Chef: Alexa Wilkinson
Restaurant: The Tapp, Tarrytown
It’s an ageless story: Young musician lured to New York City by possibility, fueled by hope and ramen, stumbling home from dive-bar gig to basement rental, bank account and dream tottering to defeat. Alexa Wilkinson wasn’t one of them. After eight years, she shelved that dream for another—the stove instead of the microphone—and found purpose and profit.
“It got harder and harder to be a musician and justify spending money on tour, driving eight-, nine-hour stretches in the middle of the night. It got to the point where I felt so bruised and broken, didn’t feel the passion anymore.” She explored web design and merchandising at Parsons The New School for Design, earning an associate’s degree in graphic design (“I thought trying to do something artsy would inspire me as a musician”), while making extra money bartending and cooking burgers in bars and restaurants. “I realized I cared more about coming to work at a beer bar than I did going on my next tour,” she says. Her father suggested culinary school, and “it all came together for me.” She signed up at midtown Manhattan’s Institute of Culinary Education and never looked back. In 2012, a graduate in both culinary arts and management, she returned to the Tarrytown martini bar Brute on 9, where she had served her ICE externship, armed with her degrees and a proposition: “I knew we could do better; I told them I can come in here and make amazing food with this baby kitchen, and we can make a lot of money,” she says, her eyes and voice spilling surety. “And they said, ‘Okay, we’re giving you a shot.’”
How is this girl just 27? Hardened, wise, indomitable, she led the bar’s transformation into The Tapp, a meteoric culinary and craft-beer success.
But success can play victim, too, and when The Tapp owners opened The Mill a few miles south in Hastings-on-Hudson, with Wilkinson doing double chef duty, things unraveled. “The quality was suffering, there was a universal feeling of neglect. There was no way both places could thrive if we continued with that model.” She hired a chef to run The Mill and returned full-time to Tarrytown, adding general manager and executive chef of The Tapp to her resume. “I keep getting thrown challenges, and I love it,” she beams. “It’s so much better than anything in the music industry. You know that if you’re in a career where you’re jealous of everyone, you’re probably in the wrong career. Not being happy for people who are successful is a terrible thing. Now I love watching good people succeed because they work really hard and strive for a happy life. It took a lot of work to get to this point, where I realize who I am as a person. I don’t need to be famous, don’t need to be on TV, don’t want a penthouse in New York. I want a wonderful restaurant that is profitable, where everyone makes money, is happy and respectful. I wouldn’t have learned any of that if I hadn’t gone through these hurdles.” Seems the subject for a great song, which, being the indefatigable striver she is, it surely will be: Her few days off are spent in the recording studio, not in bed.