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

 

Advice from Eggheads

Cooking and peeling boiled eggs is a matter of technique and experience over ingredients and recipes. The methods vary; all they have in common are eggs, water and heat. The English eat soft-boiled eggs shell-on, sliced with a little knife and eaten with a little spoon, but Americans want hard-boiled eggs, ones Cool Hand Luke can gulp down in a Louisiana prison where you will find little knives, but not little spoons. I once saw a video of a guy blowing a boiled egg out of its shell; I tried it and got a migraine. Maybe I just suck at blowing eggs, but how much of a bad thing can that be? For expert advice on this matter of technique, these chefs offer their methods. Taken altogether, they offer a chorus of dissent against Emerson’s “There is always a best way of doing everything, if it be to boil an egg.” It ain’t that easy, Waldo.

Vishwesh Bhatt (The Snackbar, Oxford): Let’s get one thing out the way right away. Boiled eggs are my least favorite thing to eat. I’m uncertain where this aversion originated (or maybe I do), but there it is. Now as far as cooking and peeling goes, bring large chicken eggs (fresher the better) to a boil in well salted water. Boil rapidly for exactly 6 minutes. Shock the eggs by submerging them in ice water. Once they have cooled enough to handle, gently tap the air cell (the fatter end) of the egg on a flat hard surface until it cracks. Lay the egg sideways and roll it back and forth while gently applying pressure. The shell will start cracking, and once you have a crack that runs all the way around you can peel it off easily; if necessary you can run some cold water over the cracked shell while peeling to expedite the process.

Dan Blumenthal (Broad Street Bakery, Jackson): Place eggs in a pot and cover with cold water. Add a teaspoon or two of baking soda. This helps in peeling. Turn heat to max and bring to a boil. Cover and turn heat down to medium. Cook for 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat and immediately run cold water over the eggs. Use ice in water if you have it. Once eggs are cool enough to peel, roll them on the counter to crack the shells, and peel them under running water to remove all shell fragments.

John Currence (The City Grocery, Oxford): We start eggs in cold water with a tablespoon of white vinegar. Starting cold will keep eggs from cracking and the vinegar helps the shell from “sticking” to the egg. Bring the pot to a boil over high heat and lower heat to medium. Boil for exactly 8 minutes. Pour off the hot water and cool with ice and cold water immediately. To peel, lightly tap side of egg on a hard surface to crack shell. Roll egg back and forth under palm until egg shell cracks all over. Egg will peel easily after this.

Alex Eaton (The Manship, Jackson): I put eggs in cold water; once eggs start boiling I time them exactly ten minutes. At the ten minute mark I ice them. To peel, I roll them on a flat service cracking them all over. Using a spoon you can peel the shell off with one good scrape.

Derek Emerson (Walker’s Drive-In, Jackson): Start eggs in cold water, put pot on high until it boils (must have bubbles in middle of pot). Once you get bubbles, turn off heat, add 1 cup of white vinegar and cover for 12 mins. Then shock until cool to stop them from cooking anymore. If you peel egg while they are still a little warm they will peel easier.

Martha Foose: (author of Screen Doors and Sweet Tea): Just buy your eggs way ahead of time. Add vinegar to water, cover 1 inch above eggs. If you want yolks to stay toward the middle poke rounded end with a thumbtack. Bring to a boil in non-aluminum pot. When water is boiling, cover, remove from eye and let sit 13 minutes. Run under cold water. Lightly crack; put back in cold water for 5 minutes.

Dixie Grimes (The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery, Water Valley): Use raw eggs directly from the fridge. Put (do not over-crowd) in a saucepan with about 2 tablespoons table salt and cover completely with water by 1-2 inches. Bring to a hard boil for about 6 minutes. Turn the heat off and let them sit in the hot water for another 6 minutes. Drain and gently crack the shells; re-cover in warm water for 3-4 minutes until cool enough to handle. Peel; more times than not the shell comes off in one whole piece. The key is to peel them while they are still warm.

Gary Hawkins (The Fairview Inn, Jackson): I cover my eggs by 2″ with cold water. Arrange eggs in a single layer, not bunched up all over. Bring to a boil, after it comes to a boil let it go 3 to 5 minutes, turn off heat and cover with lid for about 20 minutes then peel under cold running water.

