Tully Wilson, Executive Chef
About 45 minutes from Nashville in a 200-year-old home-turned-restaurant, chef Tully Wilson says he's living a dream come true. The 27-year-old graduated high school early at age 16. The next month, he started school at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Following Wilson's work with Disney and cruise ships, his father offered him the option to open a restaurant back home in 2007. These days, he's playing with his molecular gastronomy equipment to serve food some might not expect in the small town of Hartsville.
"When you're 21 and someone offers your dream to you, you take it," he says.
Was there a moment when you knew this was the career for you?
This is all I've ever wanted to do. It's my passion. It's a lifestyle for me. My mom said one of her fondest memories was when I was 3 years old, banging on pots in the floor. I had the wooden spoons, just beating on the pots. At 6, I started cooking dinner for my family.
Do you remember what you prepared?
We had mac and cheese, and I think I made lemon pepper chicken breast. Because it's easy - chicken breast just sprinkled with lemon pepper and baked in the oven.
Was there one person in your family who influenced you?
My grandmother and I have always cooked Thanksgiving dinner together. My grandmother works with me permanently. She's retired from teaching. We're a cooking family. My father cooks. My grandfather cooks. It's one of our joys. My mom and grandmother are from Texas. My dad's from Nashville.
Any dishes you're particularly proud of at the moment?
We hand-cut all our steaks in-house. The cedar plank salmon is one of our most popular dishes. Over the winter, it's our quail.
What are some of your favorite ingredients?
Farm fresh. We're starting with strawberry shortcake now. The local strawberries are starting to come in. The majority of our stuff is organic. Definitely heirloom tomatoes. We just try to stay with fresh. Keep it simple. Keep it flavorful.
Is that the kind of advice you'd offer to a novice home cook?
Oh, absolutely. Keep it simple. Don't over-season. Don't make it complex. Keeping with simple ingredients is always the best idea.
Please tell me your favorites in the following categories: Tool, book, and ingredient you can't live without.
Tool: My favorite tool right now is my caviar maker, and I have a new sous vide machine (a gourmet method of cooking using sealed plastic bags in water) and my smoke gun. You could say my new molecular science tools. I just made watermelon caviar pearls and served it on coconut rice. It was a dessert sushi with (what looked) like salmon roe but it was the watermelon.
Book: I would say The Soul of the Chef and The Making of the Chef (both by Michael Ruhlman) were some of my favorites growing up. It made me excited to go to school.
Ingredient: Butter. I say if it doesn't have butter, cream or liquor in it, why the hell am I cooking it?
Do you cook at home much?
I'm at the restaurant all the time. I usually cook food here and just take it home. Sundays (when the restaurant is closed) is my family day and we cook together. We are an Italian family.
What types of things do you cook together?
It's something new and crazy all the time. We've been playing with the sous vide machine. We had poached banana and rhubarb with a port wine.
- Jennifer Justus