James Trees is a busy guy these days. The success of his restaurants, Esther’s Kitchen in the Arts District and Ada’s at Tivoli Village, means he doesn’t have much time to spare. So when a friend called to say he was putting on an event at a ranch in Texas and wanted Trees to participate, he was extremely doubtful.
“I probably don’t have time,” Trees told him. “He said, ‘No, you really should do this.’”
And then he got a call. From somebody who worked for Willie Nelson. Who was inviting Trees to cook at Potluck 2020, part of Nelson’s annual fundraiser for Farm Aid and the Austin Food and Wine Alliance. And his attitude sort of changed.
“Do a barbecue with Willie Nelson? Hell, yes.”
Trees will be preparing a family-style dinner for 250 people with his friend, Los Angeles chef Bruce Kalman, who’s curating the event, plus four other chefs. Willie and his family will provide the music.
‘It’s super fun to be included,” Trees said. “I want to be sure Vegas represents in a positive manner.”
He’s excited about meeting the country legend, but it won’t be the first time.
“The last time I saw Willie Nelson face-to-face I was 11 years old,” Trees said. “I’ll never forget, he tipped me $10. I served him a glass of iced tea. I think that was the first hospitality interaction I ever had.”
Trees’ father, Richard, is a country musician who used to play the Stardust and “every honk-tonk in the city” with his Dick Trees Band.
“He would always cover Willie’s songs,” Trees said. “I definitely had a formal country education when I was a child.”
Richard Trees worked for a few years in Branson, Missouri, and James and his sister were spending the summer with him, living in a trailer park behind a restaurant that was a country-music gathering point. Nelson had a partner in Branson.
“He showed up in his big tour bus,” Trees said. “My father woke me up and said, ‘I need you to pour ice water and iced tea for everybody.’ They all went out on the patio and played until 3 in the morning. They would pass the weed, and then they’d pass the guitar.”
That night definitely stuck with him.
“It’s a very vivid memory from my childhood,” Trees said. “It was such a cool thing.
“And now I’m going back to do something as fun as this. I’m the guy who’s going to walk up to him and say, ‘I served you iced tea when I was 11 years old.’
“I just couldn’t say no.”