Travis Watson: T Cook's and The Royal Palms

What does it take to play football at the collegiate level? Talent -- combined with skill, dedication, focus, and determination. Former University of Arizona football player Travis Watson brings the traits he developed on the field and more into the kitchen.

Chef Watson is the executive pastry chef at The Royal Palms and T Cook's Restaurant. Prior to joining the resort property, Chef Watson, as Executive Chef, led the opening of Avalon during its debut year, winning awards for best new chef and best new restaurant. He also worked as Corporate Pastry Chef for 8 years with Fox Restaurant Concepts, helping open 27 restaurants.

We learned from Chef Watson: Why pastry chefs are control freaks, that his hands are his favorite tools in the kitchen and that a cook's passion is clearly conveyed in their food.

follow the jump for more from Travis Watson

What influenced you to enter the culinary world?
My high school football coach was the executive chef at The Tack Room in Tucson. I started working there as a dishwasher when I was 14, and over the years, worked my way through every station. I attended Arizona Western, played football and tore all my tendons. I went back to work at the restaurant.

Through the restaurant, I earned a scholarship to the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, in those days; there were scholarship opportunities through restaurant employers. For my culinary externship, I staged (Fr: work in a kitchen with no pay) in Paris under Chef Jacques Paccard.

After culinary school, I attended U of A, and played more football. I have two degrees, one in political science and one in history. Every summer, after that first experience in Paris, I went off to stage or work in restaurants. I worked in Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles, Japan and Mozambique. I enjoyed the traveling as much as the cooking. I am really a culmination of all the people who shaped me in my life.

Most of us view football and cooking as extremely different disciplines. What are the similarities?
In football you have to learn to maneuver and function in what looks like a chaotic environment. Its actually controlled chaos, with all the parts orchestrated perfectly. It's the same in the kitchen. You can't look over your shoulder to watch your teammates on the field or in the kitchen. Everyone must do his or her part to get the team to the goal. I believe you can elevate anything to an art form, and both playing football and cooking professionally are art forms in their respective ways.

There is artisanship in pastry work. Someone said, "Pastry chefs are made not born". Its about repeatable perfection, you have to revel in the monotony of repeating the same process over and over for the same outcome. There are either "A's" or "F's", there is no in between. As soon as the effort is a "C+" or a "B", the outcome is not going to be perfect. You develop the same attitude when learning to play football.

Does that desire for perfection dominate your work as a chef?
There should be a high bar set in cooking. While a guest might not remember every detail of a meal, they do remember the totality of the experience.

When a guest revisits an establishment they expect the same experience that motivated them to return. Many of our diners return year after year to celebrate a special occasion. My desire is to replicate that remembered experience through food. Yet, I have to up the ante, I have to make the food new, alive and invigorating.

We have VIP guests at the resort as well as the kid who saves money to take his girl out for a special occasion. I am going to give the same effort to both. In a perfect world this is how it should be.

What else guides you in the kitchen?

Our industry is a craft industry. Besides perfection, there has to be a thirst for knowledge. The perfection and the thirst for knowledge never change. It's those same things that attract foodies to the culinary world.

Always care about the craft and teach those who want to learn. As chefs, we also owe our profession a willingness to teach newcomers to the field. Its a rip off for a culinarian starting out to work for a chef who only wants a single function and isn't willing to help that person grow.

What advise to you give to those new in the field?
Perfect the basics. Take notes, write everything down-what works and what doesn't. Don't be afraid to try new things. Be creative. If you make food that sings to you, blows you away, it will do the same for other people. Take the recipe, the ingredients and add your passion to the preparation of food.

Are there flavors or ingredients that you favor in your work?
It is chocolate for desserts and pastry. I use 65% Callebaut dark chocolate, not super bitter and easy on the palate. I like to use seasonal ingredients for both sweet and savory dishes. We forget, living in the desert, how much is grown here and available in season.

Right now, its citrus season, I am enjoying the tangerines and Valencia oranges. We make a tangerine-orange panna cotta with them. We also make our own marmalade from our citrus.

Chef Hillson has a small herb garden on property where I might grab some chocolate mint or chocolate basil. I use fresh stevia from Singh Farms in a sugarless mousee. I do like chocolate with cardamom. Besides citrus flavors, I like using pomegranate, raspberries and hazelnuts are good too.

I like food to sing to me. Whatever elements are in the food or presented on the plate, everything comes together to make a dish. If it doesn't add to the dish, it doesn't belong there. A great dessert is refined and deliberate, my two favorite words.

Thoughts on current dessert trends like savory ingredients and cupcakes?
We make a bacon gelato, but not just to make a savory ice cream. Its served with our peanut butter and jelly stuffed French toast. It adds something to the dish.

I am not big on adding things like wasabi or chili to chocolate desserts, it just doesn't sing to me. I like cupcakes because of their mobility, but they aren't a substitute for a great plated dessert.

Do you miss the savory side of the kitchen?
Both sides of the kitchen involve a process, whether you are making savory or sweet food. There is always a manipulation of ingredients. Its the act of creation that differs.

Chef Hillson has worked as a pastry chef and I have worked as an executive chef. We talk food all day long and work closely together, so I don't feel separated from the savory side. If I think about it, I do miss butchering fish!

Where do you hang out or eat when you are not at work?
I am here 85-90 hours a week, its just who I am and I am happiest in the kitchen. When you work at Disneyland, you know, where do you go when you are not at work?

I practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. You might see me at the shooting range at Scottsdale Gun Club. I might be fishing at Saguaro, Pleasant or Bartlett lakes.

I almost never cook when I am not at work. My girlfriend cooks. I know few people who are not intimidated by my title and will cook for me. I never would critique someone else's food, I enjoy that someone else took the time to prepare food for me.

What would you like to see in the Phoenix market that isn't here, yet?

We could use a high-end dessert shop. Not a bakery, but a place specializing in classic and neo classic desserts, a gathering place, a late night place. In general, the craftsmen in the industry that are here now all need to be supported.

Check back tomorrow, Chef Watson shares a great Valentine's Day dessert recipe

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Carol Blonder