The restaurant at the Hilton Garden Inn, historically known as the King Edward Hotel, is now arguably the highest-profile eating establishment in Jackson.
The newly-restored hotel, located in the heart of the city, has a management team that is rising to the occasion to provide the city with the highest quality food and beverage service possible, and it’s to their credit that they have made a Hinds County native, Nick Wallace, the executive chef for the establishment.
“I have family in Edwards and Vicksburg,” Wallace said. “My grandmother, Ms. Lennell, had 6 acres of garden. She’s 81 years old now, and a wonderful lady. About five years ago, she quit butchering her own hogs, which she raised, but she still raises her own chickens and always has fresh eggs. When I was 5 years old, I was picking peas and greens and okra; she eventually showed me 5 or 6 ways to cook okra when I was 8 years old. I could make scratch biscuits at that young age. She still makes all her preserves, chutneys and jellies.”
Wallace said that his other grandmother, Queen Morris, was also a big influence on his culinary development. “She could take a little and make it into a lot. She showed me how to improvise, and as a chef, that’s very important; you need to know what ingredients you’re using and how to use them. For instance, if we had fennel, she’d show me how to use every part of the plant in a variety of recipes. In her kitchen, you weren’t going to throw away a single piece of anything. She used everything, even the onion hulls.”
Wallace moved to Jackson when he was 11, but he still went to the family place every weekend. “The first restaurant I ever worked in, Fernando’s, was on Lake Harbor Drive,” Wallace said. “I worked there for two and a half years with a brother-in-law who was running the kitchen. I wanted to learn how to do restaurant-style cooking. They taught me knife skills, how to cook fast and clean, and I gradually worked my way up. This is the first establishment I’m going to be able to put my own stamp on, and I’m going to show everybody that Jackson, Mississippi can support a restaurant that is not only great but consistently great.”
His menu will be supported by three elements: fresh local produce, an emphasis on flavor and staff development. “I’m a big fan of local produce, and I’m committed to talking with my produce vendors who deal with the local farmers’ markets about what’s coming in. I’m also planning on having a small garden here in the back of the hotel where I’ll grow fresh herbs and other items for the kitchen.”
“I want to be able to develop flavors in my entrees,” Wallace said, “and that takes time. It seems like a lot of people simply do a quick sauté, which is good for some things, but I want to include dishes that take a slow brazing, for instance, pork shanks or short ribs. I want to show people the flavors we can get out of such cooking methods. I also love herb oils, and I’ll be making my own stocks.”
Wallace also said that building a kitchen staff that has the same degree of dedication is important. “I’m amazed at the places I’ve been, from Alaska to Alabama, where I was brought in to troubleshoot, to teach people. A lot of chefs these days are afraid to teach because they’re afraid of training someone who might end up being better than they are. But you’re never going to have a great restaurant environment unless everybody in the kitchen knows what you know. You have to have a team, so we’ll be holding training for staff once a week, talking about different products, methods and subjects such as organic foods.”
“I want everyone to come in, wherever they’re from, and experience a wonderful meal.”