Nick Wallace: The Palate as Palette

As culinary curator at the Mississippi Museum of Art, I match food and art together. We’re planning on starting an art gallery in the kitchen, a food art gallery. That’s where I come into play; with a chef’s table in the kitchen, I’ll be able to curate every meal and tell a story. The new kitchen in the museum has a complete chef’s table, a mounted-to-the-wall table we put in about a month ago that will never go anywhere. I’ll let people walk through the kitchen and view the art, beginning on our monthly ‘Sipp Sourced event on third Thursday. People will be able to come in to the museum and get a kitchen experience. It’s never been done quite like this in Mississippi, and it’s one of the things that make chefs more intelligent by bringing us out of the box. Often we get caught up in this stereotype of Mississippi: stewed collard greens and fried chicken and such. We need to tie food in to more than what you usually think of when you consider it. If you sit down and talk with my grandmother, and if you open your ears up and really listen and let her curate her past, you can stitch that into artwork; when you look at her pecan-wood tables you can tell they have a story. If you go to my grandmother’s house, really anybody’s grandmother’s house, you’ll find art. We tend to focus on the plate on the table, but we need to begin thinking about everything else in the environment. That’s what I want to do; I want to curate my surroundings.

I will be at the James Beard House on April 13 with Mitchell Moore from Campbell’s Bakery and Dan Blumenthal from BRAVO! It’s a beautiful thing when you have fellow chefs who are honored to do it; they know what the business is and know we have to bring the finest quality we can to the table. When the James Beard Foundation invites you, it’s for a reason, and it’s an honor to be one of the ones they call on from Mississippi. I’ve done two other events with the James Beard people. I’ve cooked twice in the house itself. I also did the Hamptons event where they honored Carla Hall. Mitchell and Dan have been with me at every event. It’s a tough experience, but fun to do and showcase Mississippi. Carla talked about getting me on The Chew soon. I can’t wait until that happens, so I’m going to keep bugging her about that so one of the Mississippi fellows can be on The Chew talking about Mississippi.

Everywhere I go, I celebrate Mississippi. With the menu for the Beard event, I will try to take it all the way. For appetizers, the Simmons Delta catfish are smoked and made into croquettes, the pickled radishes are coming from Madison, and I will pair it up with a pickled peach and dry sake spritzer with lemon oil celery bitters. The other appetizer dear to my heart is the Mississippi Gulf shrimp boudin served on Mitch’s house-made crackers. We’re doing fennel sauerkraut and pairing that up with a Gibson-style martini with pickled mustard seed and pickled striped beets. The other group that’s supporting us in this dinner is Trinchero Family Estates in Napa Valley. I met those people when I was a corporate chef with Marriott, and so nine years later I call them to pair up Mississippi food with Napa Valley wines. And they’re donating it all. I’m still going to be taking Cathead vodkas and Hoodoo coffee liqueur that we’ll be pairing with our desserts and other things we’re cooking. I’ll also take a few Mississippi beers to pair up with our all-time famous pickle brined fried chicken, maybe a Sweetwater.

Our Jackson Public Schools partnership started last November. I was already going into the cafeterias and working with the staff. It’s a different world, so I’m still trying to get adjusted to it, since as a chef, having worked in restaurants all my life and going into a cafeteria, it’s a totally different environment. Honestly, I probably jumped in a little too soon and was a little too aggressive about it, so I had to learn how to think about things a little differently. I have to really connect with the kids as opposed to a guest who is going to come into your restaurant. When I do a menu now, I might even turn on some cartoons just to be in the background where I can hear them, but I have to take myself back to where I was when I was a kid to relate, and it’s kind of tricky. I’ve been working with the kids, the cafeteria workers, the staff and the parents. Now we’ve rolled out this concept in which I do a rotating menu that changes every month. The menus are highlighted on Mondays, when the kids bring their parents, their grandparents; their families come out and dine with them. This month we’re doing a “Mississippi Italian” menu. We’re doing a homemade flatbread pizza, a veggie pizza that’s made to order with things like fresh broccoli, squash, zucchini, peppers, onions, tomatoes, and this pizza is the number one thing the kids are asking for. You’d think they’d want sausage and pepperoni, but the kids are excited about their vegetables. Instead of just giving them a boring plate we put a fun twist on it. I try to balance myself between the two schools we’re in now, Blackburn and Powell Middle School, but as soon as we work out the kinks a little bit more the goal is to go into all thirteen schools later this year.

Working with the staff in the schools takes me back to a world I’m used to, that of being a corporate chef for Marriott. I floated around to at least seven hotels at one time, so I had to instill everything I had been taught into the chefs at each hotel. It’s the same thing with the cafeteria managers and the different schools; you get on the same level with one another. I invite them to the kitchen here in the museum, we play around in the kitchen, and we establish a relationship. They see how I like to touch food, and move food and season food so they can map me and get closer to how I like to work in the kitchen. We take photos, make recipes and put them in a book. They’re beautiful people. I remember coming up and being stuck into a hotel environment where I’m cooking the same foods over and over again. I thought corporate had forgotten all about me, I’m tired of cooking the same chicken breast, when are we going to do something different? With Marriott, you couldn’t just change things overnight; you had to wait for it to become system-wide. This sense of institutionalization in public schools is the same.

Coming up on February 18th is is the first year anniversary of my monthly ‘sipp Sourced pop up restaurants. We’re going to celebrate with Mississippi burgers, and we’ll have “Art for Burgers” too. I’ll be grinding local goat and veal, chicken from Hattiesburg, beefalo out of Morton, and pork and beef from Lena. All will have a different theme, all from different counties. We’re also revamping the Mississippi Museum of Art garden, planting a pumpkin patch for the kids. I work with Bill Evans, who’s with MSU out of Crystal Springs, and he assists us pro bono. My goal is to put in a small chicken coop; wouldn’t it be cool to drive down Court Street in downtown Jackson and see chicken coops?

Photo: Julian Rankin

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