I was worried when I first arrived at Loft 610. Chef Tre Wilcox was running late for our interview, and when he arrived he was distracted, looking toward the open kitchen with each question, which he would think about carefully before answering. I read it at first as disinterest or perhaps even annoyance. But once he relaxed and warmed up, it was clear neither was the case. I may never know where it was coming from. But I am relieved to say it quickly dissolved the more we got into talking about two of his favorite topics: food and his future working in it.
Here's the down and dirty. Wilcox worked in fast food at 17 and then landed a position at Eatzi's, (where he worked his way up to corporate trainer). He participated in Brinker's rigorous training, worked at Toscana restaurant and got a gig at Abacus (going from grill cook to sous chef to chef de cuisine), before attending The Culinary Institute of America in Greystone, California. He won a number of awards locally and nationally and was nominated as the James Beard Foundation's Rising Star Chef for two consecutive years. He attended Alain Ducasse's training center in Paris, appeared on Top Chef (Season 3) and on Iron Chef America. He also freelanced as a private chef (cooking for Russell Simmons, Jerry Stackhouse and the like), conducted in-home dinners and lead cooking classes for HEB. He was (and is) the face of Chantal cookware, and is now executive chef at Loft 610.
Wilcox believes that beauty and simplicity are the key to great food and great restaurants, especially now. "If a place is too fancy, it's not going to be busy," he says. "You have to offer things that diners don't want to make or can't make at home, but really delicious. Gastronomy is not something that has taken off here. The recession has caused that. You can't have blue fin and foie gras. Nowadays eating out is a luxury so you want to make diners feel like they are winning."
That explains why he's not a big fan of being bizarre when it comes to food just for the sake of being bizarre. "I play with a lot of things," Wilcox says. "But I don't call them out and make diners nervous." Not that he has any problem with creativity. "If you're doing it to maximize the product. Then, OK. When it's just bastardized, it's just the chef getting his rocks off. I hate that shit." Wilcox himself creates foams and gels. "I use cilantro to make a gel. I blanche it and maximize it. It's all about discipline."
Wilcox is all too familiar with the world of chefs and their egos. He was on Top Chef after all. But just like the "bastardization of food," he has no patience with the famous-for-being-famous shtick that is all too common even in the cooking world these days. "I'd rather be known for my cooking," he says. For talented chefs, though, appearances on these shows "are very helpful with exposure if [the chefs] don't make asses of themselves."
He's also not a fan of some of the other cooking reality shows like Hell's Kitchen and Chopped. "Top Chef is much classier, and it does make you a better chef," he says. "It's like camp, sitting around with nothing else to do but talk about food. You can take it all in and sift through it like your looking for that black diamond. I was the quiet guy. I didn't talk a lot. When you go into a situation that you don't know anything about, you should keep your mouth shut. Other [shows] just make a mockery."
Apropos of nothing, Wilcox says, "I love this song" in the middle of the conversation. "Me too," my companion says. I was barely aware there even was music playing and ask what song it is. "In the Waiting Line," Wilcox and my companion both answer at the same time. "From the Garden State soundtrack," she continues. Wilcox grins and laughs and nods approvingly. He is officially relaxed now. He has a big, strange laugh and from that moment forward he lets it slip into our discussion.
Cooking is not the only thing that Wilcox is incredibly disciplined about. He is also a maniac about being in shape. And he is in incredible shape. "I was very heavy before," he says. Seven years ago, I was 280 pounds. A plump kind of guy. I'd fluff the chef coat to hide it." One day, he was just over it. "It was just a realization." He not only recognized the gain, he also recognized exactly where it came from.
"You get married. You pick up happy weight. You get comfortable. I was a chef with a bad diet. You let it creep up on you," Wilcox says. When he started losing weight he had a contest at the restaurant with other employees in the same predicament. "November 1 everyone put in $100. I lost 12 pounds in one month, took the pot, and never stopped. Now it's an addiction."
When you meet Wilcox, you quickly see that addictive thread that runs through everything he does. He's addicted to discipline and getting things done. He even has what he calls his seven-year-plan. "It started when I was 33." At 34 now, he sees himself moving on from Loft 610 and opening a restaurant called Marquee in late February or early March 2011 in Highland Park Village. After that, he plans to open a small 40- to 70-seat restaurant some time down the line.
After that, well, "I want to do TV. Not reality. My own kind of show. I love teaching and I'm not afraid of the camera." People are pitching him shows all the time, he says, but he wants to "take some of the shows that people are pitching to me and come up with my own concept. That's what life is all about. I want to do something really neat and fun and unique." As for now though, he says, he's just "taking it all in."
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That includes a family life that he clearly loves. Wilcox has two girls. "Nineteen and 9. Paige and Alexis." They are divided when it comes to cooking. "Paige hates it. But the 9-year-old can do it. Alexis cooks whatever she can get her hands on. She's been sitting on the kitchen counter since she could sit up." After we talk, Wilcox insists that we try a few things. And, as promised, the plates that arrive are as satisfying to look at as they are to eat. The parade begins with seared, rare tuna with carrot ginger flan, Thai basil, spicy mushroom soy and crispy tarot root and is followed by a baby beet and lobster salad. The tuna is seared just right and the crust is salty and crisp. The tiny beets of the salad look like something out of the mind Dr. Seuss or Gaudi. The tiny beets line the platter like miniature, mushroom-shaped houses of the Smurf village variety. They're tart and sweet and make a surprisingly good companion to the lobster.
Next to arrive is a crispy seared sea bass on truffle whipped potatoes with tomato confit, baby artichokes, and lobster sauce. The fish is sweet and flaky and is seared with a seasoned crust that makes mouths happy. The final dish is braised short rib cannelloni with basil pesto, tomatoes and parmesan emulsion. The meat was tender and juicy and the texture of the noodle was an ideal, albeit surprising fit.
For dessert, Wilcox sent out crisp doughnut holes covered in cinnamon sugar filled with dulce de leche served with three dipping sauces -- whiskey creme Anglaise, apple butter and spicy chocolate. I prefer them naked. But my dining companion can't get enough of the Anglaise. Kripsy Kreme be damned.
Wilcox is a hard nut to crack. He knows what he wants and he likes what he likes. But he's also a charmer, and his food is delicious. Between that and the disciplined way he approaches everything he does, he's set to leave his teeth marks in the industry on every front.