Levon Wallace is sandbagging.
“I like to have a little bit of fun in the kitchen,” says the Proof on Main executive chef with a slight shrug and half smile, moments after he’s convinced this writer to try a hay-flavored gelato. (Yes, hay – and it was delicious.)
A little bit of fun? That’s a bit of an understatement.
Wallace’s affinity for the whimsical was evident in his ever-changing selections of gelato this past summer, but the depth of his talent is on its most spectacular display when the chef has the opportunity to share what he’s done to a dish – and why – prior to its consumption. In short, he makes food fun and accessible to even the unsophisticated palate.
A small group of eaters becomes almost giddy while listening to Wallace describe a dish of pan-roasted dish scallops with squid ink and pea-sized tomatoes from Woodland Farm, which is owned by 21c founders Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson. “They’re like BBs of goodness. They take this dish to outer space,” said Wallace. Dear goodness, he’s right.
Turning to the dessert he named I’ll Have Another, an apple-pear fritter with toasted oats, hay gelato and local honey, Wallace explains, “It’s a very pragmatic, honest, rustic dish. … Someone recently ate the dessert and said this tastes like Kentucky – in the best way possible.”
That’s high praise for a West Coast native, I joke with the tattooed chef who, at least when he’s not smiling, can look a bit imposing and would never be mistaken for a native Louisvillian. “Yes it is,” he laughs, breaking into a wide grin. Three of us sample the dish and agree: We’ve just consumed a bite of the Bluegrass State – and we’re really glad the chef’s career path led him here.
Wallace grew up watching Julia Child and The Frugal Gourmet – “all those great PBS shows” – but initially enrolled in the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco just because “I needed to do something.” Soon, he realized he’d found his calling and began apprenticing at a number of the city’s finest restaurants.
According to his official biography on www.proofonmain.com, Wallace “has cooked for several prestigious inns where his culinary leadership has provoked recognition from Zagat and the Los Angeles Times in addition to receiving both AAA Four and Five Diamond Restaurant Awards for Maravilla at the Ojai Valley Inn as the Chef de Cuisine.”
After a spell at the highly-regarded Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, Wallace went to work at the Harbor View Hotel & Resort and The Kelley House on Martha’s Vineyard in 2008 as executive chef. He took a “more global” turn as corporate executive chef for Scout Hotel & Resort Management in 2010 before taking over for Michael Paley at Proof on Main this summer when Paley transferred to 21c Museum Hotel Cincinnati, which will open to the public with a grand opening in the coming weeks. (By the way, close friends of Brown and Wilson were invited to a sneak peek of the new venture this past weekend. By all accounts, it’s absolutely fabulous.)
“Eight years ago, I first visited the middle south,” says Wallace. “I was instantly enamored not only by the culture but by the way people interact with each other. You certainly don’t find that in L.A. and definitely not on the East Coast. … Chef Paley is a figure in the Southern food scene. When I found out (about the opportunity at Proof and 21c), I couldn’t pass it up.”
Even though Wallace is clearly in command in the kitchen, he’s unafraid to exhibit genuine awe and excitement about his position, which is endearing. “Who has a business meeting about what we’re going to plant on the rooftop (of 21c) overlooking Louisville and the river?” he asks.
After a recent trip to Woodland Farm, a visit he makes often, Wallace said he stood there for a moment and looked around, literally stopping to smell the flowers – and everything else. “There’s something about that property. There’s just something about the ground there, the environment. There’s magic. Everything is raised with love. Not to be too hippy dippy, but there’s magic.”
Seated at a table inside Proof, Wallace looks out the window at a group of people walking toward the entrance and prepares to get back to work. “I love Louisville. Here,” he says gesturing around the room, “I really am at one of those places in the whole wide world.”
Follow Chef Wallace on Twitter @Levon_Wallace. Contact writer Angie Fenton at email@example.com or @angiefenton on Twitter.