My passions about locally sourced ingredients and southern food mesh perfectly in my position as Executive Chef at the Mississippi Museum of Art. Walking the galleries of The Mississippi Story exhibition, I see artistic sojourns all around. Pieces reflect the African Diaspora, the fertile Delta, Old Master techniques translated anew by Mississippi artists. These same ideas parallel the histories of West African okra and French-inspired cuisine and home grown food that I live every day. I see, in the visual art around me, a reflection of the culinary world. Another medium of creativity.
It’s in this spirit that I’ll be sharing with you some of the artworks that invigorate me and make me think even more intentionally about the culinary art I strive to create. I’m lucky to be able to take my coffee just a few steps away from an amazing Glennray Tutor painting. Still Life: Season of Moment, his iconic depiction of mason jars chock full, is one of my favorites. It’s about slow food. Preservation and preparation. It’s a little canvas window through which I access my own inspirations and rediscover why I love crafting food in Mississippi.
By Chef Nick Wallace
The first image of the Saturday morning was seeing a humid trailer full of living worm soil at the Mississippi Farmers Market. I touched the dirt. Played in it. Smelled it. A worm was popping his head out. I had a huge attachment to smelling the richness of that soil, knowing the types of produce and vegetables that come out of it.
Outside of the Farmers Market, I saw my usual honey guy, dressed in his casual bee suit. It was great seeing some new vendors there, too. Lemonade stand out front because it was so hot. Then entering, I saw a big crowd of folks. It's almost like Sunday dinner in there because you see everybody smiling and waving.
I was there to source ingredients for myself and also for a colleague and family friend, for whom I'd be cooking a few days later. I had visions of a fresh, raw, Farmers Market salad. Unadulterated Mississippi food. I set off to find the pieces that would bring the dish together.
Walking around, I found some heirloom tomatoes from Arender Farms. I picked out some under-ripe tomatoes, knowing I'd be serving the dinner in a few days. I left them out to get ripe for 48 hours in room temperature and they were perfect by the time I prepared them.
Onions came from Bobkat farms (named for Bob and his wife, Kat). He told me they were called torpedo onions. I had tasted a sample while I was talking to another farmer (the High-Heeled Hippie) and my kitchen supervisor Damien Shelby handed me a cup of these caramelized onions. It was almost like being at a candy shop. The natural sweetness. I knew that was going to be in the salad.
I got some farmers cheese that I would later fold in with parsley and chives as the base for a dressing. I found some squash. Saw some of the peppers. I knew that the salad would be a home run. Then I pursued something that could carry on this salad even more. I saw these beet tops. I knew those could be washed and cleaned and chiffonaded in the salad. I got some fresh shitake mushrooms that would soak up the dressing. The dressing was made with that farmers chess and some fresh local cream from Progress Milk Barn. The richness of the cream and the farmers cheese was balanced out by local honey and mustard. I marinated the salad for about two hours in that dressing. I combined all that with strawberries, cucumbers, and other fresh produce that I had on hand.
The salad was definitely a star, but I also got a chance to feature a boneless lamb roast that I sliced and served with creole mustard and honey, and a rustic wild goat that I made into patties and smothered with a Moroccan tomato jelly that just melted when a little heat was applied. My words for that goat are hairy, authentic, hay-like. It tastes like you have a cast iron skillet in the woods with a pit fire in the ground. Wild.
I had all I needed for the dinner. I was cooking for Betsy Bradley, Director of the Mississippi Museum of Art (where I am currently the Executive Chef). But she wasn't my boss on this night. She was just a friend and someone who would be enjoying my food. Her house was full with her friends and family. They were group who'd been having weekly dinners like this with each other for decades.
Walking into Betsy’s household, it wasn’t about some typical American TV dinner while watching Dancing with the Stars. Everyone was gathered around talking, which is what my family does. Some of the men were checking in on the score of the game, just like in my household growing up. And then the ladies and some of the guys are hovering around the kitchen, too. Because no matter what, no matter what the score, nothing is going to distract them from those smells coming from the kitchen. It was great to see that in her home because that’s the way my family has been living and celebrating food my entire life.
I was finishing up the meal when I saw Betsy taking the lid off of a pot full of Delta tamales from Doe's. she asked for my help so I pulled the top off and they were smelling so salty and sweet. Everyone sat down for dinner at a long table on the screen porch looking out on her back yard that looked like the wilderness. A jungle. You started to hear the insects making all that noise as the nightfall came. For me, it’s common to have that sunday dinner type experience, and even though this was with different folks, it was the same feeling. In fact, I missed a family dinner at my grandmother's house that night, but she was fine for me to miss that dinner because she knew I was sharing with another family. So I told some of the diners that they had to return the favor and come eat with my family some day.
Eating fresh food and talking about it, you really bond. The guests that night could taste every bit and you could tell they were really appreciating food. But the food is just the start. It's what brings out the conversation and the stories. And dinners like this are the occasions when the chef gets to sit down and actually enjoy the plate. So I sat back and heard all the stories from across he table that I had never heard before. I saw thumbs up from the other end of the table from people just enjoying the food and each others' company. We’re definitely going to be doing more of these types of dinners and sharing of Mississippi stories. And I think i’ll surprise Betsy with my grandma making an appearance for the next one.
Let it be said that Chef Nick Wallace is the one member of the NWC team who truly belongs in the kitchen. But seeing as today is his birthday, we dusted off the aprons to prepare a special dish for the man who usually spends his time cooking for others. We're not world class bakers or pastry chefs. So when we needed inspiration, we took a trip down to the Mississippi Farmers Market to see what fresh ingredients we could pull together to supplement our existing pantry.
