Food for the Soul
In the ‘lab’ with Wilson Beck — sweet heat and satisfaction
Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Matt Garner
Wilson Beck is happily obsessed. Like some marginally mad scientist, he spends hours in the laboratory (read kitchen) developing his own concoctions, those signature homemade sauces.
“Sauce is where the flavor is. It creates whole new depths for the food,” he says. “They’re the most fun to work with for me because any sauce starts with a classic base. From there, it’s up to the chef — tried-and-true mixed with innovative-and-new.”
Traditional Southern as well as Asian cuisines are among Beck’s specialties. His wings and hibachi-style rice bowls allow his custom sauces to shine. Take his BuffaYolo honey Habanero wing sauce: Yolo stands for “you only live once.” And that should tell you something about Wilson Beck, a man who claims he’s made peace with an epitaph that very well could read, “His last breath was on fire.”
The 32-year-old from Columbus is big on sweet heat. “That was my main goal in creating BuffaYolo: It’s got a really nice kick to it and also a forgiving sweetness.”
He has other premier elixirs, like a pride-and-joy white barbecue sauce he named Purity Sauce and a lemon poppyseed vinaigrette called Poppylar.
“When I first heard of white barbecue sauce, it kind of threw me for a loop, but I got very interested and did a lot of research,” Beck explains. The resulting mayonnaise-based potion (as opposed to tomato-based for brown barbecue sauces) is a versatile hit and was a best seller at the Hitching Lot Farmers’ Market in Columbus this past summer. Paired with the chef’s homemade sweet potato chips, it’s a hard combo to beat.
Born in North Carolina, Beck moved to Mississippi at the age of 5 and was learning his way around a kitchen by the time he was 11 or 12. That’s when he began cooking dinners after school for himself and his working single mom. He honed his skills during summer visits to his aunt’s and his grandparents’ homes in the Carolinas. He attributes a lot of his technique to his Aunt Toni Taylor and her “Carolina passion for cooking.”
“When I was younger it was all about taking what I had in the kitchen and mixing things together,” he says. “As I got older, it became about researching the base flavors and adding things I think will be good.” His talents have, as of January, propelled him into the position of head chef and director of marketing for Zachary’s restaurant in downtown Columbus.
Beck’s wife, Lindsey, is youth services coordinator at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library and his No. 1 taste-tester.
“Wilson is ridiculous in the kitchen,” she says. “When he cooks sauces or a special dish he can go in there at 8 p.m. and not come out until 1 or 2 in the morning. And coming up with the names for what he makes is just as much fun and inspiring for him as cooking them.”
Like many creative types, Beck is picky about what he puts out there. It’s why he keeps returning to the kitchen, where he’s fine tuning a mustard barbecue sauce and an Asian sauce, among others. Everything has to pass the most exacting critic — himself.
CHICKEN WINGS WITH BUFFAYOLO SAUCE
Yields 3 pounds wings
For the chicken:
3 pounds chicken wings
½ cup flour
Oil, for frying
For the sauce:
1 stick unsalted butter
1 cup hot sauce
½ cup store-bought barbecue sauce (I like Corky’s)
¼ cup honey
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon celery seed
3 Habanero peppers, cut in half
(Note: When handling hot peppers, always wear gloves.)
• Simmer all sauce ingredients over medium heat for 20 minutes, stirring periodically. Using a strainer to catch peppers and seeds, pour sauce into a mixing bowl and set aside. (continued page 28)
• Preheat oven to 375 F. Separate wings and drumettes by cutting down the center. Toss in flour.
• Fry in oil until crispy (about 5-6 minutes). Remove from oil and place on broiler pan lightly coated with nonstick spray. (Line bottom of broiler pan with aluminum foil for easy cleanup.)
• Place in oven and cook 15-18 minutes, turning once about halfway through. Remove and place wings in the sauce and toss. Habaner-o-my-goodness.
SEARED ROMAINE SALAD WITH POPPYLAR VINAIGRETTE
Yields two salads
For the salad:
1 head romaine lettuce
3 strips bacon (cooked and crumbled)
French fried onions (or homemade onion straws)
For the dressing:
½ cup canola oil
½ cup apple cider vinegar
¼ cup honey
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon yellow mustard
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon poppy seeds
• Mix all dressing ingredients together in a bowl and whisk.
• Cut romaine in half vertically. Lightly brush with oil.
• Get pan hot (preferably a grill pan; if not, a regular nonstick will work fine). Place lettuce in pan. (It will make popping noises.) Sear lettuce until a nice char forms.
• Remove from pan and top with bacon, bleu cheese, onions and vinaigrette.