Apron Strings to Executive Chef | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Apron Strings to Executive Chef

Photo by Virginia Schreiber.

Nick Wallace told me stories as we drove to Edwards in April. There were gardens to see and people to meet, and all of them had a history.

Our first stop was at his uncle's place where tomatoes, peas, green onions, red potatoes and plenty of other produce were getting a good start. We walked the rows and picked the tops from scallions and marveled at the height of the garlic scapes at the tops of the plants. We could have lingered, but more people were waiting on us. We rolled along winding little roads where the early spring foliage seemed to reach to the very edges of the road, as if to try and reclaim the patch of asphalt as the green path it used to be.

His grandmother's house was on one of these little roads. In the front of the house was three-quarter-acre field gone wild with dewberry vines, awaiting the spring plow.

Behind the house was a chicken coop with Rhode Island Reds, Domenics and Java White hens, and a dog run with both hunters and mutts.

A shed sat off to the side of the house with the implements of gardening in various states of readiness and repair. Nick pointed to a tiller undergoing an overhaul and said: "We don't take anything to the shop. Everything gets fixed right here."

I didn't know then how universally that statement could be applied to pretty much everything on this place, from food to farm to family.

Witnessing History
When her grandson introduced me to her, Lenell Donald was sitting in her recliner with a large walking stick propped at her side, watching a TV courtroom drama. She greeted me with a big smile and apologized for not getting up, but I could tell that she didn't want to miss a moment of her show just to give me a tour of her garden. I suspected that her frailty was deceiving and that, at a moment's notice, the unassuming walking stick could be wielded swiftly and deftly if I were to get out of line. I didn't dare.

The man in her living room was "well-behaved Tom," not the "smart-aleck Tom" that you, the reader, have become accustomed to. I was there to pay homage to a great mother, grandmother, gardener, cook and mentor. I was honored to meet her.

For years I had heard stories about her from my friend, her grandson and King Edward chef Nick Wallace. (He confirmed my suspicions about her stick once we stepped outside and left the outer range of its possible trajectory).

I was there to learn about the bonds of grandmother, mother, grandson and son, forged in the garden rows and the kitchen stove. I was there to see how a love of food and a love of family transitioned into a chef's passion and skill. I was there to witness history and record how tradition became legacy.

Nick, his father, Jessie Donald, and I walked the field. They pointed out to me where everything would go.

Tomatoes here on the edges, butterbeans and field peas there, peppers and peanuts in the center, squash on the far side where it would have plenty of room to run. They invited me to come back in a few weeks and put my old back to work. I was promised some "picking rights" in return for my labor, and that's a deal I'm not going to miss.

Starting Early
Nick is one of the best chefs we have in Jackson. Our mutual friend, Parlor Market chef Jesse Houston, calls him "the master of braising," mainly because of a pig-cheek dish that displays more riches than Scrooge McDuck doing the backstroke in a pool of gold doubloons. This type of cooking takes more than knowledge; it takes love and patience. But after meeting his family, it's not a surprise that he turned out this way; the surprise would be if he hadn't. He's been around food all his life. Nick learned his trade long before entering culinary school, at the apron strings of his grandmother and mother who shouldered the responsibility of feeding a virtual army of hungry men three meals a day, seven days a week.

Nick's grandfather was in the pulpwood business. For those of you who haven't spent much time outside the city limits, that means bone-crushing labor performed by big men with big appetites. Mrs. Donald learned that if the entire crew was well fed, they could work the long hours it took to cut, load, haul and unload 20 trucks a day. As Nick put it, "Twenty trucks per day meant that all the bills were paid, all the kids were fed and clothed, and she could buy a dress on Saturday."

She knew that if a hauler missed breakfast, he would tire quickly, or that if a cutter missed lunch, he would ease off in the afternoon. The best way she could ensure productivity was to assume the responsibility of feeding everyone, every meal, every day. This meant breakfast at 5 a.m., lunch at 11 a.m. and supper at 4:30 p.m. for 12 "full-grown" men, Monday through Saturday.

From age 6, Nick was at her side, helping her at the helm of her home kitchen and also in her garden. Growing produce and raising livestock is far more economical than schlepping to Kroger three times a week. Nick learned efficiency and frugality. He learned the cycle of seasons and what that meant in the kitchen. He learned that you couldn't get greedy with fruits in the summer and eat them all up. You had to set enough aside for jams and preserves if you wanted to enjoy that flavor all year.

