilcox shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
After a jam-packed weekend of endorsement and cooking events in New York City in 2007, Tre Wilcox flew directly back to Dallas — just in time to make the peak of Abacus’ dinner rush.
“Behind,” a dishwasher hollers as he dodges a sizzling frying pan that’s crashing to the floor.
“Corner,” yells a waiter as he scurries past the flaming grill.
Exhausted and jostled by a turbulent flight, Wilcox wearily creeps into the humid kitchen.
“Hey man, you need to help too,” says a kitchen cook.
Shaking his nausea off, Wilcox secures his apron and steps up to his station.
“Game on were going down,” says Wilcox.
But just a few moments later, Wilcox eyes a trash can, hurls his torso over the side and vomits. Without a hiccup in the kitchen’s commotion, Wilcox hurries off to a restroom to tidy up. He realigns his gear and suddenly he’s right back to the job.
“I don’t know how you do it,” the amateur kitchen cook says in awe.
Wilcox chuckles. Abacus' guests shouldn’t be kept waiting.
Working a minimum of six days a week, at around 10 hours per day, for over 20 years, Dallas’ renowned chef Tre Wilcox is inching awfully close to what Malcolm Gladwell argues as the 10,000-hour rule. Gladwell believes this “practice makes perfect” rule is characteristic of an outlier, that is, someone whose success isn’t solely due to an innate phenomenal talent. An outlier isn’t born a prodigy, nor do they have a “rags to riches” tale. However, the essential element attributed to the success of an outlier is unrelenting practice.
Maybe Gladwell would consider Tre Wilcox an outlier, or at least comprise a few characteristics of one.
“I am driven. I have always been disciplined and extremely driven,” Wilcox said.
“I taught Tre to work very hard and be passionate. He could choose whatever he wanted to be, but he needed to sustain a job and provide,” said Wilcox’s father, Bennie. Wilcox asserts his father as very influential in his life and one of his two mentors.
“My advice clearly rang home with him,” said Bennie Wilcox.
At age 16, Wilcox got a job at a Boston Market franchise in Duncanville. Not knowing food would eventually consume his life, he picked up the job solely to fund his car payment. “Back then, I cooked just for money,” said Tre Wilcox.
But by the time Wilcox was 19, cooking became more serious to him and also a potential career option.
“I always knew if Tre could just dream and go after something, he would be successful,” said Bennie Wilcox.
“I found cooking to be a passion that I would chase forever. I wanted to know how I could get better. How do I grow,” said Tre Wilcox.
Following Boston Market, Wilcox landed a job at Eatzi's, a Dallas-based bakery and gourmet food chain founded by American restaurateur Philip J. Romano. But where Wilcox’s career truly started to cultivate was at Abacus.
“I met Tre quite a while ago — about nine years,” said Kent Rathbun. Rathbun is a Texan culinary legend who has been featured on popular television programs such as NBC’s Today Show and Food Network’s hit series Iron Chef America. Rathbun opened Abacus in the Knox-Henderson area of Dallas in 1997, which has since then been inducted into the Nation’s Restaurant News Fine Dining Hall of Fame. Justifiably, Rathbun became the second of two mentors Wilcox has had to date.
“Tre was a very young cook when he came to me, all he had was some experience at Eatzi's and Toscana,” said Rathbun. Typical of Wilcox’s character, he diligently worked long hours and physically demanding shifts in order to gain Rathbun’s respect. He began as a cook and worked himself through the stations to become a roundsman. Executive chef’s cherish having roundsmen on hand — they are the jack-of-all-trades behind the kitchen. “Tre was able to start absorbing cooking and business training early,” Rathbun said. Anybody that works with someone for eight years learns nuances from that person, but I had a very open format—no parameters, and Tre’s skill was very different.” Rathbun eventually appointed Wilcox as sous chef and then to chef de cuisine position at Abacus. Without any exposure to culinary school or formal training of any kind, Wilcox thought he was at the peak of his career. Then came Top Chef.
It was 2007 and season three of Bravo’s culinary reality program Top Chef when casting agents approached Wilcox about participating in the show’s nationally broadcasted quickfire challenges and restaurant wars.
“I admit, I felt like I didn’t need Top Chef,” said Wilcox as he reminisced over his naivete.
By 2007, he had been chosen as one of five nominees for the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef in both 2005 and 2006 — a chef’s equivalent of wining an Oscar. “I was completely running Abacus. I was at the prime of my reign and cocky,” Wilcox bluntly confessed.
He continued to ignore the Casting Duo agency, until he was asked to participate one final time. “Do you want to do the show or not?” an impatient casting agent said. “I responded yes, and I have no regrets,” said Wilcox.
Wilcox was born on July 7, 1976 in Augsburg, Germany. “He was a Bicentennial baby,” said Bennie Wilcox. “I was stationed in Germany because the War in Nam was whining down, and the US was sending more troops to Europe to watch our back door.” Bennie Wilcox was also stationed in Germany because of his expertise as an electronic technician. “And technical operations and communications were urgent in all those units in Germany at that time,” said Bennie Wilcox. Bennie Wilcox moved his family back to the U.S a year after his son’s birth, and raised his family in Duncanville. Supporting his family there, he worked for radio and television studios and even for a local Public Broadcasting Station as a broadcast engineer. He often brought young Tre into the studios with him. “Tre was always around adults and cameras. He had great charisma — he became a little showman,” Bennie Wilcox said in elated nostalgia. “He loved to talk on the radio, I still have recordings of him.”
