Wesley True, a native of Mobile, Alabama, two-time James Beard Award semifinalist and former sous chef under celebrity chef Bobby Flay, has returned to his Southern roots as Bald Headed Bistro's new executive chef. The restaurant, one of Cleveland's most-popular eateries, specializes in smoked meats, which happens to be one of True's favorite cooking methods.
"I have a passion for barbecue and take a lot of pride in it, so that I can create and serve a perfect smoky, tender piece of meat," he says, adding that even on his days off, he can be found utilizing his Big Green Egg smoker. "I cook on it every Sunday — even in the cold weather."
As a contestant on Bravo's Emmy Award-winning reality show "Top Chef," True showed his chops with his cooking skills and personality. And while he's the first in his family to pursue a career in the culinary arts, he comes by his love of the grill naturally.
"My dad's been known to grill a mean filet mignon," he says.
But it was a job at City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi, while in college that altered his decision from attending Ole Miss on a sports scholarship to attending the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
Q: Why the change from sports to food?
A: When I was a student at Ole Miss, I knew I had an interest in cooking, so I applied at City Grocery and came to a realization that I didn't want to pursue athletics. I got a taste of what it would be like to pursue a career in becoming a chef. So I enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America. Going to school there and living in a vibrant food city really propelled me into wanting to become a great chef.
Q: How did you come to work under Bobby Flay?
A: Basically, I applied after seeing an ad looking for a sous chef for Mesa Grill and I got a call to come in and cook a three-course tasting menu. The rest is history. I never worked directly with him, though, just his restaurant group.
Q: How did training under Flay and David Bouley [New York chef and restaurateur] influence you?
A: I would say I was largely influenced by working at Bouley [the chef's namesake restaurant]. Cesar Ramirez, the chef de cuisine at the time I was there, served as my mentor, and under him I learned valuable techniques and a mindset for perfection.
Q: You've been a James Beard Best Chef in the South semifinalist twice. What will you do to become a winner next time, and how do you think winning will help the restaurant and your career?
A: There's a funny story about that time in my life. The first year I was nominated, I had no idea that the award even existed. I was just having fun cooking and trying to be the best restaurant in Mobile, Alabama, at my restaurant, True.
The morning of the announcement, I was getting a lot of congratulatory calls, and then it dawned upon me that it was a big deal!
While the past nominations have validated me as a chef, being recognized a third time would be fulfilling. But I can't say that my goal is to receive another. I'd like to go back in time and be the young chef that had no idea and was just having fun cooking and striving to do my best. If any positive rewards come about, then it would truly be appreciated for not only me but my staff as well. It takes a team to expedite a vision.
Q: How would you describe your culinary style?
A: My style has evolved from cooking upscale dishes based on French techniques and molecular gastronomy to rustic but still refined. I like to utilize my surroundings, so my goal is to have my menu reflect my environment by utilizing local farms and growers.
Q: What regional fare do you enjoy cooking the most?
A: I've been having a lot of fun taking Southern dishes and using international influences like Asian and Mexican to put a fun spin on a dish.
Q: You've cooked in larger cities, such as New York and Atlanta. Why did you now choose to settle in a smaller town in Southeast Tennessee?
A: I was offered an unbelievable opportunity by the Jones family [BHB owners], and I had wanted to go back to being a chef in a small restaurant where I can be creative and live in a town where I can raise my son and actually have the time to see him grow up.
Q: Do you plan to restyle the menu at BHB?
A: Of course. My goal for the overall success of my menu is to have prices and dishes that translate to a neighborhood restaurant. My cooking style is ever-changing, and I do aim to cook seasonally, so the menu will change for each season, give or take some mainstay items.
Q: What's the dish you're most proud of on the menu?
A: While I love the whole menu, my favorite dish is the slow-smoked brisket.
Q: What's one thing people may not know about you?
A: I have a pilot's license and can fly them in an airplane.
Q: What's your guilty food pleasure?
A: Sometimes I use steak sauce at home
Q: What's one of your favorite dishes for a cold January day?
A: Cioppino. I love, love, love seafood, and most people don't utilize seafood in the winter. Cioppino is a great option to eat fish and shellfish and be warm in the winter months.
1/2 onion, sliced
1/2 fennel bulb, sliced
8 garlic cloves, chopped
3 cups crushed tomatoes
1 1/2 teaspoons ancho chile powder
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
4 cups lobster stock
Salt, to taste
1 pound white fish, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 cup white wine
16 shrimp, cleaned and shelled
Equal parts dill sprigs, parsley leaves and scallions, chopped (1/4 cup total)
For broth: Saute vegetables in oil until translucent. Add ancho chile powder and paprika. Deglaze pan with lobster stock, and add crushed tomatoes. Bring to a boil, and simmer for 20 minutes.
For seafood: In a 6-quart pot on high, heat 1 tablespoon oil, and cook fish in hot oil for 2 minutes. Deglaze pan with wine; add mussels and cook for 2 minutes. Add shrimp, and cook for another minute. Add the broth, and cook for 3 minutes or until shrimp are fully cooked. Serve, garnished with herbs. Makes 4 servings.
Email Anne Braly at email@example.com.