2014 Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Star Chef Levon Wallace of Proof on Main

2014 Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Star Chef Levon Wallace of Proof on Main
February 2014

Los Angeles native Levon Wallace stuck to his home state for culinary school, attending the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. There he immersed himself in the Bay Area’s food culture and began apprenticing at some of the city’s finest restaurants. Wallace worked at a series of AAA four- and five-diamond restaurants, including Maravilla at the Ojai Valley Inn, where he served as chef de cuisine and worked with Portland Rising Star Chef Andy Arnt.

Walalce’s next move took him to Chicago to stage at Charlie Trotter’s before seeking out a kitchen of his own on Martha’s Vineyard. In 2008, he joined Scout Properties to lead the kitchen at Harbor View Hotel & Resort, along with The Kelley House Hotel in nearby Edgartown, Massachusetts. Wallace worked tirelessly to learn the flavors and foodways of New England and to reinvent the classics while drawing inspiration from the island’s artisans.

In 2010, Wallace took over all Scout properties as corporate executive chef. He oversaw the company’s growing portfolio of boutique hotels, including properties on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket. Now executive chef at Proof on Main within the über hip 21C Museum Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, this California boy has become a self-declared “wannabilly,” grafting his roots with Kentucky’s and making Proof on Main one of the most exciting places to eat in the Ohio River Valley.      


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Interview with Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Star Chef Levon Wallace of Proof on Main at the 21C Hotel – Louisville, KY

Sean Kenniff: How was food a part of family life when you were growing up?
Levon Wallace: We didn’t have a whole lotta resources. The weekends were like playtime. We’d go out to eat, where ever we could afford. But it seemed so grandiose at the time. It was a very important thing growing up to have good nourishing food. My mom cooked, but I taught myself a lot. You learned how to feed yourself. Omelets were the first thing I learned how to cook. We had them at the Beverly Hills Café, all dolled up on the other side of town. I wanted an omelet at home.

SK: Was culinary school formative for you?
LW: It was great. I had worked a little before, at my parents’ deli. But I had no idea what I was getting into. Like most kids, I wasn’t really sure what I was signing up for. But it was a really important experience for me, the structure and the rewards, the culture behind it. I never had that growing up. Instantly, I was hooked on the idea that hard work and respect for the craft could be rewarded. And that you’ll be as successful as you make yourself.  

SK: What about life after school?
LW: I worked up and down the West Coast—the Bay Area, Central Coast wine country.My tenure as chef de cuisine at Ojai Valley in my mid-20s was incredibly formative. Having all the resources and bounty of region that’s so lush: the small farms, agriculture, real work. They call it Shangri-La for a reason; it was a slice of paradise.

SK: Why’d you make the move to Martha’s Vineyard?
LW: I’d had enough of California. I thought, here’s an opportunity at a boutique hotel operation. I was the culinary director for two properties. The company grew and acquired more properties. I enjoyed the portfolio, keeping things honest, and revitalizing the community. It was not a massive food-service type program. We worked with the neighboring farmers and thought about how we were impacting the community.   

SK: When did you first make it to the South?
LW: My honeymoon in Memphis, it was all Elvis Presley and Gus’s Chicken. We traveled around Tennessee, Kentucky, and northern Alabama, and I fell in love with the culture. I felt a call to the area and intended to come back. Knowing its reputation, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity at Proof [on Main in Louisville].  

SK: What’s it like working at Proof and 21C?
LW: I spend mornings with my sous chefs, depending on the growing season: hogs, bison, the kaleidoscope of produce. To come into work with a hotel of this size and to still have small town farmers and their produce by the truckload, warm from the sun, is pretty awesome. We’re full service: bar, dining rooms, room service, banquets. Using all that good stuff, it’s hands-on and rewarding.

SK: What was your approach in taking over the operation?
LW: Proof had an Italian backbone from Michael Paley; he’s a master of that stuff. I wanted to put stuff on the menu that our guests would recognize, plus flavors I grew up with.

SK: How did you come up with your Masa Harina Gnocchi dish?
LW: When I was kid, we made tamales around the holidays. So, I brought in masa. Dude, lets make gnocchi! The rest came natural. The protein changes: Bison tongue sometimes, beef cheeks. A really rich poultry like duck, just worked.