Champion Chef
By Joe Nolan

"I eat, breathe, and live food," says Chef Tully Wilson at our morning meet-up at Noshville deli in midtown Nashville. Wilson had just left a radio interview and was grabbing a quick bite before preparing for a Tennessee Performing Arts Center screening of the chef's Food Network premiere on "Chef Wanted", Wilson and I talked about food, family, and what it's like being almost famous.

Wilson was banging on pots and pans as an infant, and cooking dinner by the age of six. Love of food and family seems to come naturally to the Wilsons. "Everybody cooks," explains the chef. "Everything in our house revolves around food."

By the time Wilson graduated high school, he had become a kitchen prodigy. "I was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America during my sophomore year of high school," he recalls. "I'd done a week-long boot camp and earned the chance to go there after I graduated."

Wilson - like all student-chefs at the most celebrated culinary school in the world - found his experience there to be both terribly difficult and immensely rewarding. "It can be really overwhelming," he laughs. "It can be really hard and you always have to be on your game. I worked under thirteen master chefs. I got to meet Julia Child - that was humbling."

After working with Disney, Wilson cooked for a cruise line. After getting caught in a hurricane during one trip, he reconsidered gigs on dry land. His parents proposed that he start his own restaurant in Hartsville, and in April of 2007, Tully's Bistro opened as a family affair, with Wilson's mother, K..K., listed as the restaurant's owner on their website.

"We do American-French fusion," Wilson notes. "We do burgers, lamb, duck, and everything in between." Wilson makes his soup stock from scratch and his salads feature unique dressings using ingredients like pumpkin and eggnog. Of course, with this kind of attention to detail, Wilson is also picky about his ingredients - his seasonal menu boasts all - organic food.

"I have stuff show up on my door step every morning," says Wilson. His produce comes from Thelma and Jack Smith, and his cheeses come from Kenny's Farmhouse Cheese. Anita and Paul Coleman supply Wilson with the fresh honey that he presses out of the honeycomb after it's arrived at the restaurant. "I keep it simple. I keep it fresh."

This no-nonsense approach served Wilson well as a contestant on "Chef Wanted", Wilson competed against three other hopefuls for a chance to be the new executive chef for chef/restaurateur Todd English's Mediterranean-meets-Manhattan restaurant, Olives.

"Wanted" puts challengers through rounds of cooking contests, eliminating the last-place finishers until one victor is left standing. Wilson and his rivals were charged with making an entree from chicken, zucchini, and potatoes in the first round, followed by a fresh-pasta challenge. Wilson's Moroccan chicken with harissa sauce and beet ravioli with Swiss chard were criticized by English, but Wilson managed to struggle through to the final challenge: running the dinner service at Olives.

"You're serving movie stars and super models who all keep coming to this place because it's got great food, and I was working with a staff that I'd never worked with before," says Wilson. "It was incredible."

Wilson's menu for his debut was a bold, broad take on the restaurant's Mediterranean theme: Moroccan chicken wings with tzatziki and harissa sauce, lamb flatbread, spring pasta with spicy marina and goat cheese, squid ink linguine with octopus, pork with parmesan, polenta and sauteed spinach, pan-seared branzino with Israeli couscous, and cumin custard for dessert. The service started out slowly, but Wilson pushed through and delivered a fantastic evening that found English singing his praises.

"I am the new executive chef for Todd English," beams Wilson. He has a high-energy personality, but when he talks about winning the contest, he smiles like a kid who just won the big baseball game.

Wilson is preparing his move to New York - along with his new menus - but plans to be back in Tennessee a few times a month to keep a hand on the rudder at his local concerns, which include the newly-opened market/fine-dining establishment Tully's in Gallatin. If you're hoping for the chef to open an eatery closer to Nashville, you're going to have to wait.

"I like a big destination restaurant. You take a drive, you stop and relax. And I don''t feel the pressure to turn the tables the way I would if we were somewhere else," Wilson explains. Anybody up for dinner in Manhattan?

[use Joe's bio from the summer issue]