The Cooking World is Tré's Oyster

Says the well-traveled Tré Wilcox: "One of the things about chefs in Dallas is not a lot of them do as much traveling as they should."
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Tré Wilcox, who will be chef de cuisine at Kent Rathbun’s Abacus until January 3, has come a long way since his first cooking stab at Boston Chicken. His knives and whips have brought him to the point where he’s now mulling offers from television networks for a regular television cooking show. The 31-year-old top chef won’t say which networks.

He’s writing a book. He’s sketching plans for a restaurant company. He’s preparing cooking classes at Central Market. He’s the new celebrity spokesman for Chantal cookware -- beautiful, innovative enamel-on-steel stuff. He’s setting up a company (cheftre.com) to help build the Tré Wilcox brand, which includes chefing private events in the homes of celebrities and the well-heeled.

Who is this guy? He'll tell you after the jump.

An Army brat, Bennie Wilcox III, was born in Germany and raised in Duncanville. At 19, he got a job at Eatzi’s and worked his way up the kitchen ladder. From there he moved to Toscana and Mediterraneo under David Holben (Gilbert Garza hired him and quit the next day) among other places. He’s been at Abacus for the last seven years.

There are no secrets to his success. Wilcox started green and at the bottom at Abacus as a line cook and clawed his way to the top through obsessive work, resourcefulness, ingenuity and sponge-like detail absorption. He’s made a fetish of “staging,” a practice of introducing yourself to a well-known chef with an offer to help out, entering the restaurant through the back door and working side-by-side with one of the chefs for a few days prepping, cooking, cleaning -- your basic grunt. All gratis.

Wilcox has staged at Restaurant Gary Danko and Masa’s in San Francisco, Tru in Chicago and Daniel, Café Boulud, Thomas Keller’s Per Se and Café Gray in New York -- among many others. The late Robert Hoffman, the financial force behind Rathbun’s restaurants, was particularly devoted to Wilcox and sent him to Paris in 2002 to work at the training center of chef Alan Ducasse. Course work was all in French. So Wilcox hired an interpreter. “They’d never seen a black American out there,” he says. “It was pretty unheard of.”

Married with two daughters, Wilcox’s life entered an altered state following his appearance as a contestant on Bravo’s hit show Top Chef. Below, he described his next chapter to Unfair Park.

What prompted you to leave Abacus?

I’m just taking some time to maximize the exposure. Since the show, I’m being asked to do a lot of things, being pulled in a lot of different directions. I felt like I wouldn’t feel good with myself if, in 10 to 15 years from now, I look back at myself and I see I didn’t maximize this time right now. I just made a decision that after seven years of being at Abacus I thought it would be a good time to move on. Seven is kind of a number of completion.

What specifically are your plans?

There’s a couple of different networks that have already put some offers out there. I really would love to be on the Food Network, but they haven’t come back with anything significant yet. I love to teach. I think that’s another side of being a chef. I’m being asked to do a lot of different private events for celebrities …

What are your plans for restaurant development?

Dallas is where I’m going first. I think I have somewhat of a clientèle base here. I wouldn’t want to go to another city and try and prove myself again before I’ve already given Dallas the restaurant they deserve. I give it a year or so.

What sparked your interest in cooking?

Money. I took a job at a Boston Chicken, and I started making cash there. I bounced around from several fast food-type concepts like Bennigan’s, Red Lobster, Steak & Ale. And as time went on, I got more interested in it, and I started to put in more effort. People took me more seriously. I made more money. By the time I got the job at Eatzi’s at 19 years old, I kind of started realizing, "Hey, I’m really good at this."

What did you learn from Kent?

When I first started at Abacus, I was an unpolished line cook…Part of my interview with Kent was, "Do you know what lemongrass is?" I said, "No." "Do you know what galanga is?" I said, "No." He says, "OK, you applied for sous chef. You will not be a sous chef here." So he put me at the bottom of the list … starting me as a line cook who we now call the shooter boy. It’s the intro line position where the biggest job you have is shooters.

To what do you attribute your catapulting success?

I’m very disciplined. I live by strict rules … My habits are very good. I’ve always been a big, big book geek. I do a lot of reading. I always watch the Food Network. I travel when I can to go eat at numerous restaurants. Chef Kent opened my eyes to that, saying, ‘If you travel and you go to places like New York and California and Chicago and see what they’re doing there, and you come back to Dallas, you have a little bit more of an edge on people here." One of the things about chefs in Dallas is not a lot of them do as much traveling as they should.

What Dallas Chefs do you admire most?

I think Avner [Samuel] is good. Avner is a great, great chef. But he can let his business side bring him down a little bit … Sharon Hage will always be in my mind as one of the most creative chefs in Dallas, though she doesn’t offer a premier dining place.

What about cooking most inspires you? I enjoy doing things that give off a look of "very tedious to make." I like making people go, "Damn, how’d he do that?" I’m very much into the architectural presentations of food. I know the ingredients I’m going to use, based on my anal-ness, are going to be good.

What ingredients or techniques inspire you the most?

I love making risotto. I like wrapping things. It wins over people. Prosciutto and basil-wrapped monkfish with black truffle risotto in citrus brown butter -- it’s a winner. I think people do not season their food aggressively enough. I’m mainly speaking of salt. For me a lot of times food is under-seasoned.

Describe one of your most recent creations.

I was playing with the idea of eggs and bacon. It was a soft-scrambled Maple Leaf duck egg with shaved black truffles and crispy pork belly with balsamic honey. I didn’t sell one. I couldn’t get anybody to go with it.

What would you do if you weren’t a chef?

I’d play soccer. --Mark Stuertz

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