Chef Tre Wilcox on Masks, March Madness and the Perks of Being a Private Chef

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Walking towards the back of Marquee to interview Tre Wilcox, I spot him having a rather intense conversation with a guy in a suit about the menu. I grab a seat in a plush booth and wait. No more than a minute later he starts to walk over, but gets interrupted twice by two other employees with just as serious looks on their faces and important questions perched on their lips. I'm quickly reminded how exhausting and encompassing running a restaurant can be. I feel a bit like an intruder and once he makes it over I assure him this won't take long (which is actually a lie).

"It's all good. Don't worry about it."

You seem pretty busy right now. It's all about balance. You have to make time for certain things. I was even able to get an hour and a half in the gym just now, so I'm not too busy. Just have to balance things.

How do you balance it? Discipline. Going to the gym is harder than what I do in the restaurant. In terms of staying strong, it helps me deal with stress. There's an analogy that I've lived by for a long time - you have to put your mask on first. Just like they always say on airplanes. When you apply that to life also, it might sound a little selfish, but it's not. You can't be anything to anyone else unless you put your mask on first. Rather that be to sleep more or workout, whatever it is, you need to do it so that you're a better father, husband, wife or whatever.

Being around all this wonderful food all day every day, how do you watch what you eat? Well, it's March Madness time right now for me. In March I start my own madness.

Do tell... My workouts get really intense. It's more high explosives, which helps get me ready for spring's "unveiling," if you will (he cracks up laughing and his laugh is loud and amazing). I'm getting ready for my beach look and need to be more cut (laughs more).

From a dietary standpoint, it's more protein shakes, a big lunch, light dinner and then nothing after 10 p.m. but popcorn. Normally I go to bed around 2 a.m. Then I'm in the gym by 10 a.m.

What about the rest of the year? I work out nine months out of the year and usually take off October, November and December because of all that's going on in the restaurant. I'm here more during that time of the year, so I feed off of that other nine months of training.

When did you get into this rigorous training? I didn't get into it until about five years ago. I was getting to be overweight -- 285 pounds. The bad thing is, chef coats are good at hiding things. I finally got in with a trainer who was ex-military and he was amazing. He educated and trained me.

What was the hardest thing he ever had you do? Upside down push-ups, which are basically handstand push-ups.

How many did you have to do? Seven.

I read Men's Health a lot and I'd love to work with them and come up with a chef's workout. Something that encourages chefs to just try to get in a 45-minute workout. Chefs have such bad hours and bad eating habits. We're always drinking and eating late at night. It can add up fast. When did you first get interested in cooking? I didn't do any cooking growing up. My mom cooked and I ate, but I never really helped her. When I was 15 I needed money, so I got a job at Boston Chicken. Dang, there was a lot of chicken.

Did you get sick of chicken? No, I just go better at it. I moved up in the company, then started working at other places for more money, then eventually made it over to Eatzie's on Oak Lawn and that's when I got some real cooking experience.

I read that at some point you attended the Culinary Institute of America? [Shaking head] No, that just got taken out of context somewhere. Someone used it in an article and misinterpreted it from my bio. What it was, one year during Restaurant Week I won a trip for the best food and wine pairing to a weeklong continuing education cooking course in California.

Easy mistake. One week, two years ... I quit after three days though.

Why did you quit the free culinary classes? Because I was in the middle of Napa Valley [laughs] and they were making me go to school from like 1 to 8 p.m. I was making Napa cabbage-wrapped salmon and I told the instructors, "I'm outta here!" and they were all like 'That's cool.' They knew I'd learn more by going out to places than in the classroom. They commended me on my decision.

Where did you go? French Laundry, Terra, Redd. I was eatin' it up.

What do you like about being a chef? I like all of it. I like providing a means to entertain people. What I do in the kitchen is like a coach. I like leading a team. I've had the same little brothers with me in my kitchen since the Abacus days. It's like a competition sport back there.

How do you keep all your little brothers in line? They knew what they were getting into when they signed up to work for me. They know I don't get into opportunities because they're easy. They know I want to be challenged. They enjoy it though. They're all game on.

Would you recommend being on Top Chef to, say, one of your little brothers? I would recommend it to someone that likes competing and being out in front of the camera. But if they're not that kind of person, then they wouldn't enjoy it. After the show, you did a few private gigs. How did you like that? At the time, it was a big opportunity for me. I had been at Abacus for seven years and had reached the top and this was a great new opportunity.

Did you like it? [Leans in closely and whispers] Fuck ya! [Rolls head back and laughs.] It was awesome. It was a two-year break.

Being a private chef is a break? I've read it can be pretty demanding. Yes, it was a break. My limit for dinner parties was 16 people. It's nothing like running a restaurant. And I was at all these amazing houses with professional kitchens.

Did you get to travel a lot too? Oh ya. That's all I did. This one family took me to Brazil for two weeks. It was a total of six people, and they wanted to try the food of Brazil, but with my take on it. I cooked three dinners for them. That's it. The rest of my time there I just did whatever I wanted.

So, why did you come back to the restaurant business? Because there was a recession! [He laughs again.] It was ridiculous, everybody clinched their pockets.

I also cooked for DeMarcus Ware and Bradie James too.

Bradie James is quite the foodie, right? He's always tweeting about restaurants and chefs. Ya, he comes in here a lot.

How was cooking for them? They're silly. DeMarcus and Bradie are close friends, and at that time I was in a bulking phase, so I walked through the door and they were like "DAMN! We got a linebacker here!" Then I started picking on them about how much they bench press and they asked me if I wanted to see the gym. [Laughing]

What happened? I told them I was just there to cook.

You didn't assert your authority in the weight room? The wives were like, "Calm down, guys." They're extremely competitive guys. Especially Bradie. Well, he's a linebacker!

What did you learn from your career as a private chef? One thing you always need to initiate when you walk into someone's home is that "everything is going to be OK." If you show up organized and keep your things tight then people quickly become at ease. The hosts may still be getting ready and preparing for their guests; they don't want to worry about someone destroying the place or making a big mess.

Once I was at a dinner party, and the chef started drinking vodka as soon as they showed up and got totally wasted. Dinner was awful. You ever do that? No. No drinking on the job.

What is your favorite guilty-pleasure food? My go-to is Fritos and French onion dip. Right now I won't do that, but during the holidays I tend to live a little more. I like Bubba's Chicken, too. That's probably my worst thing is fried chicken. I reward myself with fried chicken about once a month and that's because I eat so much of it when I do.

How many pieces? About 12. Wings, legs, thighs. I kill it.

One more question. Any books you recommend for aspiring chefs? Right now, the main thing I read is Art Culinaire, which comes out quarterly. My list of favorites is probably the same as everyone else's. French Laundry, Michel Richard's Happy in the Kitchen and all the Charlie Trotter books are great to have.

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