This Mississippi Chef Uses Food To Tell His Family's Story and Bring Friends Together
Nick Wallace learned to cook from queens. Growing up in Jackson and nearby Edwards, Mississippi, the chef spent his childhood by the stove with his two grandmothers (Queen Morris, 83, and Lennell Donald, 90). Though only one of them has a royal name, Wallace regards them both as the monarchs of his family, which has been shaped and led by women.
On Donald's farm in Edwards, Wallace recalls picking buckets of blueberries for his Granny to ladle into jars that would be opened that winter and helping her prepare meals for relatives who worked in town and came home hungry after days spent cutting timber. "I was there with her slinging flour, making homemade biscuits, fixing different fruit cobblers, frying chicken—the whole nine yards," he says.
About 25 miles to the east, Morris (his Nana) lived in Jackson but still kept farm-rooted recipes simmering on the burners in her kitchen. "She wasn't a ‘premade' kind of lady," says Wallace. "She always had big pots cooking something from the morning till the afternoon. The greatest thing about her was that she taught my mom to be a fabulous cook."
Their strong influence was just as visible on the plates of pickled vegetables, cornbread, and greens covering the table at the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson this past December, where Wallace cooked for attendees like Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of Medgar Evers and an icon of the movement. For Wallace, the day represented a full-circle moment. He shared the food that spoke to his family's legacy, but he also felt validated in his decision to make Mississippi his home—even when others told him he would squander his talent if he stayed there after culinary school.
"There came a point when I started to look at the Bobby Flays and Emerils of the world, and I wondered if I could be that person too," he says. "But there was always this self-doubt because I never saw anyone who looked like me."
As the chef at Jackson's King Edward Hotel, Wallace started an experiment. First, he planted a mini farm filled with tomatoes, peppers, and collards that wrapped around the hotel's outside walls and placed pots of fragrant lemon trees and herbs by the entrance. He sent his staff out daily to gather ingredients that he would prepare at a chef's table for surprised visitors who were not expecting to find a farm-to-table restaurant at a Hilton Garden Inn outpost. "That's when I knew it could actually work here," Wallace says. "From that point on, I dedicated myself to my roots. I was devoted to bringing this kind of cooking back to Mississippi."
WATCH: If You've Never Met Aunt Flo, Take A Trip To Mississippi
Five years later, Wallace left the hotel and took over the cafe space at the Mississippi Museum of Art while he waited to open his own full-service French-inspired restaurant. It was set to be located in Jackson's former federal courthouse. On the wall behind a judge's bench in this building was a long-hidden 1938 mural featuring a demeaning depiction of black sharecroppers. Wallace wanted to create a place that could help the city heal from its past and where citizens could come together at the table.
But the funding from investors, who also wanted to add apartments and retail space to the courthouse's redevelopment, fell through before his dream could become a reality. Disappointed, he remembered what Nana told him before he left the King Edward Hotel: "Nick, I want you to remember where you came from."
A determined Wallace got to work creating yet another micro-incarnation of his Granny's farm. This time, it was on the grounds of the downtown art museum. During his breaks, he would walk through "The Mississippi Story" exhibit, lined with the work of the state's artists and activists.
"I saw all of these people who had brought so much change to our state," he adds. "I decided that I was going to make the most of this." Soon after green shoots appeared in the raised beds and herbs settled into the fertile soil, Wallace, who's a father of three, started inviting groups of school students to wander through his edible maze. He ultimately brought thousands of children to the museum to provide them with the same kind of knowledge and appreciation for food that his grandmothers had instilled in him. Wallace's own homegrown revolution was happening just blocks from the old Greyhound bus station where Freedom Riders had arrived and the site of the Woolworth's lunch counter sit-in.
The James Beard Foundation took notice and invited Wallace to cook at a dinner in New York City. Next, producers at the Food Network asked him to compete on an episode of Alton Brown's Cutthroat Kitchen. While contestants attempted to turn mystery ingredients into presentable dishes, Wallace confronted another challenge. "There was this one guy on the show who was giving me the blues about being from Mississippi, saying I could only make comeback sauce and I was just going to stand in front of the fryer," the chef recalls. Wallace didn't make it beyond the second round.
Waiting at the airport before returning home, he was reminded of his grandmother's words. As soon as the plane landed in Jackson, he sent a text to his tattoo artist. And three years later, when he returned to the Food Network on his first episode of Chopped, Wallace had a whiskered Mississippi channel catfish swimming down the length of his bicep in blue ink. And he won the round.
Although he left the museum cafe earlier this year, Wallace's plate is still filled with ideas—from a fast-casual franchise that uses locally sourced produce to a new restaurant with his mother working as co-chef. And as he makes these plans for the future, he is content cooking for his friends and family, especially his children. These days, you will likely find his son, Nick Wallace Jr., stationed by the stove watching his father stir a big pot of greens, just how the chef once learned from his grandmothers as a child. Etched in colorful ink down the chef's forearm is a pair of hands holding vegetables from
the garden—another reminder of where he came from.