Creative Chef Herb Wilson Returns to New York to Beat Bobby Flay; Next Stop is Executive Chef of New Restaurant in Miami
By Milford Prewitt
[Just at deadline, Chef Herb Wilson disclosed on his Facebook Page that he will be moving from Phoenix, Ariz to Miami to become the executive chef of a new restaurant set to open later this year. In a few weeks, SlitelyChilled will provide an update and overview of Wilson’s newest venture.]
As an alumnus of New York City’s culinary elite, Herb Wilson’s name may not be top of mind to the current generation of hardcore restaurant cognoscenti.
But 20 years ago, Wilson was a rising star among a corps of young, promising chefs who were educated in classical French culinary technique, paid their dues in some of the top kitchens in New York, acquired more training and experience in tough European apprenticeships, and later became the executive chefs of well-reviewed start-ups or who launched their own dinner houses.
But having worked outside of New York City for the past decade, his local obscurity may end and his local roots re-established in August when he returns to his hometown to become a contestant on Beat Bobby Flay, the celebrity chef’s newest cooking challenge for accomplished chefs on The Food Network.
Based in New York, Flay operates a mini-empire of restaurants that stretch to Las Vegas. A wildly popular culinary television personality renown for his cooking versatility and multi-stylistic cooking flair, Flay is associated with a number of food judging shows and how-to cooking appearances on the talk show circuit.
Kicking off its second season on The Food Network, Beat Bobby Flay pits two veteran chefs against each other in a cooking duel – with both having to use a secret ingredient Flay picks just before taping. Later, friends of Flay’s judge the contestants’ work and choose the winner who goes on to challenge him in the preparation of a signature dish of the first-round winner’s – a dish the contestant can cook blindfolded, but one Flay knows nothing about until taping starts.
Victory gives the chef the right to proclaim, “I beat Bobby Flay!”
Wilson is no stranger to television chef contests and other cooking shows, having appeared some 20 times on The Food Network.
Asked to describe the pressure of having to perform on a high level with the clock ticking on a game show, Wilson is a “cool customer,” (as a British spy novel might put it).
“Win or lose, at the end of the day, you got to go back to your restaurant,” he says. “It’s just a reality show.”
Currently the executive chef of Sumo Maya – a well received restaurant in Phoenix, Ariz., whose menu fuses Asian and Mexican foods and cooking techniques (or “Mexasian”), Wilson got a leg up in his career when he was befriended and was mentored by the late Patrick Clark.
Clark, who died way too early at the tender age of 43 in 1998, was one of a young generation of black chefs to follow the legendary Edna Lewis into the vaunted world of fine dining. [See companion article about Clark on this website.]
“Every day, he would call to check up on me,” Wilson recalls. “ ‘How’s it going, chief?’ ” Wilson recalls. “I can still hear him. I still miss it.”
Wilson delivered a moving eulogy before hundreds of fellow chefs, food writers and critics at Clark’s funeral. Later that year he and the late, great Charlie Trotter would hold a dinner at Tavern On The Green in celebration of their friend’s memory.
The confidence that Clark instilled in Wilson and Wilson’s own rich experiences have made him one of the most confident, innovative, accomplished and talented chefs on the scene today.
Another who helped shape Wilson’s cooking prowess and career trajectory was Larry Forgione, chef-owner of An American Place in New York. While there, New York Times restaurant reviewer William Grimes would say of Wilson’s cooking: “[He shows a] vigorous, uncomplicated approach to American food.
“He has come up with a menu that’s as reassuring as a firm handshake…strong on seasonal ingredients and uncompromising when it comes to defined flavors with a minimum of fuss.”
Later he worked in France with grandmaster Gerard Pangaud and then, Le Freres Troisgros, both given three stars by Michelin.
Back in the U.S., he worked at a few cutting edge restaurants before getting named the executive chef of Le Refuge, where he earned a two-star review from The Times during a seven-year stint.
Breaking out on his own in 1996, Wilson opened Bambou, an upscale Caribbean concept that played into his Jamaican roots, and which virtually every food magazine hailed as a restaurant without peer.
In 1999, Wilson was hired as executive chef of the steakhouse Jack’s Fifth. Noted food critic Gael Greene described him in her glowing review as “a skilled journeyman” whose cooking is “bright, not annoyingly tricky and seasonally inspired.”
Way before Sept. 11, Wilson migrated downtown to Wall Street, which, unbelievably, was a residential and restaurant no-man’s-land at the time, despite the incomes of those who worked there. But that barrier was breeched when the chef became the opening chef at Bull Run, inspiring financial workers to stick around at the end of the day and motivating the adventurous diner to venture downtown.
Wilson says he is proud of the fact that he is perhaps the only chef ever reviewed by The New York Times to earn three two-star reviews, at three different restaurants, by three different reviewers, in three different eras.
It’s interesting to note, that before Wilson blended Mexican and Asian cuisines, he worked in Las Vegas for the slick, dinnerhouse chain, Suishi Samba.
“I’ve re-invented myself so many times,” Wilson says. “But French is in my heart and in my blood.”
Let’s hope it serves him well in Beating Bobby Flay.
Milford Prewitt is managing editor for SlitelyChilled.com