We ended up making Nick lemon pies topped with blueberries from the farmers market. We got the eggs for the filling there, too, from Wamego Family Farm based out of Terry, MS.
There's nothing like a home made dessert on your birthday. And when you're preparing it for a friend, it makes the cooking just as worthwhile as the eating.
Happy birthday, Nick!
Wherever we go, we're on the lookout for good food. Recently, members of the Nick Wallace Culinary team were in Nashville, Tennessee. When business was all taken care of, we immediately set out in search of local food fare. At the sprawling Nashville Farmers' Market, we found smoked pork jowls, fresh dairy products, and all assortments of fresh fruits and vegetables.
We love local food, and because we're from Mississippi, that's where most of our ingredients and inspiration comes from. When we travel, and our locality changes, that same instinct to forage the landscape follows us. Seeing how other people and places do food broadens our horizons. Sometimes we get new ideas for dishes, get introduced to new products, and pick up new techniques. The best thing about traveling beyond the borders of the state is that we get to bring all of our experiences back home with us to become even better at what we do in our own community.
A trip to Nashville wouldn't be complete without slipping into full tourist mode and visiting Prince's Hot Chicken, the legendary bastion of explosive poultry whose reputation flirts with the far flung fringes of the Scoville scale. We placed an order, took our number and left, returning, as prompted by the staff, "in about an hour or so." There's a certain set of rules and behaviors you follow in Prince's. There are those customers waiting in line to order chicken and those waiting in line to pick up, but there's no clear demarcation between the two. If you aren't paying attention, you'll end up standing for a half hour in a perceived queue that doesn't really exist. Folks are posted up all over the restaurant, in corners, between the wall and the Coke machine, waiting to hear the string of barked out order numbers that includes theirs. When your number is called, it's de facto permission to disregard all gentlemanly or ladylike line-waiting procedure. Just cut straight to the window with your white ticket ready and grab your grease-stained bag.
While we have no way of confirming whether the deep fried birds were free range (we'd guess not), and although we know for a fact that the white bread wasn't home-baked, their unique local culinary viewpoint is undeniable. For that, they have our respect, and I'll wager that the city will forever have a few of our taste buds, permanently burned off and vaporized in Comfort Inn room 117 a few blocks from downtown Nashville where we braved the demonic heat of Prince's to-go plates.
By Julian Rankin
This Sunday, we take a moment to reflect on the family meal. Like the kind that Nick's mother, Susie, made for us one weekend. Cornbread and fish and chicken and beans and vegetables and mac and cheese. While Nick Wallace's food is executed with classical technique and modern flair, these types of dishes are the inspiration and source material from which all the others spring forth. But it's more than just riffing on the old fashioned to create a new menu item; it's taking the spirit of community embedded the family meal, elevating it, and translating it for restaurant diners. So that even if they are sitting in front of a white tablecloth, they still feel the same home cooked love as if they were grazing from the stove top.
Nick learned to cook from a young age when he would feed his sister and cousins while his mother was at work. When Susie Wallace was home and cooking, he watched attentively from her side.
"I had no idea he was cooking like he was," said Susie. "No wonder I always had to go to the grocery store. I'd say gosh, where is the sugar, where is the flour."
"It was all gone," Nick said.
Nick and I made plates and went outside on the patio. We ate on our laps in the afternoon shade. "This stuff right here matters," he said. "And I'm glad I could share it with you."
That's the true purpose of cooking. To share it with someone else. It's the reason Susie Wallace herself learned to cook back when she was eight years old. "We’d have dinner done when mama would get home," she said. "And I’ve been at it ever since. I raised five nephews along with my children. And then when they became teens they had their girlfriends and boyfriends. My house was full all the time. The kids got bigger and bigger. And so my pots got bigger and bigger."
Nick has taken those home cooked lessons, transcended the small family kitchen, and brought his creative and sophisticated take on Mississippi food to the most discerning of palates. But he still knows where he'd most like to be for a weekend meal. Mom's kitchen.
"Do you think you could out cook Nick?" I asked Susie.
She laughed. "Not new school. I'm not new school. But Southern, old fashioned. Yeah, I still got him there."
And that's the only way Nick would have it. No one makes it like mom.
We all have to eat. No way around it. As comedian Patton Oswalt once lamented, the overweight man can't just quit his addiction to food cold turkey - by five o'clock, he'll be back again, eating cold turkey.
What we can change, though, is the extent to which we are aware of where our food comes from - how we think about the things we consume and recognize the hands that worked to bring them to fruition. This is the purpose of this website, Nick Wallace's virtual homestead. It's also the ethos of Chef Nick's Modern Mississippian cooking style. It's embracing the rustic, home grown ingredients that come straight from the soil and treating them with the classical technique and respect that they deserve as the premium products they are. In the process of cooking and eating this way, the source of our foods becomes more transparent. We are able to recognize the personal stories of the farmer and the baker and the purveyor. To celebrate not only the eating of the food, but all of the creation and creativity that went into bringing it to its ultimate, edible stage. It is modern, yes, but always with a recognition of the traditions of the past on which all of our presents and futures are built.
There is a great deal of work to be done to spread this awareness and consciousness about where and how and why we eat. And there's only one place to start. On the farm, in the dirt, and in front of the stove; where thoughtful cooking with humble ingredients can yield refined dishes that embody the nuance of culinary life in the state and region. As we continue to cook and eat and travel, we will uncover some of the best things about and new potentials for food in Mississippi as we see them. On this journey, we will always be learning, making new discoveries about people and places and products that contribute to the Modern Mississippian culinary revolution. We hope you'll come with us, and join in on the feast.