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Love him? Hate him? Top Chef Tre Wilcox kills it in the kitchen

When Tre Wilcox was 16, he needed to buy a car. So he did what any teenager would do and walked into Boston Chicken , now Boston Market , and asked for a job.

When Tre Wilcox was 16, he needed to buy a car. So he did what any teenager would do and walked into Boston Chicken, now Boston Market, and asked for a job. “I realized I was good at it and worked my way up at 16 from a chicken spitterthe guy who puts the rotisserie chicken on the spitto a shift manager,” he recalls and laughs. “No one wanted to stay except for a little punk kid like me … I loved it. That’s how it all started.”

Today Tre Wilcox is a chef, business owner and father. He’s got that shine of celebrity from his days as a contestant on Top Chef and leads the list of most likeable people in the metroplex. His inspired cuisine has made him a landmark in the culinary world and he’s proven time and again that after 25 years in the industry, he’s only getting better. Through Tre Wilcox Cooking Concepts, he caters events, teaches cooking classes and has successfully partnered with local and national brands for product endorsements. He has a gift for culinary flair and an unforgettable modern European style. He makes a mean ceviche. His biceps have biceps. But more on that later.

For now, consider the chicken spitter, hopping from restaurant to restaurant, Macaroni Grill to Steak & Ale to Bennigan’s, picking up skills and the necessary cuts, bumps and burns, “backpacking through Europe,” as he puts it. It’s taken a long, restaurant-lined road and 20 years for Tre Wilcox to become Tre Wilcox.

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Tre Wilcox | Photography by Alyssa Vincent

The summer when Tre Wilcox was 19, he landed a gig at Eatzi’s chopping vegetables. Tre remembers it fondly. “All day, stuck in a corner chopping veg. I moved up quickly because I was young, I was hungry—and I was mad; I was only making $6.25 an hour.” It was a job he took seriously, and come Thanksgiving, it changed his life.

On holidays such as Thanksgiving when sons and daughters remember at the last minute that they were meant to bring stuffing to mom’s, Eatzi’s is a lifesaver. Inside Eatzi’s freezers and prep rooms, however, the holidays are a race against the clock. The shelf-life for premade items is three days; so before Thanksgiving, Eatzi’s chefs must rush to prepare and package thousands of pounds of turkeys and trimmings in under 72 hours. Tre describes freezer trucks being hauled in and workers in polar gear inside, weighing mashed potatoes to the ounce and filling endless orders.

By this time, Tre had been promoted to platter guy for the chef’s cases, in charge of replenishing all 270 items in the Eatzi’s cases on a constant basis. He’d heard rumors of the Thanksgiving rush and he had spent months preparing.

“Monday came around,” Tre says. “I punched in and worked all night through that next day. I took a break in the break room, like a catnap, and went right back at it. Three days in a row. Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night. Thursday came around and this was the big day … I felt like a gladiator and that day, to me, was the Colosseum. People were going to come in, the cases would be under assault and I would keep it full. Doors opened at nine. I woke up from my catnap and drank three Red Bulls, so I was pumped. It was going to be nuts and it was the first time I was ever going to see this.”

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The corporate chef arrived promptly at 9:15 a.m. and the Colosseum began to crumble.

“He looked at me and asked if I’d been here since Monday and I went, ‘Yes. Yes! YES!’ I was so pumped, so ready. He just walked off.” Twenty minutes later, the Executive Chef told him it was time for him to go home.

“I was like wait, what? Everyone in the kitchen was moving, but they all noticed everything. So everyone was doing double takes as he made me go to the time clock. And I was wondering what I did wrong.” Now Tre is able to chuckle about it sheepishly. “When he punched me out, the timesheet said I’d been there for over 70 hours. I’d just been there for three days happily, proudly. He gave me an Eatzi’s hatwhich I still haveand said ‘go home, Tre. Go home and have Thanksgiving.’ I just broke down and started crying. I couldn’t believe he was taking that day away from me … I offered to work for free but they said no.”

As Tre rode the DART home, wiping his face on his Eatzi’s hat, he had an epiphany. “I knew then that I was doing what I wanted to do. And I loved doing it so intensely. Later on that day I saw my Dad for Thanksgiving and I told him I wanted to be a chef.”

