Celebrity Mississippi chef Nick Wallace has literally become a household name thanks to his appearances on Food Network’s “Chopped” and “Fire Masters” cooking shows, which he won, and most recently as a finalist this spring on Bravo’s Top Chef.
But today, as he sits in his car outside a nondescript 15,000-square-foot brick building in downtown Jackson, he recalls the trip that led to his success — and specifically here, to the corner of Keener and Wightman Streets, where he’s building his next project.
Wallace flips the camera on his phone away from selfie mode to reveal the front of his workplace, Nick Wallace Culinary, and then stands to walk around the weathered asphalt area.
“We’re going to have a ranch that’s going to be right here outside the building,” Wallace says, as he wanders into space. “We are going to do farmers markets. There will be little bays here during the farmers market, twice a week.”
Wallace’s vision for the Midtown Culinary Center, and his collaboration with Midtown Partners, Hope Credit Union, and the ELSEWORKS Entrepreneurship Program at Millsaps College, is to showcase Mississippi cuisine while providing the local community with access to quality foods and workforce training.
For Wallace, it’s also an opportunity to begin correcting outsiders’ impressions of Mississippi cuisine, especially African American cooking. Through his TV experiences, he’s heard people say, “We can’t help but fry chicken and make comeback sauce and fry catfish, stir-fry greens, and cornbread,” Wallace said with a sigh. “Yes, I can do all of that, but I can do many other things too. That’s right. There is a fuel element.”
Before farm-to-table was mainstream, it was simply the way Wallace and his family lived in Edwards, Mississippi, in a house built in the middle of a seven-acre farm. The family’s business was pulp wood, but for Wallace, the real business took place there in the home.
“Once you’re out, you’ll probably trample on the sweet potato,” he recalls. “To the left was the chicken coop. Over the fence were the cows. We had plenty of wild mushrooms on the property, and cranberries and figs—whatever you want.”
For young Wallace, the farm was practically his entire world. With older family members staying away most days, the care of crops often falls to him. Collect greens from the orchards and collect eggs from the chicken coop. He helped his grandmother pickle cucumbers and peppers and canned jams and jellies. He was eating sweet potato butter on crackers in the morning and noticed how I used everything they grew and raised.
“My grandmother really practiced slow food. Everything about what I did took time,” he says. “She always had the big cast-iron Dutch oven pots and she always cooked the meat. She did a lot of cooking the vegetables too. We used everything on the cow, everything on the pig. Every plant we grew, she definitely ate.”
Over time, Wallace’s world grew and shrank. When his mother and sister moved him to Jackson when he was nine, the plaza was no longer big enough to get lost in, leaving him feeling trapped in his new town. He would return to the farm in Edwards for the weekends, but soon began picking up cleaning and stocking jobs at the local pool halls and corner stores in Jackson to keep himself busy.
When he was fifteen, he began taking on jobs as a bishop, then found his first job at Fernando’s, a Mexican restaurant in Ridgeland, but he never crossed the prep line. In quick succession, he was hired as a chef at the Outback Steakhouse and then graduated to Schimmel’s, working under Derek Emerson, whose metro area restaurants now include Caet, Local 463 and Walker’s Drive-In. At that point, cooking was still a salary.
“I didn’t take it seriously until I started listening to people and discovering all these famous chefs and reading their stories,” he says. “And I looked around and saw nobody looked like me. And I wanted more, so I tested the situation.”
Wallace pursued and acquired the kitchen manager of the downtown Jackson Marriott when he was 20 years old, and within two years he was named executive chef.
“Marriott taught me how to show up on time, how to dress, how to public speaking, financial reports, and all of that,” he says. “I realized at that point that if I really wanted to take my craft to the next level financially, my brand, and everything else, I really had to write my story.”
As Executive Chef at the Hilton Garden Inn in the King Edward Building, he set out to do just that. He planted a garden at the valet station, then added raised beds behind the hotel where he grew tomatoes and herbs. He created a chef’s table where Hilton executives and VIPs could sample Wallace’s five- and six-course meals. After six years there, and with lessons he learned from his head-swimming grandmother, he made his television debut in 2013. On his eighth TV show, Top Chef, producers came to him.
“Honestly, I didn’t do a lot of research on Top Chef before I got on because I work out every day,” he says. “I worked the same day I traveled. I just did the show and tried to figure things out.”
By then, Wallace had spent a year running his first signature venue, Nick Wallace’s Nissan Café at two Mississippi museums in Jackson, where he put his experience to work in popular dishes like Southern-style ramen noodles, a smoked brisket. Cabbage and white chocolate pudding bread. He still uses the Dutch oven his grandmother used to cook meat and vegetables when he was a kid.
While his passion for the café remains strong, his recent tour on reality TV — and Mississippi, where he meddles at every opportunity — kept him visible to the national audience for three months. More doors are starting to open, like a new partnership with Ben’s Original Rice (formerly Uncle Ben’s) and Dole Foods’ Sunshine For All initiative. He balances workload with community projects like the Midtown Culinary Center, quoting his grandmother: “As much as you get in life, you give back as much.”
“I appreciate the fame and everything, but that’s not really what I want,” he says. “I work for the nonprofit culinary center in Midtown Jackson. I want to see that through because that’s going to be around for many years to come. I want to try to get involved in other things that define the evolution of Mississippi food. And so I don’t think the work is done.”