Nick Wallace ducked his head under the vent hood of his six-burner stove to splash some oil in the two pans that were heating. On a nearby counter, a container of bright green peas and another with sweet potato gnocchi sat next to a three-ounce slice of sugar-and-salt-cured salmon.

“This skin will crisp right up and will be a nice contrast to the flaky salmon,” he said. “This isn’t on the menu, but I love these flavors all mixed together.”

While the fish sizzled, sous chefs buzzed in and out, getting ready for the lunch crowd at The Palette Café, the restaurant in the lobby of the Mississippi Museum of Art on South Lamar Street in Jackson.

“One of my favorite dishes to make is the El Camino. You don’t know if it’s a taco or a sandwich,” he said, dropping a handful of gnocchi in boiling water.

“I think we’re naturally gifted to do things if we get off our butts to do something about it,” he said.

With his love of being in the kitchen, Wallace has fanned the flames into a wildfire that is catching on in the lives of Jackson middle-school students.

Wallace spent most of his childhood in Edwards, eating food his grandmother made from produce grown in their yard. When he was 8, his mother moved him and his sister to Jackson, where he took over in the kitchen to help his mother.

“I made things happen in the kitchen,” he said. “It was my safe zone. I was very comfortable, and I was never afraid to experiment.”

Photos by Melanie Thortis

Susie Marshall has always known her son had it in him to be successful, but she remains amazed at his cooking.

“I was a single mother, and everything I thought about that could have gone wrong in his life went so right,” Marshall said. “It amazes me to see how far he’s gone. It’s like he’s got healing hands for food. There’s just something about it.

“I don’t care what it is, he makes it taste good. Food I never thought I’d eat, he makes it good,” she said.

But, he had to start somewhere. That was washing dishes at Outback Steakhouse. He got the job when he turned 15 to help pay the bills but was turned down for a chance on the cook line. He soon left Outback and hopped around to different restaurants in the area.

“The restaurant business was toxic, though. Everything was about alcohol, sex and drugs,” Wallace said. “I felt like I wanted more, but at the back of my mind, I knew of that yearning wasn’t stopped, I’d end up in one of the many beautiful drug rehab centers dotting the country.”

He landed a spot on the line at BRAVO! Italian Restaurant and Bar in Jackson, where he sharpened his techniques before moving to the Jackson Marriott on
Amite Street.

“I was doing so well that they let me travel,” he said. “I got on my first flight at 26 years old to Anchorage, Alaska.

“I got to see a different culture, a different part of the country, how they prepared fish and met great people,” he said. “From Edwards to Alaska — that was a big deal for me.”

It was at Marriott that he began to transform from someone on the cook line to a professional. He learned things at Marriott that he had been missing from previous jobs: how to dress as a professional chef, how to manage his time and staff, how to talk to guests and how to discipline himself as a leader in the kitchen.

“They didn’t teach much about local food, since the menu was the same across the country, but I learned a lot about myself and how to manage a kitchen,” he said.

He still felt his education needed refining, and it was at the King Edward Hilton Garden Inn that he first had the opportunity to branch out and experiment.

“I got a chance to plant a wrap-around garden and set-up a chef’s table in the kitchen,” he said. “I got to expand my concept of what I was doing and my approach.

“When you pulled up to the front door, you could see the lemongrass and Swiss chard containers I was using in the kitchen and they encouraged me to put my pickles for sale in the lobby so guests could take Mississippi back to their homes with them,” he said.

While much of what Wallace likes most about planning and preparing meals is using fresh foods, he hates the phrase “farm to table.”

“I think chefs use that as a crutch,” he said. “That’s how I was raised. It shouldn’t be a concept, it should be a way of life.”

Wallace’s pièce de résistance has been as executive chef and culinary curator at the museum’s Palette Café.

“This was the first chance I got to be Nick Wallace,” he said. “At all the jobs before, I had a set of rules or guidelines to stay within or someone I was working for. Here, I have the freedom to create, imagine whatever I dream up.”

And he’s taken advantage of that freedom. In four years, he has planted a seasonal garden with tomatoes, okra, asparagus, squash, watermelon and a number of herbs. He competed on Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen and Chopped.

“We named Nick as our Culinary Curator because he’s just that — a wonderfully creative spirit who brings life to food and connects it with art,” said museum Director Betsy Bradley. “The Palette Café makes the museum a more dynamic experience, and we’re very fortunate to have someone like Nick on our team.”

Photos by Melanie Thortis

Being surrounded by art has pushed him not only to create but to give back.

“I see all these people’s work on the walls, and they’re legends,” he said. “It makes me work even harder.”

When he realized nearly 10,000 students visit the museum each year, he saw an opportunity to reach into the lives of kids in the community.

In 2016, he started Creativity Kitchen, which he piloted at Blackburn Middle School, where he attended school. He teaches students about how to put together healthy meals, how to incorporate garden fresh vegetables and fruit and provide menus to the cafeteria.

“The kids are so thankful for this,” he said. “It’s changing the way they’re eating. That’s a big deal.”

For his efforts, he was awarded Savvy Lifestyle magazine’s Philanthropist of the Year for 2017.

“I see all these things I can work for — so many kids I can reach out to,” he said. “This program allows me to touch so many folks, and I am so proud.”

Wallace says it is his attention to detail that has gotten him where he is today. Even on his Palette Café menu, he asks guests to wait 15 minutes to give the yeast rolls time to rise for proper taste.

“The only reason I’m here is because I’m somebody who gives a damn,” he said. “It’s not about me, at the end of the day. I know I’m here for a reason.

“My grandmother used to tell me, ‘As much as you get in life, you need to give back,’” he said. “Those are words I try to stand by.”

Maggie Ingram

A native of McComb, Maggie started writing for her hometown newspaper at 13. She studied print journalism at the University of Mississippi and worked as a features reporter at The Enterprise-Journal and The Vicksburg Post. Maggie has had work featured in The Clarion-Ledger, Mississippi Christian Living and Parents and Kids Magazine. She and her husband live in Madison with their three children.