by Anna Toon • Photography by knoxy
Teresa Wilson speaks quite softly. It’s a strain to hear her voice above the passing cars on Airport Boulevard as she sits on the sunlit patio of her newest restaurant, Sala and Betty. The space, previously occupied by Stallion Grill, has been thoughtfully renovated and reopened as a hybrid—casual cuisine with a decided nod to the upscale, partnered with a drive-thru offering sandwiches and a la carte items such as pork shoulder and bake-at-home soufflé. What’s the concept? “That is the million-dollar question,” Wilson says with a laugh.
As children, Wilson and her sister called each other “Sala”—a term of endearment they thought sounded like the Spanish their mother spoke at home. Eventually, Wilson’s sister decided they couldn’t both be Sala. “She said, ‘You’re Betty,’ and I’m like, ‘Alright, I’m Betty,’” recalls Wilson. It’s this sentimentality and lack of pretension that make it difficult to imagine the fine-boned, delicate Wilson as a culinary powerhouse, but then again, there’s no need to imagine. From her humble beginnings at Bill Miller Bar-B-Q to her remarkable stint as the chef/owner of the now-shuttered (though not for lack of acclaim) French restaurant Aquarelle, the self-taught Wilson has indelibly marked the Austin food scene with her refined and sophisticated approach to preparing food, from bordelaise to her mother’s stewed potatoes.
Born in Colorado to a military family, Wilson spent much of her early life traveling throughout the United States—with stops in Spain as well as Japan—before moving to Austin as an eighth-grader in 1975. After receiving a full-ride scholarship to the University of Texas in chemical engineering, Wilson married, had a child and then divorced, only to find herself in need of an income. Working at Bill Miller Bar-B-Q helped ends meet until her eldest brother suffered a diving accident and was paralyzed. Wilson found a job working nights so that she could help take care of her brother during the day while her mother and sister worked. It was then, while working at a music venue on Sixth Street, that she met the manager of an Italian restaurant called Basil’s—one of the first fine-dining restaurants in Austin after The Courtyard and Jeffrey’s.
Wilson worked at Basil’s for 17 years—eventually running the catering side of the business and working the line filling in for one of three chefs when they vacationed. During her tenure, she also met business partner Robert Brady. The two began traveling together to France—honing their classic French-cooking skills—and opened Aquarelle in 2000. Tucked into a charming, elegant home on a then-sleepy West Sixth Street, Aquarelle consistently garnered strong accolades and remained a fine-dining stalwart for 12 years, until Wilson and Brady decided it was the right time within their partnership to close the restaurant. Wilson’s plans for the property were to open a Latin-influenced restaurant called Chonita’s (the name itself a tribute to her grandmother), but they were put on indefinite hold when an offer was made and the property was sold.
In the years between the closing of Aquarelle and the opening of Sala and Betty, Wilson chose to focus on her family—spending time with her two younger children who struggled with dyslexia. “It was at a critical time, and I was able to be there every day,” she says. “It was a two-year program, and one was finishing and one was just starting. I never thought I’d see the day where they could come home and do their homework and not need my help, but it’s here, so…I could have retired and continued to focus on motherhood, but I just couldn’t give it up.”
In light of her long track record in a decidedly male-dominated industry, and the fact that she’s jumped back in, were there any challenges? “For women, I would say to keep a good sense of humor, because you know, you just have to laugh some things off because there’s a lot of ego,” she says. “You can see some of the power plays and to not get caught up in that, but you have to remember that just because it’s a male-dominated industry doesn’t mean you can’t be a big part of it. I lift as much as anyone else. You can do anything in the kitchen. Just remember that.”
While the restaurant is in its infancy and requires extensive hours, Wilson somehow finds time to help out with numerous charity organizations, including the Dyslexia Center of Austin and Green Corn Project. She’s also a member of the Austin chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier. One nonprofit particularly close to her heart is Urban Roots, and after meeting Executive Director Max Elliott, Wilson decided to get involved. “Max approached me about doing a community lunch, so I said ‘Absolutely.’ I really admire his program and the kids who are a part of that. To see the transition from when they first start to two years later, it’s a real proud moment for Urban Roots.” In fact, Wilson plans to purchase produce from Urban Roots when the farm recovers from the spring floods. “I think it’s really important to give back, and if I can help in any way,” she says, “I will.”
While Wilson nurtures Sala and Betty and builds the business, Chonita’s remains an aspiration. “Let’s get through this first,” she says. “Right now I’m a little tired, but when you have that in your blood, and it’s just your drive, it’s hard to let it go.”