JACKSON, Miss.—Nick Wallace’s first memory of cooking takes him back to his family’s farm in Edwards, Miss., where chickens flapped around their coop and cows grazed the land. As a child, he spent the days chasing chickens and goats and searching for bugs, running across sweet-potato roots and alongside fences lined with dewberry vines, and playing in the front yard near the corn and okra crops—part of a garden that wrapped around the property.
Wallace’s grandmother, Lennel Donald, took pride in cooking for the family. She taught her young grandson to bring her items she needed from the garden. He learned to gather greens, pick crookneck squash and dig up sweet potatoes. She took time to advise him on what to look for to know when vegetables were ripe and ready for picking.
As Wallace grew older, Donald decided that it was time for him to learn more inside the kitchen.
“I remember she wanted me to go to get some blueberries off the fence line,” Wallace told the Mississippi Free Press. “So I went and got a bucket of them. I came into the house to bring it to her and she said, ‘You’re gonna finish it.’”
Donald asked her young apprentice to run cold water over the bowl of berries, instructing him in massaging the submerged fruit to clear them of debris. He removed the berries from the bowl and dried them out before the pair placed the berries into a pan on the stove, creating a thick liquid, which Wallace poured into Mason jars. His grandmother dropped the jars into boiling water to better seal them.
The next morning, Donald prepared biscuits for the men heading off to work like she did each morning. She handed Wallace a biscuit, telling him to “pop it open like a soda bottle,” fill it with a spoonful of the fruity jam and take a bite. Her young kitchen-helper was hooked.
“It was one of the most magical things I’ve ever tasted in my life,” Wallace recalled. “I looked at Miss Lennel, and I just fell in love with her again. It was truly magical. She used to use her hands, and that’s probably one of the most important things I’ll take with me forever.”
Those early experiences in his grandmother’s kitchen would shape the course of Wallace’s life. Now a world-renowned executive chef, Nick Wallace has earned many accolades throughout his career, with the Small Business Association recently naming the Jacksonian chef the title of 2023 Mississippi Small Business Person of the Year.
“Mr. Wallace learned to cook from his grandmother, so he had that background, but he still went and got formally trained, learned and expanded his knowledge of his craft,” Veronique Thomas, marketing and outreach specialist of the Mississippi District Office of the Small Business Association, told the Mississippi Free Press.
“We are excited to give this award to Mr. Wallace,” she added. “He exhibits the know-how to actually stay and go the long haul with business. I see him growing so much more and doing so much more. We are glad to be able to showcase him as a business.”
‘A Little Salt and Pepper Goes a Long Way’
While his mother, Susie Marshall, worked two jobs to support her family, Nick Wallace cooked for his sister, learning how to put ingredients together to create flavorful dishes. “That’s when I discovered he was cooking,” Marshall said. “I knew it because my kitchen was always (covered) in flour.”
He parlayed that talent into jobs, first working as a prep cook at Fernando’s on Lake Harbour Drive and then as a cook at Outback Steakhouse. At that time, Wallace viewed cooking simply as a way to make a living.
“I knew I was good at it, but I was doing things for a paycheck,” he said. “It was easy for me to follow recipes; it was easy for me to follow specifications. I could make money, and I was always good at math, but I wasn’t actually showing ‘me’ inside of the food until right when I was close to 30 years old. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a chef. (Before that) I was not taking it seriously, but you know I’m following them in my truth right now.”
Wallace earned a spot in Derek Emerson’s kitchen at the now-closed Schimmel’s. Emerson, an award-winning executive chef, taught the young cook about the power of fresh ingredients.
“My philosophy is to use the freshest ingredients possible,” Emerson said. “I just tried to always (teach) that we put out the best product we possibly can. If you buy the best ingredients, a little salt and pepper goes a long way.”
Having recently judged a cooking competition alongside Emerson, Wallace still values his mentor’s expertise. “Derek really showed me that you have to just be you and control your environment,” Wallace said. “He’s a master at that and then super talented.”
Wallace earned an associate degree in food and beverage management from Hinds Community College and honed his craft by training at restaurants across the country in cities including Anchorage, Atlanta, New York and Chicago. He mastered French technique and other cooking methods. He worked as an executive chef in prominent museums and hotels like Jackson’s Marriott hotel, where he soared from kitchen manager to executive chef within two years, and Hilton Garden Inn in the historic King Edward building.
