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

by Sean Kenniff
February 2014

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.