Chef Hillson brings international influences, Mediterranean inspirations to T. Cooks

T.Cooks Mediterranean restaurant at Royal Palms Resort in Phoenix.
T.Cooks Mediterranean restaurant at Royal Palms Resort in Phoenix.(Jeff Popovich)
Updated: May. 20, 2021 at 12:20 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- It’s slightly hidden and can be a quick turn off the busy stretch of Camelback Road between 44th and 56th streets, but after turning into the Royal Palms Resort in Phoenix, come hungry for the ample Mediterranean cuisine being served up at T. Cooks! Walking through the resort toward the fine-dining restaurant will provide great, relaxing sights and get your stomach rumbling as your nose begins to pick up the scents of seafood, pasta, and more emanating from the open doors of T. Cooks.

T. Cooks has a long history of being creative with their dishes and incorporating regional influences from Spain, Italy, and Greece, to name a few. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a kitchen dishing out some serious international cuisine would be helmed by a chef with an abundance of international experience. Executive Chef Lee Hillson hails from England originally, was raised in Australia during two different periods in his youth, and has traveled to multiple countries throughout his lifetime, exploring the culinary cultures along the way. Hillson eventually came across the pond and spent some time in Houston, Rhode Island, and Maryland before finding his way to Phoenix in 2000. Hillson happened to be driving by the Royal Palms and saw they were having a job fair.

“I applied, and I started out as a lead line cook. Then in 2004, I was promoted to Executive Chef and left in 2012 and went to the Phoenician for three or four years. Then I went to Sheraton Grand for another three to four years, and in 2019 I got a call asking me to come back as an Executive Chef, so I did,” Hillson explained. “Then we shut down, obviously when the pandemic happened. We were out for six weeks, then we came back, and we’ve been back at it ever since.”

Executive Chef Lee Hillson at T. Cooks in the Royal Palms Resort in Phoenix.
Executive Chef Lee Hillson at T. Cooks in the Royal Palms Resort in Phoenix.(Jeff Popovich)

With the pool of knowledge Hillson has gathered and the A-team kitchen assembled at T. Cooks, there are a few secret ingredients that go beyond the food chemistry being conducted in the kitchen. Years of experience, global culture, and a light-hearted and humble attitude have helped Hillson helm his kitchen with patience and maturity.

“When I was here the first time around, I was a bit of a different chef. A bit harsher, I would say, and over the years, I’ve actually kind of mellowed,” Hillson admitted. “I’ve done a lot of traveling, and when I was gone, I realized how much I loved this resort. It’s a part of me, I fell in love with it when I first started here, and I still love it to this day, so to me, it’s home.”

Hillson explained his kitchen has a family cooking environment, and although it’s a different team from his first time around, there are still some original members from his first day back in 2000 that have either stuck around, or Hillson was able to bring back in a “getting the band back together” of sorts. A kitchen staff of old and new has Hillson excited for the upcoming summer months, with everyone contributing and bringing something new to the table.

“It’s a new chapter. Everyone’s excited; everyone knows each other believe it or not. It’s kind of a weird thing, but everyone knows each other, even those coming on board. We’re just excited to work on new menus together and put a new fresh breath of life into it and have some more fun!” Hillson said.

Hillson’s love for cooking and the fun he has in the kitchen go back to his childhood growing up in Australia. Hillson’s parents ran a hotel constantly whipping up various signature dishes for guests and ex-pats, who also took turns cooking up their cultural specialties in the kitchen. Hillson became enamored and, for his first creation, made a variation of a pizza (which he says his parents loved, obviously!), and he wanted to be a chef ever since. Hillson says he feels blessed to have traveled to different parts of the world to cook and experience new foods. This has helped him restructure how some menu items at T. Cooks are made, giving fresh and genuinely unique tastes to international cuisines. And while T. Cooks is a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant situated in the middle of the Arizona desert, the foods catered at this eatery will leave each guest walking away with an experience they won’t forget. When asked what being a chef means to him, Hillson explained it’s all about evoking memories in the foods he makes.

“I think when you cook, especially for me, I always think of things that my mom used to cook and so it can be influenced in there a little bit. I’ll see how I can change things up a bit, but I think of a lot of my childhood stuff too. Times I think of was really around food,” Hillson said. “Like in Australia, we’d have people coming over; they’d be cooking. We’d go down to the beach; we’d have a barbecue. There were so many different things, and it just always brings back memories. You kind of hope that’s what you bring to people when they come and dine, a memory for them.”


The menu is Mediterranean-inspired, highlighting several excellent seafood and meat dishes, with upscale salads and healthy sides. The quality of meat and fish is top-notch, with colorful garnish and heavenly-seasoned sides. Chef Hillson and his team have experimented and modified some ingredients to classic dishes, bringing fresh and out-of-this-world new tastes that are frankly worth trying for any foodie!