Dru Jones (Boure, Oxford): In the restaurant, we generally boil 3 or 4 flats (18 eggs each) at a time. Salted cold water to cover the eggs, big splash of white vinegar, and bring to a boil. Hit the timer 10 minutes from the boil and shock in ice water. More than that and the yolks get a gray/green ring around them and it’s a tell-tale sign of over cooking. Peel when completely cooled. More often than not, give them a good roll and the cracked shell comes off in a sheet. If you are using farm fresh/day old eggs, I would probably wait a while to boil them.

Matthew Kajdan (The Parlor Market, Jackson): Place raw eggs gently in an empty pot, and fill the pot with enough cold tap water to cover the eggs by1 inch of water. Cook the eggs on medium heat; if boiling is too intense the eggs can jump and break. Add a pinch of salt to the water. This will make the eggs easier to peel; eggs that are slightly less fresh are also easier to peel. As soon as the water boils, turn off the heat and cover for ten to fifteen minutes. To see if the egg is hard-boiled, whirl it on a table. If it turns fast, it is hard-boiled; if it turns slowly, it is soft boiled. Chill the eggs under cold running water or in a bowl of ice water. When cool enough to handle, roll egg on a flat surface to crack the shell and peel under cold water, starting from the thick end of the egg.

Angelo Mistilis (Mistilis’, Delta Steak Company, Oxford): Add salt to the water. Don’t dump a lot of salt in there, maybe just two or three tablespoons, and bring them to a heavy boil for five minutes. If you’re boiling more than a dozen, take maybe six or seven minutes. To see if the eggs are done, take one out and spin it. If the eggs are hard-boiled, they’ll spin like a top. Cool the eggs down in cold water, crack them all around and peel. A lot of times that shell will come off in two pieces. But adding salt to the water is the key.

Taylor Bowen Ricketts (The Delta Bistro, Greenwood): I boil eggs slow and steady, and I pretty much only boil eggs from my friend Leanne Hines, who raises my chickens. The eggs are darker, richer and have thicker yolks than grocery standard eggs. I usually boil a dozen at a time, using a 4 quart saucepan and 3 quarts water. I simmer these nuggets of light brown goodness for about 20 mins., cool slowly and peel under cold running water.

Mike Roemhild (Table 100, Flowood): I still cook eggs the way my mother and grandmother showed me. It’s always better for hard-boiled eggs to use a bit older eggs, like a week old. Take eggs out of the fridge and poke big end with thin needle. Let the eggs sit at room temperature for 10 minutes. Fill a pot with enough water to cover the eggs, add a pinch of salt and bring to a light boil. With a spoon set eggs one by one in to the boiling water. When water comes back to a boil set your timer on 8-9 minutes for large eggs, keep water at a light boil, not rolling boil. After time is up, drain off the hot water, and cool eggs in very cold water for about 5 minutes. Gently crack the shell on the rim of your pot and peel under running water.

Robert St. John (Purple Parrot Café, Hattiesburg): When cooking hard-boiled eggs, the key is to cook the perfect yolk. Once you’ve mastered the yolk, everything else falls in place. There are probably a hundred ways to cook the perfect hard-boiled egg, here’s mine: Gently place the eggs in a single layer in a saucepot. Don’t crowd. Cover with cold water by an inch or so. Bring the pot to a rigorous boil. Cook 1-2 minutes. Remove heat, cover, and let sit 9-10 minutes. Drain and cover with cold water. Remove the eggs and gently crack the shells. Peel the eggs starting on the large end making sure to get under the clear plastic-like membrane.

Nick Wallace (The Palette, Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson): If you want hard-boiled eggs that are easy to peel, make sure they are several days old. Buy your eggs 5 days in advance; hard boiling farm fresh eggs will lead to eggs that are difficult to peel. If you have boiled a batch that is difficult to peel, try putting them in the refrigerator for a few days; they should be easier to peel then. If you need to hard cook fresh eggs, steaming works well. Even fresh eggs steamed for 20 minutes will be easy to peel.

Finally, a reminder that an imperfectly peeled egg is why God created egg salad.

Egg Salad

Mix chopped boiled eggs, finely chopped celery, red onion and black olives with mayonnaise; season with salt, dill, cayenne and serve as a spread on good dark bread.

Water Buffalo

We are what we eat: our food is very much an indication of who we are, of our place on the planet in every facet of our existence: our age, our geography, our society, our ethnic background and our own sense of self.

