Triad´s Best Chef on food, business and fish liver

by Brian Clarey

Yes! Weekly readers voted Chef Will Kingery the Best Chef in the Triad in this year’s Readers’ Poll. But before opening his Winston-Salem eatery, Kingery spent years in the business, working in places as varied as a Sonic drive-thru, Marisol in Jamestown, the Old Town Club and the Forsyth Country Club. After getting a degree from GTCC’s culinary program, he partnered with Norb Cooper to open Willow’s just a couple years ago and then the two launched King’s Crab Shack on 4th Street earlier this year.

YES! Weekly: Compared to other regions of the country — New York, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans — the Triad is not exactly a culinary epicenter. How do you get people around here to care about food?

Will Kingery: It’s coming into the mainstream. We do have foodies here; it is something that is still evolving. Think of it like going from a fish filet to a whole snapper, and using fresh, local products. The customers are starting to demand it. They are pushing the chefs in that direction.

And if you start with a good product and cook it right, you’re gonna end with a good product.

Y!W: What do you mean by “good product”?

WK: We have great goat cheese. Poultry and chicken from local farms. Our strawberries when they’re in season are phenomenal. They are definitely my favorite.

I do try to source as much as I can locally. We have an abundance of talent here.

Y!W: Why is it so important to know where your food comes from?

WK: I encourage people to watch Food Inc. It’s eye-opening. It makes you realize these big corporations are pumping these animals full of hormones and other gross stuff, breeding animals that aren’t natural. Your body isn’t designed to break down a 10-syllable chemical.

For example, everybody thinks soy products are super healthy, but they’ve manufactured these soy plants that are almost indestructible — if the pollen from that soy plant gets into your field, you have to pay them a licensing fee. It’s the same with corn and other produce. They manufacture these seeds that are hybrids of these plants, but the reality is that they can’t be healthful.

With organic produce, the flavor alone is phenomenal. You take massproduced beef and put it up against a local guy and the flavor profile and the texture are so much better.

Y!W: Does your staff understand the difference between what you do and, say, the Olive garden?

WK: No chef is sh*t without his team. The chef can only do so much.

Without his sous chef, line cooks, servers, dishwashers, hostess, he is nothing.

The hard part is to get the waitstaff to understand how passionate you are about the thing. It’s an industry where there is no education or licensing or degrees — there’s not a waiter school. It’s scary to think that places are hiring people just because they need a job. Mindless food runners. If my kitchen screws up I could kill somebody.

You either have it or you don’t; you are either a nice person or not. If you are a nice person, you can work in this industry. If you care, you can do it. I tell people to use their adjectives — “fresh,” “local.”” Tell them where it’s from. Don’t just say, “Yellowtail snapper with mango salsa.”

Y!W: What do you like to eat?

WK: I love lamb, duck. I like wild game — wild boar is one of my favorites. One of my buddies brought back this whole ribcage of a wild boar from Georgia. We grilled ’em. You got this two-foot rib bone like a caveman. I tried to find it but it was so expensive. By the time it got to the plate it would cost the customer 50 bucks, and I can’t do that.

Probably the only thing I don’t like is monkfish liver. One of the chefs I used to work for said, “Hey Will, try this.” I thought it was foie gras. It was this super oily, fishy… it’s a fish liver. Probably the nastiest thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. In some countries they consider it a delicacy.

Y!W: Any advice for up and coming chefs?

WK: People say they want to open a restaurant, I say, “No you don’t.”

You have to find the food and order it, store it, prepare it, plate it, serve it, keep the place clean, pay bills. It’s an enormous amount of work.

I was hanging out with some other chefs a few days ago who were like, “Wow, you made it.”

I said, “I was fired two years ago. I had to sell my gold [jewelry] to pay my rent.” I was broke. I had no credit. I found someone with some money and we went in on this place. Nobody wanted to touch Willow’s — the banks, the downtown partnership, the small business association.

I had nothing. But if you go looking, and you want it bad enough, you can get it.

wanna go?

Will Kingery, chef, Winston-Salem Willows Bistro 336.293.4601 300 S. Liberty St. Suite 125,