Tre left Eatzi’s, working his way up the ranks of two-star and three-star places and getting a sous chef badge under his belt. Then, he ended up at Abacus, met Chef Kent Rathbun and “got knocked to the bottom again,” Tre shakes his head. “He asked me three questions. Did I know what galanga was? Did I know what lemongrass was? Did I know what Kaffir lime leaves are?”

Tre admitted he didn’t know any of them, and since they appeared in nearly everything on the menu, Rathbun didn’t take him on as sous chef. The only position open was hot apps (hot appetizers) though Rathbun agreed that Tre could take a grill spot later on, since one of the grill guys had recently given notice. Moving from sous chef to hot apps is a significant step down, but Tre accepted, getting his foot in the door of one of the most renowned restaurants in the metroplex.

“I had to fry shooters. The salad guy was more intense than me, the guy who made the lobster shooters,” Tre laughs. Four years later, he was sous chef and soon after that, Rathbun promoted him to Chef de Cuisine, backing off and allowing Tre to run Abacus with complete artistic freedom.

From Tre Wilcox to Top Chef Tre Wilcox

Next came two consecutive nominations for the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year Award, the Oscars of the culinary world, which only five chefs in the world are nominated for each year. It was a strong declaration that Tre was cooking with the best. Though Tre described himself at that time as very confident, he attributes his humbleness to staying in the kitchen, cooking with his guys during the rush and touring the floor every night for feedback on the food.

“Critics had already given me my stars. But the people? That was more important,” Tre explains. “Your reputation is perceived through them. I was very driven. All about Abacus … Then Top Chef called.” Top Chef is a highly rated, national show pitting chef against chef in culinary challenges. It has the unique power to turn local chefs into culinary stars practically overnight. Each episode, much like on Survivor or The Bachelor, someone is sent home; it’s a high stakes, winner-takes-all game that churns out the best of the best.

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Cilantro-marinated chicken with chipotle jack cheese and tequila lime sauce

“When Danielle Harrington called, I was in the middle of line check. I’d go to each cook’s station and taste and smell everything they had to produce whatever dishes they made,” Tre says. “I was checking this line of sauces and Harrington says she’s in Dallas doing a casting call for Top Chef and that she’d like to offer me an inside track to be on the show. And I turn to my cook and ask, ‘Did you put vinegar in this?’

Harrington, who was probably expecting a better reaction, or at least his undivided attention, explains again that she’d like Tre to come to the W Hotel for an interview to be on Top Chef. Tre continues his line checks and asks a follow-up question: “Top Chef, what’s that?” Harrington proceeds to make her case for the show and Tre tells his cook to add more lemon juice.

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Top Chef Tre Wilcox

“And she went, ‘look, do you want to do the show or not?’” Tre went in for an interview, invited the casting crew to a special tasting and the rest is history. Tre describes his Top Chef persona as the “quiet guy who’s there to win.” If you met him in person, it’s hard to believe since he’s so much larger than life. Regardless, he was a popular contestant and his eventual elimination is remembered as the most controversial decision of his season by everyone from the fans to the network to the judges themselves.

Though he’s left Top Chef, aspects of Top Chef haven’t left him. “I have a competitive spirit that’s always running me … Chefs are always naturally competitive. Everyone knows everyone. We’re all trying to do the same thing—create something memorable,” Tre says. Competition is the driving force of Top Chef and has had a heavy influence on his present business, Tre Wilcox Cooking Concepts.

Tre Wilcox Cooking Concepts

In a metroplex that is saturated with new, alluring eateries, classics, chains and family diners, Tre has stepped out of the restaurant game. Tre Cooking Concepts is a customizable event space with four fully-stocked demo kitchens for private events, interactive dinner parties, catering, cooperative cooking demonstrations, corporate gatherings and whatever else you can think of. In particular, it’s styled for friendly Top Chef-style competition, “first place, second place third place and thanks for cooking place,” he jokes. “But they don’t even have to compete; they can just come cook together.”

