By RODNEY HO/ email@example.com, originally filed Monday, November 30, 2015
In the first episode of the 13th season of Bravo’s sturdy cooking competition show “Top Chef” airing Wednesday, Atlanta’s Wesley True will do something that rankles host Padma Lakshmi.
Will that be a hindrance to True pocketing $125,000 over 16 other chefs? First impressions do matter, but we won’t know for another three to four months whether he’ll be the last chef standing.
True, the 38-year-old executive chef at the well-regarded West Midtown restaurant the Optimist, is just thrilled to be cast.
“It’s the show to be on if you’re a chef,” said True, a Mobile, Ala. native and collegiate pole vaulter at the University of Mississippi. “Why not? It’s fun. It’s not like ‘Guy’s Grocery Games.’ It’s a real show.”
Atlanta has had much success on “Top Chef,” including “All Stars” winner Richard Blais, Gunshow owner and season six runner up Kevin Gillespie, Luminary executive chef Eli Kirshtein and Diner owner Ron Eyester. (Photo gallery of “Top Chef” Atlanta contestants over the years.)
True is the oldest contestant on this season’s cast and has an impressive resume.
A Culinary Institute of America graduate, True worked in some notable high-end New York City kitchens including Danube, Bouley and Aquavit. Burnt out by the pace, he moved back to his hometown of Mobile, where he opened his own restaurant.
But he said he was far from emotionally mature. “I used to be nuts,” he said. “I liked to throw plates. I was younger and arrogant.” He said he used to make food for himself. “It was all about me,” he said. “I didn’t care about the customers at the time.”
Social media humbled him. He said he kicked a customer who annoyed him out of the restaurant and the guy pilloried him online.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing financially,” True said. “I thought my cooking would solve every problem.”
About six years ago, he moved to Montgomery, Ala., where he joined a restaurant under his name True but he didn’t own it. While there, he was nominated twice for a James Beard best chef in the South designation. “It was a big turning point for me maturity wise,” he said.
True then got married, had a child and felt he needed to be in a bigger city.
So he quit True late last year and soon found a job at the Spence in Midtown Atlanta in the late winter, taking over for Blais, who now lives in San Diego.
Ford Fry, a local chef who owns the Optimist and other restaurants such as JCT. Kitchen & Bar and no. 246, met True at the time.
Fry and True connected on multiple levels, with similar interests in music and religion. (“We joke that we’re the only chefs that believe in God,” True said.)
“He was kind of a wild kid for awhile,” Fry said. “He’s had a change in life. He’s now a father.”
“I don’t get home and drink three glasses of bourbon,” True said. “Now it’s two glasses of wine and I’m awake at seven!”
And when Fry tried True’s food, he was deeply impressed.
“I was blown away by his ability to create flavors I wouldn’t have thought of before,” Fry said. “His food wasn’t interesting for the sake of being interesting. They were interesting and tasted really good.”
True now believes creating a good restaurant means making customers happy, creating great memories. We were talking outside of the Optimist, which has two mini-golf holes and palm trees. “It’s all strategically done to evoke memories and generate new ones,” he said. “Everything matters. The lighting. The furniture. It’s not just about the food.”
When Adam Evans chose to leave the Optimist over the summer, Fry immediately thought of True, whose brief stay at the Spence was not really working out. (“It wasn’t a good fit” is all True would say.) Fry said both chefs are big on flavors and like to work the line though True is more inclined toward fine dining.
True wants to upgrade the oyster bar area where he has already brought in different crudo options. Fry has been impressed with an ember-roasted fish cooked right on the coal and sliced raw. He also enjoyed a flounder in brown butter and almonds.
True has made some tweaks to the main menu but knows the Optimist is popular for a reason so he hasn’t opted for a major overhaul. (“If I had taken over five years ago, I’d want all the dishes to be mine. But that’s an immature way of thinking.”)
When he tried to take the kale salad off, he got so much guff, he put it back on. Staples like the hushpuppies and fried rice stayed as is. He made changes to some of the recipes for dishes like the gumbo, the she crab soup, the charred Spanish octopus and fish and chips. (Vodka makes the batter even crispier!)
Fry had no idea True was on “Top Chef” until Bravo announced the cast. “I knew he was out of town for awhile but he didn’t elaborate,” Fry said. He isn’t sure how Fry’s appearance on the show will impact business at the Optimist, which is already popular as is.
One thing the “Top Chef” editors will note in the first episode is that True isn’t the most organized in the kitchen. He blames that partly on being so hyper-focused on the cooking itself. “It sometimes pisses my cooks off,” he admitted.
“Top Chef,” 10 p.m. Wednesday, December 2, 2015, followed by 10 p.m., Thursday, December 3, 2015