DeAndre Wilson has a strong grip. All that slicing, chopping and pitching in to shuck oysters when needed gives your hands the kind of workout that makes for a killer handshake.
The new chef de cuisine at Rappahannock may have stepped up to the front-and-center position, but he’s been in the business for 14 years. Born in Chicago and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, he tried culinary school with encouragement from his family after high school.
Wilson learned to cook by sitting on the kitchen counter watching his grandmother and asking questions. As he got older, he realized something. “Everything was so flavorful and good, but everything was so overcooked,” he says. “[I thought], I’ve got to get out of this and try some other food.”
But in the end, he says, culinary school “was a little expensive for my taste.” Plus, Wilson was staging at Chicago’s acclaimed Blackbird, and after six months there, he was offered a full-time job. “I quickly realized that with the hands-on experience and the people that I was dealing with at Blackbird,” he says, “there was really no reason for me to be in culinary school.”
Dylan Fultineer — now the executive chef overseeing Rappahannock, Rapp Session, Washington’s Rappahannock Oyster Bar, Topping’s Merroir and an upcoming Charleston, South Carolina, project — was the sous chef there at the time. “He really was a mentor to me,” Wilson says.
After four years at Blackbird, he moved on to other Chicago restaurants and hotels — Four Seasons, Trump International Hotel & Tower and Marcus Samuelsson’s C-House — learning all he could. Then he got the call from Fultineer.
“He told me he was coming out to Richmond — and I asked him why,” Wilson says, laughing. Fultineer was opening Rappahannock with owners Ryan and Travis Croxton, and he needed help. Two weeks later, Wilson and his fiancee moved to Richmond.
Now Wilson has full creative control over the menu. It’s changing slowly, but during the next month or so, the menu will have his stamp all over it.
And that’s unusual for a town that doesn’t have a lot of black chefs — an issue of concern nationwide. Along with women, minorities simply aren’t represented in the industry. Wilson isn’t sure why this might be the case. He simply says that it hasn’t been a problem for him.
“My passion is deep for what I do,” Wilson says. “You can’t change passion. I just continue to go forward and try to reach that goal that you’re never, ever really going to complete. As a chef, you’re never happy, you’re always striving to do better than what you’ve already done.”