Tre Wilcox Cooking Concepts is the only space of its kind with exactly what it has to offer. “I used to be the guy in Highland Park running a restaurant … like ‘Plano? They’ve got nothing on us.’” These were the days when there was a pocket of iconic four-and-five star restaurants in Dallas, while the restaurant scene in Plano, McKinney and Frisco was still learning to crawl. In contrast, today Collin County is currently riding the crest of a restaurant craze the size of Big Tex as chains multiply and foodies find themselves with more options than there are days in the week.

Plano isn’t the same city it was even five years ago. According to Tre, Plano is unique in the variety it offers. “It’s not just one chef producing a bunch of different restaurants in a bubble. We’re very fortunate to have that diversity [in our restaurants] because we have that in our residents.” Competition for ratings, staff and customers is heavy and he’s glad to be watching from the sidelines, rather than running the race.

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Though he left the restaurant business, he left for the best reasons. Tre has full custody of his now teenage daughter.

“I thought to myself, I need to move up to the suburbs and finish out this kid. Let her have a life like I did growing up in the suburbs of Duncanville, staying out playing until the streetlights come on, hanging out with friends that live next door … I knew that she was drifting,” Tre admits. “As a single dad who has full custody of a girl, it was pretty obvious that I wasn’t going to get another shot at it. If she gets too far outfield, she’s gone. Just like a homerun, going, going, gone. I can come back and always be a restaurant chef but I can only be a dad once. So I quit and she’s so happy [I did].”

It’s common for premier restaurant chefs to live fast and die young, so to speak. Early retirement is fairly typical because the industry wears on the soul and the family, hacking away weekends, evenings and holidays.

“I was always afraid that I wouldn’t be sought after as much as restaurant chefs are. But I’ve gotten so many endorsement deals and partnership opportunities. I feel very fortunate. All kinds of things are happening,” Tre says. The business goes beyond a great experience for his guests. He’s also utilizing business partnerships and endorsement deals with companies such as Oil & Vinegar and American Cookware, whose supplies are used in class and available for purchase in Tre’s event space.

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Clean and precise with an Asian-fusion twist, smoked hamachi, or yellowtail, is laid out on a bed of spicy avocado sauce and topped oh-so-delicately with sprigs of herbs and Texas grapefruit

I highly recommend taking a class at Tre Wilcox Cooking Concepts. Tre and his team have it all in hand, working quickly and efficiently, while sharing their tried-and-true tips and letting guests learn from experience. With the game on TV, Tre-made margaritas and wine chilling on the table, the atmosphere is relaxed. The organized chaos never stops, encouraging guests to ask questions, joke around and cook alongside gourmet chefs. Other than fun and sportsmanship, Tre focuses on teaching technique, recipes and execution.

Sharing his passion for cooking has always been one of the great joys in his life. “I was holding cooking classes for people in my loft downtown on my kitchen counter. Six people, sometimes eight, about $200 a head to sit there and watch me cook three courses for them,” Tre explains. “… In here, I’ve had up to 50 people coming in to cook. It’s so fun for me; I love leading and teaching people.”

The classes encourage creativity and fun in the kitchen. Tre is a great supervisor and, despite his high standards, a laidback boss. “I always tell my chefs what I’m looking for, what I want to taste and let them go …  and the chefs come back to me days later with what they think will work. I taste it and say, ‘Keep making it. I’ll tell you when it’s good,’” Tre says. “But you have to give them a lot of creative space so that they leave at the end of the day with their heads held high, proud of what they did.”

The long relationships between him and the Cooking Concepts guys is evident, stemming from early morning pre-class brainstorming sessions, kicking around recipes in the kitchen, where innovation and individuality are married for some killer results.

“If you want to be a kick-ass chef, do it,” Tre says. “But figure out a way to give your life some balance. When I was in my 20s I said that by 40 I was going to own my own business so that I could set myself up to be able to step away. However many years I have on the flip side of 50, I can just live. I’ve balanced that passion [for cooking] with having a life and a relationship with my daughter.”

Chefs need to have some freedom to explore and to express themselves to keep from burning out. Tre couldn’t be farther from that fate; he’s achieved a balance that motivates and inspires rather than drains. So if you have the opportunity, sign up for a class. Learn something new. Enjoy life and spend some time cooking with Tre.

Originally published in Plano Profile's January 2017 issue.