Aside from food taboos, which are endless and embrace a whole world of dictates, most people spurn foods because of social biases and on those alone many foods have become anathema even in those places where the foods themselves are plentiful and nutritious. A list of foods which in the past have been sneered at because of such reasons is endless and ever-changing. As early as a century ago, lobster was considered “the cockroach of the sea” by New Englanders (cod was very much in vogue, you see), and housewives in Maine were known to stuff a lobster stew in the oven when her (presumably Episcopalian) minister dropped by so that she wouldn’t be considered white trash.

You’ll often hear of fish being talked about as trash fish. Trash fish is a slang term for what U.S. state agencies and anglers call rough fish to describe larger fish species not commonly eaten or fished for sport. A fish considered rough fish in one region may be considered a game or food fish in another, often due to culture or tradition. For example, the common carp is considered an undesirable rough fish in the United States and Australia, but is the premier game fish of Europe and the most valuable food fish across most of Asia. Gar is an undesirable nuisance in most places in the U.S., but in Louisiana it’s mashed, made into balls with seasonings and fried. Buffalo is a genus (Ictiobus) of freshwater fish common in the United States. It is sometimes mistaken for carp because of its flat face and large, silver scales running along the body, though it lacks the whisker-like mouth appendages common to carp. Buffalo live in most types of freshwater bodies where panfish are found, such as ponds, creeks, rivers and lakes. From a fishermen’s point of view, the buffalo is difficult to catch; the preferred method is with gill nets.

According to Dr. Jim Steeby, former research and extension professor at MSU, “There are three species of buffalo: bigmouth, smallmouth and black. The smallmouth, also called the razorback, is most commonly caught in rivers with hoop nests.

“We can spawn and grow them with catfish in ponds,” Jim said. “They are minnow family fishes so they have bones in their flesh, but it’s a Southern favorite; the ribs are the best part. In the Delta at Stoneville, we did mostly catfish research, but we worked on some other species. Back in the early 60s they started growing buffalo in ponds in Arkansas, then switching to catfish as the market for them was better. Buffalo are not grown much anymore. Most of the harvest comes from commercial fishermen. If the market were bigger we could easily supply it, but buffalo seems likely to remain a regional favorite.”

Jackson chef Nick Wallace said that the unpopularity of buffalo might have something to do with the bones, “But you can go to some of these Southern fish markets and find buffalo. It’s not cooked in the restaurants at all; maybe because the chefs don’t like the quality because of the bones, I’m not sure; maybe it doesn’t fit to their clientele. But fish markets that do six hundred, seven hundred thousand dollars a year, they have it. It is seasonal, mainly winter, but it has a long season. To me, it is a delicate fish. If you eat it, you have to eat it delicately. Last July, I called Mark Beason early one morning, and I said, ‘Mark, I have B.B. King coming in, and B.B. wants some buffalo.’ Mark took his nets to the Big Black River and an hour later I had two big mouth buffalo. I checked it for abrasions and dark marks; you want to watch out for things like that. The whole fish is edible, and the tail is great. B.B. wanted it the next day, too. I had gotten a couple more, and he took two whole buffalo with him. They had a kitchen on his bus, and he had a guy with him who was back in the kitchen when I was cooking it, looking over my shoulder.”

“It has a nice pink flesh,” Nick said. “The fish needs to be eaten piping hot because the taste is more pronounced when you eat it hot. If you let it cool down, it’s almost like a muscle, the fish tightens up. You want to handle this fish hot. When my granny made buffalo cakes, she would get her hands in the hot cooked meat to make them. That’s what I like about cooking this type of fish, it actually takes work, it’s not just a simple meat you slice on the bias and throw in the skillet. You have to really touch this food, feel it, know it and work with it. She’d make the cakes like a croquette. She’d put mustard in the cakes and if you’re making a buffalo sandwich you’re going to want good mustard on it: white bread, mustard and tomatoes. Best sandwiches in the world.”

Nick said that buffalo should be eaten more in Mississippi. “Buffalo should stand out a lot more than sea bass, halibut and tilapia. We were raised on Mississippi fish, that’s what we were used to, and that needs to be talked about. I just don’t understand how you can go to a restaurant and find sea bass on the menu, how they have to fly this fish in here when you have anything you could really want to be sustainable here in Mississippi.”

Nick Wallace: A Chef for the King

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.”