Baton Rouge Chef William Wells thrives on competition. He’s entered dozens of culinary face-offs over the course of his career to prove his mettle to judges nationwide. His walls are decorated with proof of his success, so it was no surprise he won top honors in WAFB’s televised professional chef’s cook-off in March. In the competition’s 59-minute time limit, Wells transformed a mystery basket of ingredients into a contemporary Creole dish he named “Breakfast on the Bayou.”
The contest’s three finalists were asked to use six of nine set items: grits, mushrooms, peanut butter, kale, sauerkraut, bittersweet chocolate, Guinness stout, oysters and tomatoes. Wells won with a dish composed of crispy oysters with Tabasco-smoked tomato cream, baked sausage quiche, wild mushroom grit cake and wilted kale.
“There are a lot of young guns out there,” says Wells, 47. “But I’m still gunning.”
Wells has the energy and demeanor of a restaurant chef—traits he earned from years of working in top regional eateries—but since 2000, he’s devoted his career to Culinary Productions, the catering company he and his wife Jennifer created.
“I’m a family man, and I realized then that I needed a better schedule,” says Wells. Culinary Productions is run from a 1,700-sq.-ft. craft cottage the couple renovated in Baton Rouge’s historic Mid City neighborhood. Its catering menu gathers influences from Wells’ years in the business and includes reinterpreted Creole classics, Asian influences, sushi and cooked-to-order stations at which diners can request their own spin on Southern grits, pasta, grilled oysters, pad Thai and risotto. His current dessert menu features a whimsical chocolate mousse and Chambord push-up.
The chef’s style is heavily influenced by his appreciation for the visual. As a student at LSU in the ’80s, Wells was intent on becoming an architect, and he never lost his love of well-composed designs. His appreciation for buildings, however, was trumped by his love for the kitchen.
It happened when Wells was working at the Baton Rouge Country Club in college. A classically trained chef named Ephraim Cutler exposed Wells to sauce-making, kitchen discipline and old-school precision. He decided to forego architecture for the culinary world and later landed a job with Chef John Folse at Lafitte’s Landing. Wells often traveled with Folse, cooking on the road for high pressure events. “I learned a ton from John,” he says.
Wells then made the rounds at some of Baton Rouge’s leading fine-dining establishments, cooking under Chef Tommy Mansur at Mansurs when the eatery was located in the now-closed Village Square on College Drive. His talents would later bring him to Juban’s as executive sous chef, working with Executive Chef Diane Mangiaforte. “We were able to execute the dishes everyone loved and expected, but we were also given the freedom to be creative,” says Wells.
Baton Rouge’s fine dining eateries were limited in those days, and Wells wanted to run his own kitchen. When the opportunity arose to run a Tops’l resort restaurant in Destin, Fla., he accepted.
But when Mangiaforte left Juban’s, the restaurant recruited Wells back as executive chef, and he helped build its substantial wine cellar. Finally, the chance to launch a new fine dining establishment in Baton Rouge came along. Wells was asked to serve as chef in the duck-centric Drakes, an inventive Creole eatery on Essen Lane that was one of the first of a new generation of local upscale restaurants.
Drakes closed after a few years, and by then, Wells was married with children and wanted more control of his free time. He drew from his experience as a successful LSU Sky Box caterer—a gig he’d landed while running Drakes—and opened Culinary Productions. He and Jennifer run the event catering business, which has continued to grow over the last decade.
“It’s all about using top ingredients and letting those ingredients shine,” says Wells. “I’ve been in this business a long time, but I believe in getting better and better every day.”
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Bad Guys, Good Eats! Pop-Up Dinner at Restaurant IPO
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Better Block BR
On Saturday the two blocks between Bedford and Beverly drives on April 13, 2013, residents will get to see a model of what Government Street could look like if we push local and state officials to update the roadway to a safer, more "complete street" model.