Brian Wilson has heard a Beach Boys joke or two in his life — but music isn’t a laughing matter for this executive chef, who hails from a line of professional musicians and even studied jazz performance and composition in college. For the past eight years, however, Wilson has fine-tuned his skills in the kitchen and now showcases his artistry at Telegraph, which opened last fall on Alameda just north of West Washington Park. Keep reading for his explanation of why he ultimately chose cooking over music, and what Thomas Keller wrote that inspires him to this day.
Westword: How do you want people to think of Telegraph? How does it stand out from other restaurants?
Brian Wilson: How I want people to think of Telegraph is as a comfortable in-between. If you want a place that is very casual and fun and low-key, where you can have a couple plates to share and a few drinks, it’s great. But if you want a place that is a little more upscale with some beautiful plates, more formal service, nice cocktails, then you can have that, as well. The bottom line is that I want people to be happy when they’re here. Telegraph is for them, and I want them to feel that way when they’re here. They don’t call it the service industry for nothing.
What are Telegraph’s greatest strengths?
The diversity in our staff provides a really well-rounded point of view. Some, such as myself, have a very strong understanding of the fine-dining aspect of this business, while others have a stronger understanding in the more casual department. Putting those together gives us all a better skill set for service. We won’t let our standards slip. Mistakes are bound to happen, but we refuse to stop pushing until we get it right.
Why did you decide to start cooking?
I actually started cooking because of a girl. Weird, I know. I wanted to be able to cook for a girlfriend of mine, but her dad turned out to be a really good cook! Being the competitive and perfectionist person that I am, I decided that I needed to get really good at this. Then somewhere along the way, I fell in love with it. Story as old as time, really.
One-line bio: How old are you, where are you from, and where else have you worked?
Well, if you must know, I’m 29. I was raised in Casper, Wyoming, but most of my career is in good old New York City. I was fortunate to work with some great chefs out there. I was fortunate to work and stage around at places like Marlow & Sons, Diner, The Modern, Babbo and some others. After that I got to work a little in Chicago and San Francisco. Then I worked for about three years for Denver’s own Jen Jasinski.
If you hadn’t become a chef, what would you be?
I actually went to college for music at a pretty awesome school. I really enjoyed it, but just kind of got burned out. I think if I were to do something else, it would be to play music again.
Can you tell me more about your music background? And as a musician, did you get jokes about the Beach Boys, given your name?
Ha, ha! Yes, lots and lots of Beach Boy jokes. It’s kind of funny, because you can almost tell how music-savvy a person is based on the direction they take that joke. If a person is pretty into music and knows what’s going on, they make a Brian Wilson Beach Boys joke — or if not, they make the joke about Brian Wilson in that Barenaked Ladies song. Same guy, of course; they just don’t know he was a famous musician.
I digress. I went to college for jazz performance and composition at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in Manhattan. My instrument was upright bass. I made music my career, though, up until I started cooking seriously. I come from a pretty great line of professional musicians: my dad, his dad, my mom’s dad, grandmas, etc. So I made my living that way since I was in high school.
What’s your earliest food memory?
My dad makes these things called gumbo burgers, and they’re actually pretty good. He was cooking them for me and my first best friend, and he decided he was going to fancy them up and add something new to them. To this day, I don’t know what that something was, but it made them literally inedible. It’s not exactly shelling peas or rolling pasta with my nonna, but [the memory is] mine, and I love it the same.
What’s a career highlight?
There is a point in a line cook’s tenure when you become the lead line cook, sous-chef or other fancy French word that I won’t bore you with. It means you’re one person in a very high-stress environment, and when the chef looks at you, he or she knows you made the right decision, the best you could. That’s a pretty special feeling, and I’m fortunate enough to have felt that way a few times. I know it’s no James Beard award yet, but here’s to hoping and trying!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I truly wish Thomas Keller had said this to me himself, but it’s something that has made me grow immensely as a boss and gain perspective as a cook: “When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy. That is what cooking is all about.” Like I said, they don’t call it the service industry for nothing.
Do you have a signature dish, or something you’ve made throughout the years, even if you’re not publicly known for it?
Being that I’m just a young pup, it’s tough for me to claim a signature dish. I’ve had a couple of publications say that the squid-ink vermicelli is a signature. That’s a fun dish, and I wouldn’t be bummed if that was my signature.
Biggest flop you’ve ever served, and why it failed:
Fortunately, I never served it to a paying customer — but when I first started cooking, I wanted to make gnocchi. Having no idea how to make gnocchi, I made these big, flavorless blobs of glue. If you were a kid and took a giant chomp out of a glue stick, think of that. Come on, you know you did it, too, right?
If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Pizza, hands down. Or burritos. Or Xi’an Famous Foods, the one in Queens, the greatest! That’s a tough one.
Do you ever cook at home? If so, do you have a go-to dish?
I don’t really cook at home. I get one day off a week, and I typically am thinking about new menu stuff, so cooking for myself doesn’t come into play that much. That’s where that pizza, burritos — and, I wish, Xi’an’s — come into play.
What’s a neighborhood restaurant that deserves a shout-out?
If I didn’t say Brazen [run by Christopher Sargent, who also owns Telegraph], I’m pretty sure I’d be in the doghouse. Did I mention that Carrie [Baird, Brazen head chef] was my girlfriend, too? Almost anything on that Tennyson strip, though, is doing great. Hops & Pie is one of my favorites.
What’s your idea of happiness?
All orders coming in right and on time? That’s kind of a deep question, really — ha, ha! I’ll sleep on it.
Name one famous person, living or historical, whom you’d like to sit next to at dinner.
I want to eat with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry circa ’06. I’d love to ask him what he was thinking on every little thing.
Favorite road trip you’ve taken, and where you went:
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I’m not a big driving fan, but I like to fly. I like airports, for some reason. My last trip to NYC was amazing. Stepping off the plane was like stepping onto my front porch after not having been there for a long time.
Best tip for a home cook:
Taste your food! It sounds so silly, but it’s so true. People are so funny when they sit down and say without prompting, “This needs more this or this needs more that.” Well, if you had tasted it while you were making it, we wouldn’t have this problem, would we?
Telegraph is located at 295 South Pennsylvania Street; for more information, call 720-440-9846 or go to telegraphdenver.com.