By Lauren H. Dowdle
Photos by Untold Imagery
Competing on Food Network against some of the top chefs in the country would be the high point in many culinary careers—and rightfully so. For Chef Sedesh Boodram Wilkerson, that’s an opportunity he’s now experienced twice.
But his path to showcasing his skills on television and becoming the culinary director of The Anvil Pub and Grill in Hoover might not be what most expect. Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Sedesh moved to New York City during high school.
While many chefs realized their passions for food as children cooking with their families, that wasn’t the case with Sedesh. “I was never in the kitchen,” he says. “I didn’t pay attention to food.”
That all changed when he moved to New York, mainly because it wasn’t cheap to eat out there, he says. Sedesh began cooking for himself and soon discovered his love for food and trying different recipes.
One dining experience in particular helped ignite his culinary passion. For his birthday, Sedesh went to Chef Thomas Keller’s acclaimed restaurant, Per Se. Sedesh says he loved the concept, which is a New York interpretation of the chef’s California-based restaurant, The French Laundry. The hot spot’s lobster mac and cheese and its oyster and pearls were just two of the dishes that caught his palate’s attention.
“After eating dinner there, I realized, ‘This is what I want to do,’” he says.
Following that dream of having a career in fine dining, Sedesh dropped out of fashion merchandising and enrolled in the French Culinary Institute. Per Se also continued to have an influence on his career, as it became the first kitchen he worked in. Those experiences played an important role in helping him become the chef he is today.
“Being in New York and working there shaped a lot of who I am and how I run my kitchen,” he says. “I’ve been very fortunate in my career.”
While his love for cooking may have started in New York, he’s now brought it to Hoover. “When we had our daughter, my husband wanted her to grow up in the South like he did,” Sedesh says.
While transitioning from Trinidad to New York City was exciting as a teenager, some of the biggest life changes came from moving to the Birmingham area when he was 30. Sedesh had to learn to drive and get a license—things he didn’t need to do in the Big Apple.
Going into the grocery store was another culture shock because the cashiers got to know him and would ask him about his family when he came in to shop. That Southern hospitality and charm helped make the area home.
“New York City is more of a department store,” he explains. “Birmingham is like a boutique that has all of the right things, and that’s what I love about it.”
He went to work with Chef Chris Hastings, owner of Hot & Hot Fish Company in Birmingham. With his experience working in New York City, Sedesh says he thought he knew everything about cooking when he first moved here.
“I was far from the truth,” he says with a laugh. “It was very humbling, walking into a Southern kitchen. There’s a culture and soul that comes with Southern food.”
From learning how to make grits to finding ways to elevate popular comfort foods, Sedesh began putting his twist on these classic dishes.
“Southern cuisine carries a lot of memories with it, so it’s hard to compete with that,” Sedesh says. “I stay true to the ingredients and present them differently.”
Sedesh also strives to create dishes that a variety of people will enjoy. “Even when I’m creating menus, I always think about me going to a restaurant with my husband and daughter,” he says. “It’s important to think about the different types of people who will eat there and not just myself. You have to find the perfect balance.”
The relationships he made while at Hot & Hot led to his first appearance on Food Network. When Chris went to compete on Iron Chef America against Bobby Flay in 2012, he brought Sedesh as one of his sous chefs. They faced off against Bobby Flay in Kitchen Stadium and won the coveted title.
But, that wasn’t Sedesh’s last faceoff with Bobby. Earlier this year, he competed on Food Network’s television show, “Beat Bobby Flay.”
Originally set to air last December, the episode got pushed back to be closer to March Madness. Sedesh says he joked with the producers that they should air it on his birthday, March 2, which is exactly what ended up happening. But when the show first reached out to him about participating, his answer had been, “no.”
It had been 12 years since he last appeared on Food Network, and Sedesh says he wasn’t sure if he wanted to compete again. Being on Iron Chef America had required a great deal of mental preparation.
While his daughter watched “Beat Bobby Flay,” Sedesh had never seen it—though he did know Bobby from culinary school. Ultimately, he decided to compete on the show and share some of the dishes those around Hoover had come to love.
Food Network’s Eddie Jackson and Natalie Morales from CBS’s “The Talk” served as judges for the first round, where Sedesh competed against Colorado’s Chef Tim Kuklinski to create a dish highlighting corn tortillas.
Sedesh won that battle with his shrimp enchilada with salsa verde and advanced to a head-to-head battle against Bobby Flay. In that 45-minute round, Sedesh challenged Bobby with his signature dish, Scotch eggs.
Boiled eggs covered in sausage, battered and then fried, Scotch eggs normally take hours to prepare, Sedesh says. With only 45 minutes to get the dish ready for the judges, he used a pressure cooker to speed up the process. But, he didn’t sacrifice the flavors he’s known for, opting to make his own boudin sausage—something Bobby didn’t do.
Just like in his restaurant, Sedesh brought his modern take on British cuisine with Caribbean and Southern influences to the show. “The older I get, the more I want to make food like what I grew up with,” Sedesh says. “You go back to your roots.”
While he ultimately didn’t bring home the win against Bobby this time, Sedesh says he enjoyed the experience. One thing that viewers might be surprised to learn is that there is a great deal of comradery behind the scenes, he adds.
“The other contestant was there backstage rooting me on, and the judges went back and forth to make me feel more comfortable,” he says. “Iron Chef was in a green room, so this was much more relaxed.”
His reputation for fine dining continues to spread, as he was also a featured chef at the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, in April. Not being from the South, Sedesh says he didn’t realize the level of notoriety that encompasses the event when he first accepted the job.
“If I had, I would have over thought it and been nervous,” he says.
His family and mentors have provided support throughout his career, and he still takes the advice he got early on to heart.
“When I worked with Thomas Keller, he told me, ‘Know your weakness, and surround yourself with people who are strong at your weakness,’” Sedesh recalls. “That’s what’s made me successful and helped me in my career.”
Sedesh has formed a talented team at The Anvil, which includes chef de cuisine Trenton Tisdale, and he says he hopes to expand and open another location soon.
“The team is a huge part of who I am, especially at this restaurant,” Sedesh says. “I have employees who have been with me since day one for the past three years. I can walk away each day and know that everything is good because they take pride in their work.”
Though his culinary career is far from over, it’s already come full circle in some ways. It began with inspiration at his birthday dinner, and this year, he spent the day surrounded by friends and family as his episode of “Beat Bobby Flay” premiered across the country. When his husband and daughter asked him if he thought he’d be where he is today, Sedesh says he took a moment to reflect.
“I didn’t aspire to be as high as I am,” he says. “Everybody talks about how America is the land of opportunity, and it is. A lot of doors opened up for me that I never would have thought possible.”
To taste some of Sedesh’s cuisine, fans can visit The Anvil Pub and Grill at 611 Doug Baker Boulevard. The Anvil is open six days a week: Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and on Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit theanvilpub.com for more information.