Editor's note: As Austin continues to grow and thrive as a culinary epicenter, we’ve started to see certain big name chefs grow to demi-god celebrity status. But in kitchens, bars, and restaurants across the city, there is so much more talent that often goes unspoken. Next in Line is a monthly column celebrating back of the house heroes who might just be the next household name.
Name: Casey Wilcox
Kitchen: Justine’s Brasserie
Position: Executive Chef
Hometown: I grew up outside of Syracuse, in a town called Baldwinsville, New York.
When did you first start cooking? I started cooking when I was 17. I was going to college and playing lacrosse and I needed to get a job. I didn’t take cooking seriously until I moved to Las Vegas when I was 22.
What was your first kitchen job? I worked at Applebee’s. I started expediting and then I moved to the kitchen because I liked it.
What other places have you cooked? I moved to Las Vegas and I saw a sign in Commander’s Palace that they were hiring and I was like, “Wow, that’s a fancy restaurant. They’re totally gonna pay me, like, way more!” Which is so wrong. (laughs)
Next, I went to Fiamma at the MGM, which was great. Then I did a little short stint back in [Upstate] New York as a sous chef at Mirbeau Inn & Spa. In Las Vegas, I got sick of how money-driven it all was. There wasn’t really a local scene. I hear it’s better since, but [then] it just sort of wore me out.
After going back to New York and getting everything ready for a move, I chose Memphis because I wanted a dirty, American, gritty city. I walked into what was the best restaurant in town: Erling Jensen. Erling’s a crazy cat. He’s a fun dude; he’s Danish. I walked in and I got the job. I started working the line and they found out that, when I was working all the stations at Commander’s, I had worked as a pastry cook, so they put me on to cover the pastry chef’s days off. [Eventually the pastry chef left] and Erling was like, “You’re the pastry chef now!” I had to teach myself.
How did you end up in Austin? Memphis, at the point, was kind of slowly fading and ... I felt like the opportunities were going away as opposed to increasing. What I loved about Las Vegas, the fast pace, the exciting things going on all the time, and then Memphis — just true and original and American — I felt like Austin was like that. I visited before I moved. It took me two days to realize I wanted to move here.
[In Austin,] I started working at Uchi ... I took a pantry job for a third of what I made in Memphis because I wanted to work there.
How would you describe how your current philosophy and style of cooking? The philosophy I’m now cooking with is definitely created from all the places I’ve been and what I’ve taken from them.
Ingredient-wise [at Justine's], I try to keep everything at least marginally French, but there might be miso in a beef braise just because it’s going to lend another deeper rich note ... Everything on the specials board is local, but we don’t talk about it. I let the servers know, so that if anybody really cares, they can say so. And this is my decision, not a restaurant decision. I just think that’s what you’re supposed to do ... I just don’t think it’s something you need to talk about.
I want execution above all. I think so much of what we think is good food, even places we haven’t been, it’s so much more pipe and presence than actually execution. For me, being a great restaurant or doing my job well is all about that execution.
What chefs were your biggest inspiration? I took something from every boss I've had. I’m constantly inspired still. There’s a cookbook coming to my house every week, and I’m always reading magazines ... But for me to name-drop chefs, it’s so hard.
What do you love about cooking? It’s kind of almost everything. It’s changed through the years, too. It [used to be] the rush and the camaraderie. I mean, it’s still the camaraderie. But it’s moved from that really carnal thing into [something] more cerebral or whatever. I like to see the process, from you having something that you’ve dreamt in your head ... then showing it to someone and having them love it and having them be able to execute it. Those are the things for me now.
What’s your favorite music to listen to in the kitchen? In the morning, we’ll listen to some old country like Waylon Jennings. But at nighttime, it has to have some beats per minute. We’ll listen to crazy New York hip hop, anything really, but it’s gotta jam. And a lot of times guys will try to play some psyched-out indie rock and I’ll be like, “Dude you can play that during the daytime, but you need to turn that off right now!”
Favorite food to eat when not working? When I cook at home, it’s mostly the challenge of what’s in the pantry and what I can make that’s cool. Like last night, I made a braised vegetable bolognese. Then I made chicken tenders and I breaded them but we didn’t have bread, so I used crackers and these biscuits and gravy potato chips which I bought as a joke, but nobody ate. (laughs) So I ground them up and breaded the chicken with it!
When I’m out, I love all the very strict ethnic cuisines. Asian cuisines, that’s mostly what I’ve been in the mood for for the past month. But also true Italian food and that kinda “wham” food, like chicken wings and stuff like that.
What do you like to do when you’re not working? I have a family, so of course a lot of time is spent with them. When I leave here at night and get on my motorcycle, I know that I’m paying attention to driving and there’s a cool breeze in my face and I just don’t think about anything except for that. If I’m left for my mind to wander, I get tied up in, “What am I going to do for this special? Did this guy do this? Did I write the menu for this thing in two months? What more can I do?”
For me to shut it off, I need to be active. Last night I made my dog a collar and I used all my wood tools to do it. I just looked online to see what you do to tool leather. And I’m not doing anything super ornate, but I used the knowledge I had from wood carving to do it. That’s how I don’t feel busy.