The first Mississippi culinary creator to compete on Bravo’s “Top Chef” is no longer overshadowed by other talents in the kitchen. Nick Wallace’s personality and performance on the hit TV series put him on a bigger stage and the state in a brighter light.
“It was just amazing to be in the same area as so many good people,” says the founder and chef of Nick Wallace Culinary. “The amount of the exposure, the connection with the judges, everything being about a storyline of education is the part that I loved.”
As one of 15 contestants vying for a $250,000 prize on “Top Chef: Houston,” Wallace focused on showing off innovative cuisine inspired by decades of cooking in his home state. “When you talk about southern hospitality, it’s us. We’ve got it,” states Wallace. “And from where we need to be in food and what we need as far as sophistication, that’s where we are taking it. I think people got a big glimpse of that.”
In the Light
Chef Wallace’s appearances on other television food shows gave him composure during his interviews on “Top Chef.” Applying French cooking methods to modern comfort food from the Magnolia State kept the Jackson resident in the running for 12 episodes. He won three Quick Fires and an Elimination Challenge before a misstep in timing on a fish dish sent him home.
Wallace is thrilled by the support pouring in since the “Top Chef” season 19 began airing in March. “It was already pretty awesome going into local grocery stores and farmers markets and seeing all the people smiling. But now the hugs are a lot firmer. People want to sit down with me more and have a conversation.”
Congratulatory messages are still coming in, and not just on social media. Wallace hears from other chefs who recognize what the “Top Chef” spotlight did for the state’s culinary reputation. “All these chefs are talking like we really appreciate you setting the stage the way you did because it had to be done. I’m very grateful that it was me chosen, and I’m also grateful for the outcome.”
Wallace was among the last five surviving chefs when the judges eliminated him. He remained gracious in expressing his gratitude. Perhaps, it was because of the $35,000 in prize money and valuable friendships he took with him. The Mississippi chef formed strong bonds with Ashville’s Ashleigh Shanti, chef/owner of Good Hot Fish, Chicago’s Damarr Brown, chef de cuisine at Virtue, and Brooklyn’s Buddha Lo, executive chef at Marky’s Caviar & Huso and the season 19 winner.
“Damarr is just an incredible human, just a good person,” says Wallace. “We created this bound as brothers, just like with Ashley and Buddha. But Damarr and I were the ones sitting down on the floor outside our rooms having conversations for an hour before we had to go film.”
The Mississippi restaurateur, Brown and Shanti were the first Black chefs to make it that far together on the Bravo show. They were all among the final six contestants. When Top Chef’s most anticipated and grueling episode came around, Wallace chose Brown, Shanti and Lo to impress the judges and diners with their Restaurant Wars concept and cuisine.
By the time dessert was served at the Post Houston, Team Restaurant Matriarc had won the battle with dishes inspired by the matriarchs in their lives. Wallace has plans for other collaborations with Shanti, Brown and Lo in the future. “We’re going to take that Matriarc concept and do pop-ups around the world,” he says.
Helping Mississippi Shine
The owner of Nissan Café by Nick Wallace (Restaurants — Nick Wallace Culinary) and Nick Wallace Catering (Catering — Nick Wallace Culinary) had claimed other praise-worthy titles before appearing on “Top Chef.” Wallace was named champion on Food Network’s “Chopped” and Food Network Canada’s “Firemasters.” He appeared on “Comfort Nation” and “Cutthroat Kitchen.” Being voted Jackson’s Best Chef for the last four years and Best Chef of Mississippi in 2020 also put him on Best Chef America’s list.
Southern Living, Jackson Free Press and Biloxi News have featured the chef’s accomplishments in elevating expectations for farm-to-table cuisine in Mississippi. Foodies outside the state are noticing and showing up at Nissan Café at the Two Museums in downtown Jackson. The café opened in July 2021 in the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. “They are coming because they are curious about Mississippi and me. They ask me where to go. They send emails through the website asking, ‘What should we do?’” Wallace says.
“I’ve been telling people throughout my life that I didn’t really transition to where I was headed until I started getting out of Mississippi, meeting people and pushing myself into different environments,” says Wallace. The restaurateur was born and raised in Mississippi and worked as an executive chef in prominent museums and hotels. His thirst for knowledge and expertise helped him grow as a person and a chef. “I look back at a lot of things I’ve done, and I cringe every single time. I love that because you can grow for yourself. If you’re not cringing, you’re not growing,” he says.
The Jackson entrepreneur continues to grow by shining more light on culinary advances in his state and contributing to the well-being of others through his Creativity Kitchen and other nonprofit projects. “If I had the opportunity to leave Mississippi tomorrow, I wouldn’t do it because the people are exploding with love and support. They know I’m opening the doors for others,” says Wallace.
Celebrating His Story
The world Wallace grew up in opened his mind to the rewards of growing and cooking food from his family’s farm in Edwards. He celebrates that story through cooking. His two grandmothers, 96-year-old Lennell Donald and 86-year-old Queen Morris, gave him a solid foundation for building a culinary career. He still recalls the many impressionable moments spent in their kitchens
“I remember my grandmother asked me to get some dewberries. I went and got the wild berries off the fence line. I brought them in and washed them, and she said to wash them again. Then she would put them in a pot, make her wild berry jam mixture and put them in Mason jars.”
The sacrifices made while making jam for her homemade biscuits or getting breakfast on the table at 5 am every day never bothered Donald. “She may have burned herself a little bit with water, but she spent all day making wild berry jam. She didn’t get aggravated, didn’t get angry. She wants to serve you,” adds Wallace. “Some of the things she instilled in me will live forever. I just want to continue to pass it down, that respect for people.”