Starting things off with a dish that has a LOT going on. The T. Cook’s Mediterranean Paella blew expectations out of the water. It’s got on-point proportions of saffron, chorizo (which was delicious with a slight savory kick), shrimp, mussels, clams, pork, and calamari all mixed up with tomato, onions, and peppers. The colorful and beautifully presented dish is rounded out with bomba rice as the glue, bringing everything together. A lot of love and dedication goes into this phenomenal dish. Who loves some lamb chops? The Garlic & Rosemary Lamb Chops served up are cooked to perfection and served as hefty portions featuring a great outer layer. The meat is tender, nearly melting in your mouth, with a zesty mint pesto to accompany. The roasted spring potatoes are soft and seasoned excellent along with snap peas and pomegranate seeds to add an array of flavoring.

T. Cooks Mediterranean Paella
T. Cooks Mediterranean Paella(Jeff Popovich)

It was a close call between the Paella and the Bolognaise Bucatini as my favorite dish. Despite the multitude of flavors with the Paella, I’d have to say the Bolognaise Bucatini was the winner! The simple pasta dish has a lot more going on than meets the eye, making it stand out as a strongly recommended entrée. The herbed ricotta is a gamechanger, giving a creamy garlic spin to an already standout pasta dish. Hillson and his team make the noodles in-house, giving another authentic nudge to the dish covered with shaved parmesan and basil. Remember being told not to play with your food? Well, with this Bolognaise Bucatini, stir it up and play away! The herbed ricotta comes in adorable plops around the dish, perfect for stirring up the dish into a tasty meal with a great, consistent taste throughout!

The Bolognaise Bucatini at T. Cooks at Royal Palms Resort in Phoenix.
The Bolognaise Bucatini at T. Cooks at Royal Palms Resort in Phoenix.(Jeff Popovich)

Let’s not forget those starters! T. Cooks has a great starter spread from artisan cheese and charcuterie to light seafood snacks and healthy flavor-loaded salads, which is where we start! The Strawberry Kale Salad is not only eye-catching but pulls off a great mix of ingredients. The fresh bits of strawberry are accentuated by the strawberry balsamic dressing with quinoa to add some crunch. The goat cheese and Marcona almonds pair well with the sweet strawberries, keeping the salad light and easy to pick for a starter or someone looking for something on the lighter side. A true WOW factor when it comes to the Charred Spanish Octopus. I was nervous to try octopus for the first time, but this dish relieved those concerns after the first bite. The char was beautiful and contributed to one flavorful tentacle. The process for the charring leaves the octopus with the consistency of a medium-rare steak, not chewy and not too soft. The chimichurri sauce underneath adds a unique bite that just works; it’s a great concept. The Calabrian hot chilis and cherry tomatoes help the dish pop visually and give some sweet heat.

Lastly (if you still have room), don’t be afraid to peruse the dessert menu at least! The Crème Catalana pays homage to its Spanish roots utilizing an orange crème Brulee with seasonal berries. Berries and fruits give fresh inclusions to several other sweets as well. The Citrus Olive Oil Cake might sound unusual when it comes to common dessert names, but it packs a charming surprise. The cake crumbles well, has some nice salted caramel and orange marmalade added on with whipped mascarpone cream. It’s sweet but remains on the lighter side as a nice blend of creamy and crunch with the super seeded crumble. Another fun dish to mix everything up together!

The Citrus Olive Oil Cake at T. Cooks at Royal Palms Resort in Phoenix.
The Citrus Olive Oil Cake at T. Cooks at Royal Palms Resort in Phoenix.(Jeff Popovich)

The evoking of memories fill the open, high-vaulted room and hallways of T. Cooks. It’s an establishment with a long history, with generations of families having passed through and sat at tables over the years. Hillson’s passion for reliving his fond memories of cooking parallels the memories for families who have frequented T. Cooks and get to relive those fond memories with their loved ones. It’s a story of cooking, great food, and family tradition come full circle, and it’s alive and well coming out of the pandemic as T. Cooks prepares for upcoming summer events. The restaurant’s professional and courteous staff aligns with the fun and upbeat attitude of the kitchen. And if you desire fresh air, the outdoor patios are scenic and vibe-setting for a romantic dinner or special occasion. If you’re looking for a superb meal crafted to provoke joyful memories (or create new ones) with great ambiance, stop into T. Cooks and enjoy the trip down memory lane.


5200 E Camelback Rd

Phoenix, AZ 85018

This is the second segment in a breakout series on chefs in the Phoenix metro. Arizona’s Family Foodie is sitting down with chefs around the Valley to tell their stories of triumphs, perseverance, and dedication to their crafts. There is a sizeable amount of work, research, and experimentation that culminates into what gets placed in front of you on a plate or in a drink. These are the stories of the creative minds behind those delicious meals or cocktails, and how their passions for food and beverage bring us joy and closer together.