“I can cook Asian food. I can make pasta. I can make desserts. I can cook Italian food. I can cook Vietnamese. I mean I can do it all only because I put myself out there and started traveling, meeting people and networking,” he said. “French technique is probably one of the main things that I use in my cooking, but I would definitely say it’s rooted (in family tradition).”
Those farm-to-table roots from his grandmother’s property are deeply embedded in his menu through dishes such as Mississippi Gumbo—a mixture of black-eyed peas, turkey, collards and other southern staples. “He grew up with farm-to-table food,” Marshall said. “That’s all we did. He grew up with green beans, peas, chicken and all of that.”
Nick Wallace Cuisine has earned national recognition for its signaturely Mississippian cuisine. He placed fifth of 16 on Top Chef Houston and became the Chopped “Alton’s Challenge Part Two” (Season 34) champion. He has also appeared on Food Network’s “Comfort Nation” (Season 2), “Cutthroat Kitchen” and Food Network Canada’s “Fire Masters.” Publications have named Wallace as Best Chef in Jackson multiple times, and in 2020 he earned a Best Chef of Mississippi title. For his contribution to Mississippian culture, the Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience museum in Meridian, Miss., features Wallace in two exhibits.
“He represents Mississippi well,” Emerson said. “Over the time he (has) matured and become a better cook by adding flavor profiles. All that changes as you grow and work with other people, and I have really seen him do that a lot.”
‘Giving Back’ to Mississippian Children
When COVID shuttered the doors of many restaurants, Wallace was able to redesign his business to remain relevant and successful.
“In light of what happened during COVID, a lot of businesses in Mississippi, especially restaurants, went under,” Veronique Thomas told Mississippi Free Press. “But Mr. Wallace knows the value of how to pivot, and he pivoted. He did things like create a seasoning called 26 Seasonings. He understood he had to pivot his business to keep growing and to not let what goes on in his environment hinder that.”
Nick Wallace also devoted more time to his business From My Hands to Your Kitchen, which offered people the opportunity to have the chef cook in their homes. He used his partnerships with local farms and produce suppliers to bring what he refers to as Nick Wallace Signature Cuisine to residential kitchens across the state.
“We were doing 10 dinners and lunches and five six-course meals in people’s homes a week,” he said.
Wallace has a passion for instilling the love of fresh food to others like his grandmothers did for him. His nonprofit Creativity Kitchen partners Wallace and his staff with the Jackson Public School District to provide delicious and healthy meals for students.
“He started (it) during COVID and is giving back,” Thomas said. “He (began) showing kids how to cook healthy food. He’s doing so much with his restaurant and also being a family man with kids. He is growing as a business owner but (still) gives back to kids in Mississippi.”
Wallace opened the Nissan Cafe in the Two Mississippi Museums in 2021. He plans to open a concept at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs, Miss. His debut cookbook, “Rooted: A Modern Mississippian Map to American Home Cooking,” which University Press of Mississippi is publishing, is expected to hit shelves by early 2024. He also hopes to secure a permanent judging position on a cooking show and is planning to open new cafés in the Coffee Prose location on West Street and in the Highland Village Shopping Center.
Presently, the chef is working to complete a 16,000-foot culinary center called Preserve, which will serve to provide fruits and vegetables for his dishes, instruct culinary students, and provide healthy food options and a water well for the surrounding community.
“It’s going to be kind of like a school, and it’s going to have a grocery store inside. (We will) do cooking classes and huge events,” Wallace said, showing the space on camera. “It will also have a studio kitchen.”
Wallace says that the Small Business Administration has been very instrumental in his success. “I stayed involved with the SBA heavily throughout the pandemic, because I had to change up concepts,” he explained. “The good thing about this is they know your numbers. They know what type of business you have so it’s on paper but also (they know) the work that I put in throughout the years. They had a lot of important roles in it.”
The chef traveled to Washington, D.C., in April to be recognized at the National Small Business Week awards ceremony.
For more information on Nick Wallace or his restaurant and catering offerings, visit nickwallaceculinary.com, which also features a handful of Wallace’s own recipes.