The slow cooking and preserving that his grandmothers valued are getting passed on through Nissan Café’s owner. Wallace remembers sitting with Grandmother Morris learning how to wash and pick greens. “She’d have her hands over your hands because she wanted to show you the motion. And that woman was strong. I don’t know if you’ve ever met an older person who was not only infused with great energy but with strength too. Those are the ones you don’t talk noise to either,” says the chef.
The men in Wallace’s life were also legends, especially his father, Jesse James Donald. The farmer once suffered 92 bee stings and was out of the hospital and back to work the next day. The restaurateur took care of his dad for three months before Donald died in 2019.
- Celebrity Chef Razia Sabour Honors Soul Food’s History with Competition Win
- Chef Emme Collins: Pleasing Palates Afro-Brazilian Cuisine in Seattle
The experience of getting booted off of “Top Chef” was minor compared to the pain of losing his father. “I told God, and I told my father, I’m not going shed a tear. I’m going to be the man that you taught me to be, and I will make you proud. From that point on, I was rejuvenated. I knew my path in life, and I knew as long as I worked hard, I wouldn’t feel bad. I don’t feel bad because I know it was a huge accomplishment,” Wallace says.
The Mississippi entrepreneur advises others to learn their own story by having meaningful conversations with their elders. “Write your story down. Ask questions. Have a journal. People will need to know who you are, but you will need to know who you are first.”
Wallace is thankful to all the people who contributed to the chapters in his culinary narrative. “I am grateful for all the ones that I have learned things from, everything from free-standing restaurants to hotels. I’m definitely very grateful for everything shown to me. They all deserve to see me going forward because they are a part of my life.”
A Lasting Presence
Nick Wallace Culinary’s CEO keeps a full plate of projects that reflect his farm upbringing and culinary perspective. One of them is Nick’s 26, the spice mix he created and sells online. The goal is to get his Mississippi product onto grocery store shelves nationwide. “It’s really and truly 26 spices mixed in one bottle. It took me 20 years to get this ratio together.”
Nick 26 is a seasoning that offers more than the usual salt, pepper, garlic and herbs. “This has everything from cumin to cinnamon. It has all the elements of curry and everything that is in there. Once you have a little bit, you want it all.”
Wallace mentioned Nick’s 26 during his “Top Chef” appearance. That could attract some new partners for the distribution of his spice mix. He already has backers for the Midtown Culinary Center, his ambitious vision of a multi-purpose space for chefs, cooks and the Jackson community.
“It will have an aging room to teach people how to make cheese and aged meat. It’s going to have a butchery area so you can show people how to break down fish and meat. It’s going to have cooking areas where you can do cooking classes. It’s going to have a studio kitchen where you can focus on that whole media side that a lot of people need to develop to get out there in the world,” Wallace says.
Midtown Partners, Hope Credit Union, and the Millsaps College ELSEWORKS Entrepreneurship Program are his partners in the project slated to open in 2023. The Center will feature a farmers market and an outdoor garden. It will also house Creativity Kitchen, the nonprofit Wallace started to provide healthier and tastier meals for students in Jackson Public Schools.
“We open the doors up to all who are reaching out there for good. If they are impacting the next generation in helping people with health and wellness, we are a part of it,” says Wallace. The philanthropist chef invests his time in building partnerships that support his goals. He works on social impact initiatives, food scarcity issues, culinary education and employment through partnerships with AmeriCorps, Hunger Free America, Ben’s Original/Mars, Inc. and PepsiCo.
He is also a brand ambassador for Hope Credit Union Enterprise Corporation and a board member. Wallace is featured in the company’s 2021 Impact Report and bought his first home with a mortgage from the credit union.
As an advocate of farm-to-table cooking, the chef is committed to building support for small local farmers. He wants to help them increase their income and overcome the challenges of getting their products into grocery stores and restaurants. “You need a farmer in your life just as well as your doctor. You should be able to visit the farm. The farmer should be able to visit your restaurant because I think it is very important,” says the Nissan Café owner.
A decade-long partnership with Foot Print Farms (Foot Print Farms – Farming for a Better Community (footprintfarmsms.com)) and owner Dr. Cindy Ayers Elliott benefits Chef Wallace and other supporters of the 68-acre operation in Jackson. “I can talk to Cindy about the next season and a new crop I want her to start doing, and she’ll do it. We don’t have to order the product. You can go to the farm and pick your own product.” Foot Print Farms grows specialty fruits and vegetables and raises chickens, cattle, horses and goats. Wallace has filmed two Food Network shows there.
The “Top Chef” alum plans to open a farm-to-table restaurant in the future. He also has a debut cookbook in the works. Some of the $35,000 he won could help expand his culinary enterprises and charitable outreach. Wallace even wants to capitalize on the nickname Australian-Chinese chef Buddha Lo gave him after Wallace started winning cooking challenges and dough. “He started saying, ‘You sure do have a lot of bread.’ It then went into the Mississippi Baker,” he explains. “I’m trying to get the t-shirt line done now because everybody is screaming Mississippi Baker. It’s a wonderful thing.”
There is, however, a priority that matters more to the chef and restaurant owner than generating wealth. He wants Nissan Café, Creativity Kitchen and other endeavors to have a lasting presence that can uplift his family and other storytellers.
“That is something I want to do now so they can be here when I’m gone. My family didn’t have much for me or my sister to carry into our lives. Everything we built has been through the grace of God,” says Wallace. “I don’t want to have something that is only about making money. It has to have a great story attached, and it’s got to be able to change people’s lives.”