by Claire Cella • Photography by Kate LeSueur
It’s a Sunday night at the South Austin home of Casey Wilcox, executive chef of Justine’s Brasserie, but you won’t find anyone draped languidly across a couch or affixed to a television screen. Although there’s an air of relaxation and ease that drifts through the open front door, within an hour, voices have filled the house and once-empty platters have quickly overflowed to greet a gregarious assemblage of dinner guests. Included are Addie Higgins, Wilcox’s girlfriend of five years; Higgins’ sister Nessa and her daughter Willow; the Higginses’ parents, Mike and Beverly; and Jill Kuvhe, a dear friend from the industry. Underfoot are the watchful eyes of Maybe, the gentle giant of a pit bull and Nessa’s dog, Hercules. Not everyone could make it, though—throughout the night, the family laments the absence of Addie’s young sons, Dash and Jesper, as well as Addie’s grandmother, Boots.
One might think that the executive chef of one of Austin’s most esteemed restaurants would rather do anything but cook on his days off, but for Wilcox, cooking remains one of the only activities that helps him unwind. “It really, truly, is how I relax,” he says as he walks outside with determination and tongs to flip four slabs of Salt & Time short ribs amid the billowing smoke. “I have got to be worn out to come home and watch TV; I have to be completely destroyed. But it’s the things that demand so much focus from me—like cooking, riding my motorcycle, building something here…(he pauses to point the dripping tongs at the vintage lights he installed in the living room)…that allow me to relax. It’s just enough that I can stop organizing everything else in my head. The only way I can really do that is with my hands.”
Back inside, Wilcox stands above the sink, smashing golden baby potatoes with his bare hands; potatoes that were, mere seconds ago, in a pot of boiling water. Steam escapes in visible puffs between his palms. “I could have probably waited,” he says with an almost mischievous smile, seemingly unfazed by the scalding potato skins. Amid the heat and movement flash the bold words “CAN’T FAIL” tattooed on Wilcox’s hands—one letter above the last knuckle of each finger. He worries aloud that the words might sound pretentious, but explains they’re really more of a prayer—similar to how sailors used to ink “HOLD FAST” on their knuckles to give them a good grip in rigging. Wilcox says that failure is just as motivating as success, because, to him, those are the only options. So the words act as sort of a reminder to his hands. “Like, I need you to do this for me,” he says.
Wilcox tops the bowl of popped potatoes with his own blended mayonnaise, roasted cauliflower bits, lobster chunks, chopped jalapeños and green onions. As a finale, he tops the pile with a splash of scent from delicate tendrils of dill before he grips a large spoon and folds the ingredients in on each other while everything is warm and fragrant.
The night progresses in seamless orchestration. An exact number of platters and bowls lies in wait nearby, various ingredients have been prepped ahead and are pulled as needed, the dinner table has already been elegantly set for eight. Always in motion, swift and purposeful, Wilcox spins around the kitchen and slides past family members. On the menu are those braised short ribs topped with roasted onions and peppers—a dish he says is reminiscent of his first cooking gig as a high school student in upstate New York where he slaved away the summers cooking at the New York State Fair. There’s also a lobster casserole—a subtle, savory and, as Wilcox puts it, “funky” shellfish dish that he’s been dreaming up for weeks but that isn’t quite right for Justine’s. He tops the creamy combination with crumbled Ritz crackers. “This is why it isn’t a Justine’s dish,” he says with a laugh. “Ritz crackers, cheddar cheese, jalapeños…right?” There’s also pan-sautéed cherry tomatoes from Springdale Farms, and basil plucked from Justine’s new backyard garden—ingredients Wilcox says he’s been “really getting down on.” “I’m cooking not for myself, but for my ideals,” he says. “And those are to be as honest with the food as I can; to get things from as close [by as] I can get them; to not overwork them or let them be too precious; to have a light hand and to translate that. [Cooking] is not just for you, as the chef. It’s not a vanity project. It’s not, you know, art for art’s sake.”
Now at the dinner table, Wilcox’s hands are still working as he puts down hot platters and begins to pass around the salad bowl. Soon, lush broad leaves of local spinach and arugula fan dinner plates, requiring slicing in order to eat—just the way Wilcox likes it. “I always aim to create fork-and-knife food,” he says. “I don’t want anyone cutting my food for me! I want to do it myself.” Just before digging in, the family offers thanks for the food and for Wilcox’s hard work—a privilege he doesn’t often get to experience from the back of Justine’s. For a brief moment, his “CAN’T FAIL” reminder edict relaxes into simple, intermingled letters as he threads his fingers together to join in the prayer and celebrate the evening’s successes.