Lee Hillson is the executive chef at T. Cook’s, the beloved culinary treasure at Royal Palms Resort and Spa. T. Cook’s is actually celebrating its 25th anniversary this year and, to commemorate this milestone, the restaurant will be dishing up a collection of culinary specials from Friday, Oct. 28 to Sunday, Oct. 30. Learn about Chef Lee Hillson…
Hometown: I grew up in Greenwich, London. Whenever I hear of people visiting the London area, I always recommend they stop by this royal borough as it has some fantastic history and other quirks that people always find very interesting.
What was your first job? My first job was a three-mile loop with about 120 newspapers in two shoulder bags, Monday through Friday. I was 12. I made a whopping two pounds fifty a week. When I got thirsty, I would sometimes sneak a drink of someone’s milk that had been delivered by the milk man on their doorstep. They were glass bottles with a foil top, and I remember only wanting the top part because there was more cream. My next job was dishwashing on the weekends at age 13. I have very fond memories of the fried mushroom sandwich I used to eat for lunch.
Favorite ways to spend your free time in AZ: Arizona is such a diverse state and there are so many cool places to see and things to do, whether that’s visiting a new local restaurant or neighboring town. I love to road trip and really enjoy history so places like Tombstone and Jerome are particularly cool to me.
Your biggest accomplishment and why: As a chef, I’d say seeing my cooks go off and succeed in their own right is very fulfilling for me. Mentorship is a huge part of being an executive chef, and I love seeing people move on to become executive chefs, culinary leaders and even owning their own food trucks. I always love to see people win and it makes me feel like a proud dad.
The biggest obstacle you overcame: Leaving my family and friends in the UK to start a new life in the US when I was 18 was a huge step for me. I moved to Austin, Texas, and knew nobody and was just hoping I’d succeed. I would have to say I am pretty blessed on how it all worked out and am so grateful to be where I am now.
Someone who inspires you and why: My wife, Nicole. She is so driven and will not be told she can’t do something; it just fuels her fire to prove everyone wrong. She is charismatic in any situation and can win over a crowd.
Advice to someone pursuing a career path in what you do: As rewarding as it is, being a chef is a tough career. For anyone looking to pursue this path, I would say to be sure that this is really what you want and be aware of the sacrifices that might come with it. You will also need to have thick skin.
Favorite quote: “Cook for guests, not your ego!” The dining experience is about catering to the needs of your guests, not your own palate.
Something someone would be surprised to learn about you: I am actually pretty shy (unless you ask my wife!). I also love to travel, I have been to about 28 different countries and more than half to the United States.
What makes someone fabulous: I would say a great personality and the ability to easily connect with other people. Composure in tough situations is also important (especially in a high-pressure kitchen).