Chef’s Eye - Fabric of Family
Friday, February 6, 2015
By Nick Wallace, Executive Chef
For my monthly segment on art and food, I decided to talk about an artwork in The Mississippi Story that has long caught my eye. It’s a quilt by Clancy McGrew called Waiting for Father to Have Dinner. Looking at this piece takes me back to childhood. I see my family in it. I see nana. I see my mom. I see my sister – she’s the one all dressed up because she had to look like a supermodel, even at the dinner table. I see all my cousins.
But for my experience, I’d have to change the title a bit. Because my dad wasn’t around growing up. After eight years old, I didn’t see him again until I was twenty. I was the dad, the one they waited on. And I was the one carrying and preparing the food. Everyone knew to wait until Nick got off school or woke up in the morning to cook for them or make them breakfast.
Back then, Food Network wasn’t like it is today. It wasn’t something you could just flip on at any given time and learn all these different cooking methods. So in the absence of that instruction, it became all about dreaming. That’s the good thing about food. You can just sit there and watch and dream. So as a kid cooking, I taught myself. I improvised.
Everyone used to wonder how I got the nice brown crust on my chicken. Well I had a technique. When we moved to Jackson, our stove was all electric, and I would use that electric eye as a grilling mechanism. I’d take the seasoned chicken legs and thighs and throw it on the hot eye until they were nice and brown. Then I’d finish it in the oven. When I put it on the table people would go crazy for it.
To this day, everybody in my family calls me for cooking advice. “Nick, we’re about to do this lamb leg – what should we season it with?”
I’ll send them a seasoning recipe, and they’ll call back and say, “we don’t have all this stuff.”
“Open your cabinets,” I’ll respond. “Yes you do.”
They might not have known they had oregano and thyme and all the rest sitting in there, because they didn’t ever use it. I was using those spices and herbs when I was eight and nine years old. It was always about finding whatever was available in the kitchen. My cousin might think we were out of groceries but I’d always find enough to make a home cooked meal. I used to love to put paprika on my grilled cheese sandwiches. It gave it color and I thought it made it look sophisticated. I was always in tune with making my food look pretty. A visual arts museum couldn’t be a more perfect place for me.