Nick learned that a messy kitchen was a slow kitchen and that in lean times, with ingenuity and flavor, you could feed plenty of people with a little meat, a bunch of gravy, and plenty of rice or potatoes. He also learned a painful lesson about being in a hurry.

His earliest memory in the kitchen was when he was barely tall enough to reach the stove. He got sloppy heating up molasses for pancakes and splashed some of the hot treacle onto his arm. It stuck. It burned, but he couldn't stop. He had to work through the pain and play catch-up to help get the 5 a.m. pancakes on the plate. As he put it, "It was my first time getting in the weeds."

The Epic Lunch
Nick's mother, Susie Marshall, also started cooking early. "I can remember being 8 years old, standing in a chair, frying pork chops," she said.

She obviously practiced this enough to get really good at it. After we visited his grandmother's garden, we came back to Jackson for lunch with his mother. When we walked in the front door, the aromas hit me like a sock of batteries. My mind raced to sort them out: frying chicken, smoked pork, sweet corn, peppers, onions, browned flour in the gravy. My eyes confirmed the smells, and all I could think about was how difficult my afternoon would be, fighting the urge to nap after what I was about to do to this feast.

Susie invited me in to the kitchen where we waxed about the virtues of vintage cast iron and the pleasures of watching people eat and smile with their eyes (because their mouths are too full). She beamed with pride about her son to the point of giving up secrets, like cute pet names he had as a chubby-cheeked boy and the fact that he is fiercely ticklish.

"I knew he would be a cook, but I didn't know he would grow up to be a COOK-cook. But I should have known," she said. "I didn't realize it, but from the time he could walk and talk, he was following me around the kitchen watching everything he could see and asking me about what he couldn't. It was like getting to watch me when I was a child. There he was, standing in a chair, right next to me, cooking."

If Nick hadn't stopped her, his mother would have divulged much more than he wanted me to hear, so he insisted we get a plate before anything got cold.

Collard greens, sweet potatoes, potato salad with boiled eggs, mac 'n' cheese, fried pork chops, fried chicken, smoked neck bones, smothered chicken and peppers, creamed corn, cornbread, yeast rolls, rutabagas and banana pudding all stared up at me, mocking me, daring me to sample them all. I did. Every morsel was a treat. You could taste the care and joy and love in every bite.

I doubt I'll ever forget this meal. Here I was on an ordinary spring day, eating some of the best home-cooked food I've ever had with a fellow chef and his mother. I wasn't a food writer, I was a guest, and I just wanted to stay and get a second helping and nap on the sofa.

When the conversation turned to Mother's Day, Susie brought out a little wooden sign that read "Happy Mother's Day" with the initials "NW" at the bottom. Nick made it for her in a woodworking class when he was 9.

"That was sweet, but now that he's grown, it's not Mother's Day until I get a gift-wrapped present with a card," she said.

A Studied Calm
This quick trip explained a lot. I'd always noticed a calmness to Nick that seemed too old for 32, and now I could see its origin. Nick has a sense of place and purpose and history that manifests in the ability to show his talents without showing off. His cooking speaks for itself, and what it says is this: "I know where I came from, and I can see where I'm going."

Nick's grandmother and his mother gave him a gift that few ever receive. They instilled in him every important element of food. I've repeated it so many times that people are tired of hearing it from me, but the act of feeding someone is the second most intimate thing two people can do. One person makes something with love. The second puts that thing inside their body, and it nourishes them both.

Few people truly get this. Nick is one of them. He learned it from two of the most important people in his life, his mother and grandmother. They showed him the dizzying levels of complexity that make up feeding someone. From his grandmother, he learned that it is both an act of service and self-service. From his mother, he learned that food can bring people together, not only at the dinner table, but also in the kitchen. From both of them, he learned that it doesn't take wealth to show richness. He learned value, economy, generosity and preservation.

Instead of taking these lessons and compartmentalizing them as history, Nick took them to heart and expanded on them. When he took his first job in the kitchen at 17, he was years ahead of his more senior employees. When he picked up a knife on the first day of culinary school, he had two generations of knowledge that no book could ever teach. It is for these reasons that he is where he is now. He received unimaginable gifts from his mother and his grandmother and that's why Mother's Day is so important to him.

As executive chef at the King Edward, Nick assured me that his Mother's Day lunch would be a madhouse. But he also knows that when the last pan is put down, his day is just starting.

