Cooking Class: Fort Worth chef brings home the gold

Betty Dillard Toques off to Timothy Prefontaine. The executive chef at the iconic Fort Worth Club is currently the best in the nation, according to the American Culinary Federation. Prefontaine earned the title of 2014 U.S.A.’s Chef of the Year during the ACF National Convention in Kansas City, Mo., in late July, beating out three other chefs for the award. In Iron Chef-style, chefs had one hour to prepare, cook and present four different show plates, all using quail. Judges evaluated organization, cooking skills, culinary techniques and taste to crown the winner. Prefontaine’s winning menu – a bit of Southwest with a bite of south-of-the-border flavors – included chipotle-glazed, cornbread-stuffed Texas quail, with jicama corn salad, smoked pecans, avocado puree and red pepper coulis. “I’ve been competing for a while and you get to know what the judges are looking for and what scores points and what doesn’t. It’s really just trial and error over the years,” Prefontaine said. “Obviously, flavor was the most important thing and the highest scorer. I needed things to taste good.” Prefontaine has been making food taste – and look – good since he was a kid in his parents’ kitchen in Massachusetts. After receiving his culinary arts degree from New Hampshire Community Technical College, he earned his chops at various five-star resorts around the country as well as at a resort in the Virgin Islands. His gold-plated background also includes serving as executive sous chef at River Oaks Country Club in Houston. The 36-year-old chef isn’t content to limit his culinary skills to the kitchen. Prefontaine has a battery of more than 20 state, national and international competitions under his apron. He joined the Fort Worth Club in 2008, the same year he was a member of the ACF Culinary Regional Team USA, one of only six chefs in America and the only one in Texas. Winning first place out of 62 teams at the Internationale Kochkunst Ausstellung, also known as the “culinary Olympics,” in Germany, Prefontaine returned to Fort Worth with a gold medal. He also was a member of the ACF Culinary Team USA that placed third overall at the 2011 Culinary World Cup in Luxembourg. He’s now coaching the 2016 team. “It’s fun. I get to travel all over the world but I like being at home,” Prefontaine said. “I come in to work and try to make things a little better every day. There’s always something new to start. We’re working on holiday menus now. It never ends and that’s one of the things I like about the industry. There’s always something else to try. You never get bored and if you do you’re not putting in enough effort.” The Fort Worth Business Press whisked Chef Tim away from the cooking range for a few minutes to hash out his culinary career.

How did you decide to become a chef? My grandmother was a great cook. My stepfather was a great cook, my mom, really my whole family. It was just something I always wanted to do. I was in the kitchen as much as they would let me, trying to help out. It was just fun. I needed a job in high school and started out as a dishwasher at the restaurant and worked my way up from there. I just enjoy the rush and the busyness of a restaurant. I had been doing it for about five years and decided to get my degree because it was always something I could fall back on. When I went to school I saw how much was out there. It drove my curiosity and I wanted to learn more and more and more. You’re not new to culinary competition, having already won several top honors. How does it feel to earn the title of best chef in the nation? It was a personal goal I had for a while. It’s been a very rewarding experience and a true honor. It’s certainly made me a better cook. My apprentices, Maddie Cutts and Juan Guevara, learned a lot.

Do you have a culinary style? What defines your cuisine? I’m not sure. I’m still working on that. I have noticed in the last few years my ideas and philosophy about food has definitely changed. Maybe five years ago it was about how much can you put on the plate and make it as great as possible. Now it’s about simple flavors perfectly placed on the plate – more simple food executed really well.

You give back to your profession through the development of students and apprentices. Describe your teaching and coaching style. That’s changed a lot as well. I’d like to think I’m becoming a lot more patient. I think now, versus five or 10 years ago, there are a lot more different styles of teaching in the kitchen. I think a please and a thank-you go a long way. If you’re genuinely kind to your employees and have your main focus on their best interest and what they do and how they develop, I think it’s a much more honest approach. There are so many avenues you can take in this industry today. You have to talk to each individual – everybody’s different and wants to do something different, whether it’s baking or ice carving. For some people it might be Asian cooking, others sushi. Having worked at so many places and resorts and having such a variety of experiences, I can relate to everybody in some way. This is harder than most jobs. For so long it’s been normal to work these long, crazy hours but that’s starting to change. It’s starting to come back closer to a real life. The industry is starting to evolve back to 8-10 hours a day and five days a week. I know some sous chefs who won’t work their employees six or seven days a week while others don’t care if they work them seven days. They get burned out and leave the profession and then it’s hard to find others to replace them. I try to give my employees at least two days a week off most of the year except during the busy season once a year. You have to find that balance of family and work to be happy.

- FWBP Digital Partners -

Are there some new trends in dining? You’re starting to see the better restaurants going from more complicated food to simpler food – a lot fresher, more organic, no preservatives, made in-house. Farm to table is still booming. It’s no longer a trend anymore but has become mainstream. We do it here when we can but it’s difficult because we plan our menus two or three weeks out and you don’t know what’s going to be at the farmers market tomorrow. We change our fruits and vegetables from sustainable farms in the area daily when we can. Members enjoy it.

Best part of your job? It’s really about making people happy and not just to members and guests but to employees as well. It’s giving them a good place to come to work so they can be happy, finding that balance of life and work. And for the members and guests it’s giving a good meal at a good price that’s made fresh in-house.

And the worst part? Being a chef means working on holidays. You miss a lot of stuff. It’s demanding, my position more than most. It’s still a tough industry but you kind of get used to it and just do it. You know come Christmastime you’ll be working extra-long hours.

What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your kitchen? Masking tape. We use it for labeling everything. It’s easy and cheap but so important. If I could have a belt with a holder on it I’d have masking tape.

- Advertisement -

If money were no object … I would probably move to an island in the Caribbean and live happily ever after.

When you leave the kitchen door and go home … I try to spend time with the kids. My wife, Almy, and I have three children: Brendon, 8; Bella, 6; and Ryan, 4. We go for a swim or kick the soccer ball around in the backyard. Then I eat dinner, watch the news, go to bed.

Here’s an old question. Who would you like to see gathered around your imaginary table? Wow, that’s a good one. I think John F. Kennedy would be a very interesting man to meet. Then [American chef] Thomas Keller and [French chef Auguste] Escoffier. Those would probably be the top three. I’d have a lot of questions for them.