10 Nov Chef Nick Wallace is Bringing Mississippi Cooking to National Tables
Nick Wallace knew what “farm-to-table” meant long before it became an industry buzzword. Growing up on his grandparents’ homestead in Edwards, MS in the 1980s, it was all he knew. Mornings were spent “chasing dewberries off the fence line.” He’d dig up sweet potatoes in the afternoon. And whenever his grandmother, Ms. Lennel, needed some eggs, it was young Nick who went down in the coupe.
“I was completely attached to that land; completely connected to that lifestyle,” Wallace, Chef Partner at the Capital Club of Jackson and founder of Nick Wallace Culinary, said in an interview with Black Restaurant Week. “There’s nothing I’m not connected to from a land perspective,” he said.
Nick had a hand in either growing or preparing almost everything he ate as a kid, which helped him develop an intimate relationship with food. It wasn’t just a glob of sticky, sweet dewberry jam that he was spreading on his biscuits every morning – it was quite literally the fruit of his labor; the product of hours of picking, sorting, and cleaning his harvests; of being by Ms. Lennel’s side as she cooked down the berries with cane sugar and citrus and created mason jar concoctions that would turn into artisanal preserves overnight. The same went for meats: he was adept at working with miscuts, and could grind, season, and braise at very young age.
But despite that world class education in food production, it didn’t give him the bona fides of his peers, who may have learned to braise in a culinary school in France instead of on a homestead in Mississippi. Despite having gone to culinary school himself, he noticed that his peers were considered technical – elite – while his Mississippi background made him anything but.
“A lot of my friends, they are really technical. That’s how the world sees them. But me as a Southern chef? They see me as just cooking ‘southern food,” he said. As if he couldn’t make the same dishes just as good or better – and without having to manipulate his roulades and sauces with things like agar powders and meat glues. “That’s an issue for me.”
That perception took a toll on him in some of the earlier stages of his career, most notably when he appeared on his first Food Network show in 2013. While a bit nervous and under pressure, a chef made an off-handed comment that got in his head and threw him even farther off his game.
“The chef said I was going to be standing in front of the fryer the whole 30 minutes doing my challenge, because I was gonna be frying catfish and chicken,” Wallace recalled. As if to suggest that Sothern foodways – including the ingredients and processes that have come to define the region – were some kind of kink in the machinery of high-level cooking. But, Wallace says, that comment lit a fire under him. At that point it wasn’t just about his career or winning a competition. It was about vindicating the ingredients and cooking methods of the homestead; of making sure some respect was put on Ms. Lennel’s name.
“Maybe I should have went and got a catfish tattooed on my arm, maybe I shouldn’t have. But I did because of that. Maybe I should have gotten a bucket of fried chicken on my right arm, maybe I shouldn’t have. But I did it,” he said. His voice held no regret. That’s because the tattoos tell a story, flowing from the chicken coupes on top of his shoulder all the way down to the garden that’s hosting the pickled peppers for the pickle brined fried chicken. It is an illustration of his story and a nod to the intimacy he has with the concept of “farm-to-table.”
“What it made me feel is stronger about myself and stronger about my environment,” Wallace said as he looked back on the catfish frying incident. “I came in weak and didn’t have the confidence I have now. But now I don’t shy away from catfish. I don’t shy away from those things at all.”
In fact, he let the comment inspire him.
“[At that point], I had probably only been able to cook catfish 3-4 different ways, but [since then], I know how to cook it 40 different ways,” he says. “So just because I opened my mind up to a lot more and just not being shy about things and scared of the way people look at me.”
From there, his confidence – and his cooking career – soared. Wallace found that the more he spoke up about the challenges facing Southern cooks, the bigger his platforms got; the bigger the opportunities. For a James Beard Foundation dinner in New York, he not only insisted on making sure the noted guests ate food Ms. Lennel would be proud of – having ingredients and other chefs flown up from Mississippi – he heeded her warning to not let anyone make him feel like he didn’t have value outside of the kitchen.
In addition to presenting the Mississippi Gulf-inspired menu – which included dishes like sous vide pork cheeks, a pâté made from speckled butter beans and black eyed peas with smoked delta catfish, and southern crackers with chow chow – he curated conversations about the perception of Southern food, and the impact that has on Black culinary culture.
“When you think about our ancestors and how food started, it started here. We were creating fresh food before anybody was born in these Mississippi lands right now. We deserve to have a positive push for food” he said. “I think the way we approach it is we have too much greatness in the state, and we need to create opportunities for all those great entrepreneurs that are sitting around waiting on their time.”
A crucial part of that vision is Creativity Kitchen. It’s Wallace’s nonprofit organization that formally introduces Jackson area kids to the rich culinary history of the soil they stand on. The organization shows kids how to grow their own foods and bring them directly into the kitchen. It also works to treat kids in Jackson Public Schools to chef-quality meals that keeps the health and nutrition of each child in mind. They’ve had turkey meat balls in a fermented soy bean sauce and a true farm-to-table veggie pizza, which included squash and zucchini grown by a local farmer.
It’s almost like the circle of life. “Everything I’ve done has been for my family and community,” he says. Ms. Lennel once told him never to forget where he came from, and he hasn’t.