A Closer Look: Sean Wilson
Chef and co-owner of Proof
Friday, November 30, 2012 7:00 AM
• Age: 35
• Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.
• Education: Wilson received a bachelor’s degree in economics from East Carolina University.
• Family: Wilson and his wife, Haley, have two dogs, Rigby and Nigel, and two cats, Rebel and Mya.
Before moving to Des Moines in 2006, Sean Wilson moved from state to state, working at restaurants in Boston, New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, Vermont and New Jersey. After working at downtown spots like Azalea, Cuatro Burrito and Taco Bar and Zen Sushi and Noodle Bar, he and partner Zachary Mannheimer, executive director of the Des Moines Social Club, took over Proof from former owner Carly Groben in March. A man of many interests, Wilson has worked in the corporate world, served in the Coast Guard and worked on two political campaigns. He also collects old books and bottles. His main goal in restaurant ownership is continuing to push the envelope with his food.
How did you go from a degree in economics to food?
Growing up in (North Carolina’s) Outer Banks, there’s not a lot of things to do. You fished, worked in restaurants or did construction. I chose cooking because I always enjoyed it. I have a huge extended family, and everything surrounded the meal. It was the catalyst that brought us together. When I was with the Coast Guard and was overseas, I was sitting in Spain and I just was like ‘I’m over this.’ Two weeks later, I was back in Boston and started knocking on doors. I got my first restaurant job at a place called Olives. Within a year, I moved over and helped open a steakhouse, Bonfire. From there, I moved all over and continued cooking. For about a decade, everything I owned could fit in the back of a truck.
What’s the biggest difference between working at a restaurant and owning one?
They’re two different things. The functions aren’t actually so different – if you’re the executive chef but not the owner, you’re still watching costs. But here you feel the brunt of that. Besides looking at the numbers every day, you still have to make payroll and pay taxes. It’s stressful, especially in this economy. It’s a roller coaster, but it’s a fun roller coaster and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What are some changes you’ve made to Proof since buying it from Groben?
When we bought Proof, we loved the space, the food was great, and it had a great following. We had these great ideas we wanted to do, and some of them may have been a little too progressive for Des Moines. There is a fine line between educating and facilitating. We want to educate and push the envelope, but at the same time, we have to keep the doors open. So we made changes very slowly because we didn’t want to alienate the customer base. People loved this place already. We started adding and refining things on the menu. We did start adding days and put a bar in, so we could extend hours to be open Wednesday through Friday. But it’s taken a little while for people to remember this place isn’t only open on Friday night, which is actually starting to come along. It’s not as fast as we’d like it, but it’s coming along.
Being in the Western Gateway area, we’re not really close to anything, per se, since it’s usually dinner and a movie or dinner and an event. We’re really striving to change that culture, where this is your entertainment for the night. So we do a three-course (meal). We do a five-course (meal). We do something called “submit” where you just eat until you have to tap out. The greatest thing we’ve come up with is called Second Saturday, where on the second Saturday of each month, we do 10 courses for two people for $80. But it’s blind, so you don’t get to choose anything. It’s great because it’s a playground where we get to try new things. But from the diner’s perspective, you don’t have any expectations.
What gives you inspiration for your menus?
The whole reason I like food is because it’s a travel through history. You can tell a lot about society through ingredients and the way people cook and preserve things. There’s about 65, 75 percent German descent here, and a lot of those techniques and items have disappeared. So we try to bring a lot of those customs back, while at the same time we like to interject things people don’t expect.
For instance, here we do Mediterranean food. Most people think Italian and Greek – no. We spend more time in North Africa, so Morocco, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia. If we do Italian, it’s obscure. A lot of Italian dishes we make don’t have tomatoes in them. Italy is a pretty old country, and tomatoes weren’t introduced until the 1550s. So there is a plethora of things that don’t include the tomato, and we like to play with those. We always like to make sure there’s something on the menu people can relate to. The safe way out always seems to be a chicken dish. Well we make that the weirdest dish. That’s the fun part of the menu.