That Levon (pronounced Leh-von) Wallace, the new executive chef at Proof on Main, has lived all over the country may explain his lack of accent: no trace of his California roots or any place he’s cooked up and down the Atlantic Coast in his resonant voice.
To feel more a part of Louisville and what he terms the “middle south,” he permits an occasional “y’all” as a random audition of his self-described “Wannabilly” tendencies.
“I’ve been in the area many times and always thought it felt like home,” said Wallace, 32, beginning his first week in charge at the celebrated restaurant. Michael Paley, executive chef since Proof opened several years ago, left to captain the kitchen at the next 21C Museum Hotels property, Metropole in Cincinnati.
Paley will return to Louisville frequently to keep an eye on Garage Bar, which he co-owns with partners Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson. “I was overseeing four boutique hotels as a corporate executive chef, but my heart has been drawn to the middle south for a long time and I’ve wanted to make it my home. The stars aligned to make it here in Louisville.”
Married and a father of two, Wallace’s current domicile is outside of Nashville, but his crew will soon move here and put down roots. The city’s energy, architecture and the “renovation and preservation downtown” have captivated him in a way “that just says ‘home’ to me.”
His introduction to the restaurant community came at last week’s Bourbon and Bowties fundraiser, a 650-person event featuring more than a dozen Louisville restaurants represented by some of the town’s top toques. Wallace said his new peers were amazingly hospitable.
“All the chefs here have been incredibly welcoming and gracious since I’ve come here, but when you get down to it, I suppose I’m not surprised since what we all do is hospitality,” he said. “What I really like is this is a tight-knit group with a common goal in mind. There’s a true sense of camaraderie rather than a sense of competition among them. … you find these chefs in the same room, sharing a bourbon, taking about Louisville as a whole rather than their own separate discipline. I like that.”
A graduate of San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy, Wallace calls himself “blessed” to have Woodland Farm horticulturist Stephanie Tittle at his disposal and growing what he’d like to use in Proof’s kitchen.
“To have that resource as a chef, you can’t ascribe a value to that,” Wallace said. “She immediately started asking me, ‘What do you want me to grow for you?’ I said, ‘You know this land and know what grows best here. So it’s my job to take those ingredients and make them translate to the plate.’ That’s an amazing relationship most chefs don’t have.”
Wallace said he hasn’t had the chance to venture out to any restaurants yet, but that this week he aims to change that.
“It’s been pretty busy so far, so I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve not gone out much,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to going to Seviche this week to see Anthony (Lamas), so I’ve got that to look forward to. I’ll definitely do more as I get settled.”
Until then, his charge is to build on Proof’s well-established reputation and look for ways to make his own mark.
“It’s not as though anything needs fixing; Michael’s done an incredible job here,” he said. “My job is simple: advance that.”