Mississippi celebrity chef Nick Wallace has become a literal household name thanks to his appearances on Food Network cooking shows “Chopped” and “Fire Masters,” both of which he won, and most recently as a finalist this spring on Bravo’s “Top Chef.”
But today, he’s sitting in his car outside a nondescript, 15,000-square-foot brick building in Midtown Jackson, reminiscing on the journey that led to his success — and specifically here, to the corner of Keener and Wightman streets, where he is building his next project.
Wallace flips the camera on his phone away from selfie mode to reveal the facade of his business headquarters, Nick Wallace Culinary, then stands to walk around the weathered asphalt lot.
“We’re going to have a farm that’s going to be here outside of the building,” Wallace says, motioning around the space. “We’re going to do farmer’s markets. It’s going to be little bays right here during the farmer’s market, twice a week.”
Wallace’s vision for the Midtown Culinary Center, his collaboration with Midtown Partners, Hope Credit Union and Millsaps College’s ELSEWORKS Entrepreneurial Program, 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, and particularly African-American cooking. Through his television experiences, he’s heard people say, “We can only fry chicken and make comeback sauce and fry catfish and braise greens and cornbread,” Wallace laments. “Yeah, I can do all that, but I can do a whole lot of other things, too. That right there is a fuel element.”
Before farm-to-table was a trend, it was simply how Wallace and his family lived in Edwards, Mississippi, in a home built in the center of a seven-acre farm. The family business was pulpwood, but for Wallace, the real business happened right there on the homestead.
“As soon as you walked out, you might be stepping on sweet potatoes,” he remembers. “To the left was the chicken coop. Over the fence were the cows. We had a lot of wild mushrooms on the property, wild berries, figs — everything that you wanted.”
For young Wallace, the farm was practically his entire world. With older family members away most days, tending the crops often fell to him. He gathered greens from the gardens and collected eggs from the chicken coop. He helped his grandmother with pickling cucumbers and peppers and canning jams and jellies. He ate her sweet potato butter on biscuits in the morning and observed how she used everything they grew and raised.
“My grandmother really practiced slow food. Everything about what she did took time,” he says. “She always had those big Dutch oven cast-iron pots and was always braising meats. She did a lot of braising vegetables, too. We used everything on the cow, everything on the pig. Every vegetation that we grew, I definitely ate it.”
In time, Wallace’s world both grew and shrank. When his mother moved him and his sister to Jackson when he was nine years old, the yard was no longer big enough to get lost in, leaving him feeling trapped in his new city. He would go back to the farm in Edwards on weekends but soon began picking up cleaning and inventory jobs at local pool halls and corner stores back in Jackson to keep himself busy.
When he was 15, he began taking on roofing jobs, and then found his first restaurant job at Fernando’s, a Mexican restaurant in Ridgeland, but never made it past the prep line. In quick succession, he was hired as a cook at Outback Steakhouse and then graduated to Schimmel’s, where he worked under Derek Emerson, whose metro-area restaurants now include Caet, Local 463 and Walker’s Drive-In. At that point, though, cooking was still a paycheck.
“I really didn’t take it seriously until I started listening to people and finding out all these popular chefs and reading their stories,” he says. “And looking around and seeing nobody that looked like me. And I wanted a little bit more, so I tested the waters.”
Wallace pursued and landed the kitchen manager gig at the downtown Jackson Marriott when he was 20 years old, and within two years was named executive chef.
“Marriott taught me how to show up on time, how to dress, how to do some public speaking, the financial reports, all that,” he says. “I realized at that point that if I wanted to really take my craft to the next level financially, my brand, everything else, I really had to write my story.”
As executive chef at the Hilton Garden Inn in the King Edward building, he began 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 experience Wallace’s five- and six-course meals. After six years there, and with the lessons he learned from his grandmother swimming in his head, he landed his first TV appearance in 2013. For “Top Chef,” his eighth TV show, the producers came to him.
“Honestly, I didn’t do a whole lot of research about ‘Top Chef’ before I went on because I work every day,” he says. “I worked the same day I flew out. I just got on the show and tried to figure things out.”
By then, Wallace was a year into running his first signature spot, the Nissan Café By Nick Wallace at the Two Mississippi Museums in Jackson, where he puts his experience to work in popular dishes like a Southern-style ramen noodle bowl, a smoked brisket wrap and white chocolate bread pudding. He still uses the Dutch oven his grandmother used to braise meats and vegetables when he was a kid.
While his passion remains strong for the café, his latest round on reality TV kept him — and Mississippi, as he interjected at every opportunity — visible to a national audience for three months. More doors began opening, like a new partnership with Ben’s Original Rice (formerly Uncle Ben’s) and Dole Foods’ Sunshine For All initiative. He balances the workload with community projects like the Midtown Culinary Center, quoting his grandmother: “As much as you get in life, you give back just as much.”
“I appreciate the fame and all, but that’s not really what I want,” he says. “I’m working on my nonprofit culinary center in Midtown Jackson. I want to see that through because that’s going to be around for many, many years to come. I want to try to get involved with other things that identify the sophistication of food for Mississippi. And so I don’t think the work is done.”