Ryan Wilson of Fulton has spent so many years in the kitchen … and in so many different kitchens … that’s it’s kind of surprising he even remembers what made him set foot in one in the first place.
At 40, Wilson looks like he might be nearly a third his age, although he’s got that rough-around-the-edges element that seems to come standard with all working chefs. He’s intelligent and well-spoken, the kind of guy who’s go-to terminology when asked about his long history inside a kitchen involved the word “permutations.”
It was his mom, really, who started him down this path, that got him into the kitchen in the first place.
“She always had me in the kitchen. Growing up, I’d want to help out,” he said. Soon after, he studied at the alters of the PBS Sunday morning brigade of chefs, guys like Justin Wilson, Jeff Smith and Graham Kerr.
“Other kids had Saturday morning cartoons. But, for me, it was Sunday morning. Sunday mornings, I just sat down and watched all of those chefs,” Wilson said.
His mother had a copy of “The Encyclopedia of Cooking,” a massive tome of culinary knowledge from which preteen Wilson would draw. He’d peruse its pages like other kids might comic books, trying his hand at whatever recipes caught his eye. The more frou-frou, the better.
“That was the Bible when I was growing up,” he said. “I’d just thumb through that and find whatever looked fancy and fun.”
Crepes suzette, for example, which seemed fancy at the time. Those required his parents to provide Wilson with booze (for cooking, of course).
“At 12, I was like, ‘I need these liquors,’” he said with a laugh. “Oh, and I burned the crepes.”
Wilson got his first job at 15 as a grill cook at Ponderosa in his hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana. He spent the following years bouncing from restaurant to restaurant, kitchen to kitchen.
“I love to cook. I love trying new things out,” he said. And the restaurant business obliged.
Wilson eventually enrolled at the Culinary Institute of New Orleans, where he transformed his firsthand experience into a formal education. After culinary school, he moved from kitchen to kitchen across the Big Easy, including stints at fine dining eateries like Colbalt and 7 on Fulton.
“It’s a great exercise for any chef,” he said of changing restaurants, kitchens and menus. Cooking isn’t about rote repetition; it’s about passion, expression.
Years later, Wilson finds himself working Friday and Saturday nights inside the kitchen at Legends in Fulton. It’s a different kind of place – smaller in scale and slower in pace – than the kitchens where he previously worked (although it certainly has its moments; all kitchens do). But the gig provides him enough wiggle room to tinker and tweak. Any specials on the menu are usually his.
At home, in his own kitchen, Wilson likes to experiment with new dishes and flavors. Wilson’s one of the lucky few who’s job is also his passion. In order to keep it that way, he has to continually push his boundaries, try new things.
“Food is always changing. There are always new things to try,” he said.
It’s important for chefs, no matter where they work, to get out of the comfort zones. The kitchen is a laboratory; without experimentation, there is no “eureka!” moment.
Wilson said he enjoys taking whatever items are at hand – proteins, spices, etc. – and making something delicious of it. It activates that puzzle-solving portion of his brain.
“It’s improv up until the point it hits the table,” he said. “I like to figure out how to make something happen with whatever I’ve got sitting around.”
The ability to improvise, to make a dish his own no matter where he’s working, has been the key to keeping Wilson both employed and creatively satisfied. When asked what he loves about his work, he answered, “I get to play.”
Whether creating fine cuisine in Louisiana or bar grub in Mississippi, Wilson said he tries to make the menu his own.
“You have to find where you niche is and figure out how to make it work in that environment,” he said.