Thus, when Tre Wilcox first stepped onto the set of Top Chef, with its intimidating cameras and pounding stage lights inorganically circling the kitchen, the scene wasn’t all too foreign to him. “Tre has always been great with people and good in front of the camera,” said Bennie Wilcox. “He’s a charmer.”
In contrast to the majority of reality television stars, Wilcox was very composed and respectful on camera. “He became a fan favorite,” said Rathbun. “It was a bit overwhelming, but you have to remember—you have one reputation in life,” said Wilcox. He witnessed other contestants succumb to the producers’ pressure and the drama they craved for ratings. But he didn’t let himself go.
“We were their property — in a way it took away the wind out of the sail,” Wilcox said.
“The producers have little or no concern about the businesses these chefs represent,” Rathbun supported.
Top Chef Season 3 contestant Casey Thompson also felt similarly. As a Dallas-based chef and one of Wilcox’s competitors on the show, Thompson was thought to be a rival of his. “I hadn’t actually met Tre before, but the very first look I gave him was a ‘holy crap!’ What are we doing here!” said the Shensei Restaurant executive chef. “Tre and I then quickly became friends,” most likely to the producers’ dismay. Both Thompson and Wilcox went into the competition very green. “We were calm, we worked hard and shut our mouths,” Thompson said.
After six weeks of living beneath intrusive cameras and harassing talent wranglers, Wilcox left Top Chef in a dignified manner with a few more benefits than he initially foresaw. Sales at Abacus grew 25 percent and he signed an endorsement deal, becoming the face of Chantal Cookware. Wilcox was also chosen for Top Chef encore programs such as Top Chef All-Stars and Top Chef Holiday Special — which Wilcox was the runner-up in 2011. Soon enough, Wilcox was forced to become an extreme jetsetter due to the show’s exposure. He found himself traveling incessantly across the nation for special appearances and events. Meanwhile he was struggling to maintain his professional chef de cuisine position at the five-star-rated Abacus. Even for a dynamo like Wilcox, the toll on him became too demanding.
Wilcox left Abacus in 2007 and took on a fresh project — freelancing. “I’m adaptable, so I created private chef services,” Wilcox said. Wilcox’s entrepreneurial adventure provided cooking classes and private dinners.
“I became a dope dealer. Food was my dope,” Wilcox said while laughing. “I enjoyed the shit out of it.”
“I even flew to Brazil to cater to one client,” Wilcox said.
Creating his own schedule was great for Wilcox. The days of waiting on that last midnight table to finish their third bottle of wine were over, except when he would feel the effects of the recession. “All was good until my calendar would thin,” said Wilcox.
Brian Twomey, current owner of Marquee Grill and Bar and The Common Table in downtown Dallas, approached Wilcox about an urban chic restaurant in Plano - Loft 610. “No I’m not a Plano guy. I’m a Highland Park kind of guy,” Wilcox initially argued. Twomey eventually persuaded Wilcox to join Loft 610 as he assured him a stable job. However, Wilcox ended up having the right gut feeling. January of 2011, Loft 610 closed but was closely followed by the lucrative opening of Marquee Grill and Bar in Highland Park Village, which is the creation studio Wilcox calls home today.
Drawing upon Wilcox’s impressive resume, guests at Marquee are treated to his ever-changing and experimental dishes. On a particular Saturday night, a special may be ordered in scores — the lamb dish stuffed in supple cannelloni, for example. At the slightest pressure of your fork, the cannelloni unravels, unveiling the warm pieces of braised lamb that sweats rich juice onto your stark white plate. Symmetrically spaced around yellow yogurt and red d’espellete droplets, the mint and jalapeño emulsion gives a sharp nip to the hearty lamb meat. The dish is psychedelic and pleasing to the palate.
Whether you are grabbing a Beeman Ranch Burger for lunch or you’re in for a late night scarf dancer cocktail in Marquee’s contemporary suave lounge, Wilcox is bound to be busily cooking behind the expo line. Wilcox designed Marquee’s kitchen to be entirely open for the main dining room to see, but mostly for guests to aesthetically enjoy.
“The kitchen is so open because of the energy it provides. It becomes a show,” said Wilcox.
A group of three elderly southern women, all dolled up, hesitantly crept up to the base of the marble slab where the final plate garnishing takes place. “Do you see him?” the frailest lady whispers. Emerging from the far corner of the kitchen, where the entrees are prepared, Wilcox wipes his hands on his brown apron and approaches the eager women with his muscular tattooed arms, which are on the verge of tearing his white polo sleeves. Wilcox’s physique would seem threatening, but he has a large pearly grin that woos the 80–plus-year-old women. By 10 p.m., Wilcox has been on his feet for eight hours and counting, producing speedy but exquisite mouthwatering masterpieces and working just as hard as the amateur cook chugging Red Bulls in the back. Nevertheless, he invites the giddy women for a peek behind the kitchen and gives them all the attention they want.
At only 36, if Wilcox continues to match the work he has put into his young career — 10 hours a day, six days a week, for the 52 weeks of the year — it won’t be too much longer until he reaches Gladwell’s definitive success mark: the 10,000—hour rule. Maybe Wilcox is an outlier, maybe he will eventually be one — but one this is for sure, “Tre’s got a lot of talent,” said Rathbun.
As many fans are likely to agree, “I’m excited to see what his next move is, whatever that might be,” said Bennie Wilcox.
Pegasus News Content partner - The Daily Campus