As he put it, "It's going to take a lot of Mother's Days to give back even a little of what they gave me."

Meatloaf with Tomato Relish

Tomato Relish

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 bay leaves
2 red bell peppers, cored, seeded and finely diced
2 tomatoes, halved, seeded and finely diced
1/4 cup chopped, fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 (12-ounce) bottle ketchup
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Coat a skillet with a two-count of oil and place over medium heat. Sauté the onion, garlic and bay leaves for a few minutes to create a base flavor. Throw in the red peppers and cook them for a couple of minutes to soften. Now add the tomatoes. Adding them at this point lets them hold their shape and prevents them from disintegrating. Stir in the parsley, ketchup and Worcestershire sauce; season with salt and pepper. Simmer the relish for 5 minutes to pull all the flavors together. Remove it from the heat

You should have about 4 cups of relish.

Meatloaf

3 slices white bread, torn into chunks by hands
1/4 cup whole milk
1-1/2 pounds ground beef, 80/20 blend
1 pound ground pork loin
2 eggs
Leaves from 2 fresh thyme sprigs
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 to 4 bacon slices

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the torn white bread in a bowl and add the milk to just barely cover, swish the bread around in the milk, and let it sit while you get the rest of the ingredients for the meat loaf together.

This is where you get your hands dirty! In a large mixing bowl, combine the ground beef and pork with 1-and-1/2 cups of the tomato relish, eggs and thyme; season with salt and pepper. Squeeze the excess milk from the bread and add the soaked bread to the meat mixture. To test, fry a small "hamburger" patty of the meatloaf until cooked; the patty should hold together but still have a soft consistency. Taste the patty for seasoning.

Lightly oil a cookie sheet. Transfer the meat mixture to the center of the cookie sheet and form into a log about 9-inches long and about 4-inches wide. Coat the top of the meatloaf with another half cup of the tomato relish. Lay the bacon across the top lengthwise.

Bake the meatloaf for one to one-and-a-half hours until the bacon is crisp and the meatloaf is firm. Rotate the meat loaf while it's baking every now and then to insure that the bacon browns evenly. Remove the meatloaf from the oven and let it cool a bit before slicing. Serve with the remaining tomato relish on the side. Unbelievably moist!

Serves four.

Recipe courtesy of the Wallace and Donald Family

Sage Meatloaf with Cilantro Pesto And Tomato Jam

Sage Meatloaf

1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 red onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 eggs
1/3 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1-1/2 pounds ground pork
1-1/2 pounds ground beef
3 ounces fresh sage, chiffonade, only leaves
3 cups water
Kosher salt to taste
Coarse black pepper to taste
Cilantro pesto (recipe below)
Tomato jam (recipe below)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Heat the butter and oil in a sauté pan. Sweat the onions and garlic over medium heat, approximately 5 minutes.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, cream and Dijon mustard. Add ground beef and pork to the bowl, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Add onion mixture, chiffonade sage, paprika and cilantro stems to the bowl. Fold the ingredients together; do not over mix.

Place the meatloaf mixture in a 9-inch by 5-inch pan, tap down the pan to remove any air pockets. Place the meatloaf pan into a larger baking dish; pour the water inside the baking dish surrounding the meatloaf pan. Bake in the oven for 1 hour or until the internal temperature reaches 155 degrees.

Remove from oven and let the meatloaf rest for 10 minutes. Slice into 6-ounce portions. Spoon 2 ounces of cilantro pesto over the meatloaf, and then add 2 ounces of tomato jam. Enjoy.

Serves four.

Cilantro Pesto

1 bunch green onions, coarsely chopped
1 bunch fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons apple-cider vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
Kosher salt to taste

In a blender place the green onions, cilantro, vinegar and olive oil. Season the mixture with salt and puree. Transfer to a bowl.

Tomato Jam

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 red onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 poblano pepper, split in half
6 plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped
Kosher salt to taste
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons white-wine vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh, chopped cilantro

In a sauté pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic and pepper, and sauté until lightly caramelized. Add the chopped tomatoes, and season with salt. Turn the heat to medium high. Add the brown sugar and vinegar. Cook the mixture for 5-10 minutes, or until the liquid has evaporated and tomatoes have cooked down. Garnish with fresh cilantro.

Recipes courtesy of Nick Wallace.

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