Levon Wallace. Photo courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels.
Levon Wallace | Courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels

For nearly three years, Levon Wallace was a Louisville fixture as executive chef of Proof on Main, the signature anchor at 21c Museum Hotel, having taken over for original chef Michael Paley.

During Wallace’s relatively short time at Proof, he was named “Rising Star Chef” (2014) by Star Chefs and honored by Best Chefs America, while 21c was chosen by Bon Appetit for its “10 Best Hotels for Food Lovers” list. When he left in 2015 to return to his adopted home of Nashville for a position with Cochon Butcher, he knew Louisville had become a bit of an adopted home for him, too.

“I think I really kind of fell head over heels with Southern food and culture during my time there in Louisville,” he says during a recent phone conversation.

While Wallace won’t be moving back to Louisville, he is looking forward to a homecoming of sorts. He recently was selected to become executive chef of a still unnamed restaurant that will anchor the new 21c Museum Hotel in Nashville.

Will he take a little of his Louisville experience to that project? Well, yes. But he insists it won’t be “another Southern restaurant.” Yet he revealed little about what he is planning, other than to say he plans to cook with his passion and his heart. Of course, some of his heart still lives here.

“My experience in Louisville, gosh, was very much inspiring,” he says.

While he was into Southern cuisine as far back as his days growing up on the West Coast and attending culinary school in San Francisco, it was Louisville that really drove it all home for him, opening up possibilities and passion.

Wallace, circa 2104 in Louisville.
Levon Wallace, circa 2014 in Louisville | Courtesy of 21c

“I really kind of got eyeballs-deep into (Southern culture), whether it was artisans making country ham, the spirits Louisville has, the grassroots-proud independence Louisville has a tradition for,” he says. “I look at Louisville now compared to when I lived there, and it has grown tremendously. There is so much energy and so much excitement happening there. I really, truly enjoyed it. I learned a lot of things as a chef, and I learned lot of things as person.”

While the new restaurant won’t be a remake of Proof, Wallace’s experiences in Louisville will certainly creep into the equation. He says when interviewing for the job with, among others, 21c’s chief hospitality officer Sarah Robbins, he was asked to cook something for the interview panel, a fairly standard custom in the culinary world.

But what happened surprised him. At Cochon Butcher, he’d been cooking New Orleans-inspired food to fit the concept. Suddenly, he found himself freestyling.

“I realized I hadn’t cooked in that fashion for about a year,” Wallace says. “Not to say I hadn’t been cooking with my heart, but it was, ‘We want you to do whatever you want.’ I noticed the food I made then had changed drastically from the food I made at Proof.”

The evolution had already begun. This is why he says his next project won’t be another Southern restaurant but rather something evolved from Southern cuisine, which, of course, brings it full circle to his awakenings in Louisville. For him to be rejoining the 21c family in a new capacity seems fitting.

For her part, Robbins called the reunion “a perfect marriage. … In many ways, his cooking is a reflection of his soul. You’ll see his unique mix of influences play out on the menu.”

Proof on Main. Photo by Jason Meredith.
Proof on Main | Photo by Jason Meredith

“It’s very exciting,” says Wallace. “The company itself has grown so much since last we were partners. To be part of that growth is very exciting. It also feels very natural. My time spent at the Louisville (21c) and Proof on Main really were some fond times. Very formative. My team there at Proof, we really had a proud team. When I left, when the opportunity to come to Nashville came, it was almost bittersweet.

“But as much as I loved Louisville, and still love Louisville — my wife and kids became very fond of Louisville — we had decided a while back (Nashville) was home.”

Although he won’t be opening just another Southern restaurant, he certainly will be serving Southern food. He says he is especially excited to be working with friends Bill and LeeAnn Cherry of Bear Creek Farm — because, hey, he’s in the South.

“If you’re cooking right, you’re cooking with what’s available to you, what’s in season, things of that nature,” he explains. “In some way, shape or form, the food, whether you intend to cook Italian or whatever, will somehow inherently be Southern. That’s just what it is. Does there need to be pimento cheese on everything? I don’t know. Pimento cheese is delicious, and at one point in my career, it was a revelation.”

He pauses, then adds, “But as long as the cooking is done right, who cares?”

[dc_ad size="9"] [dc_ad size="10"]
Kevin Gibson
Kevin Gibson tackles the 3Rs — retail, restaurants, real estate — plus, economic development. He loves bacon, loathes cucumbers and once interviewed Yoko Ono. Check out his books, “Louisville Beer: Derby City History on Draft” and “100 Things to do in Louisville Before You Die.” He has won numerous awards for his work but doesn’t know where most of them are now. In his spare time, he plays in a band called the Uncommon Houseflies.Email Kevin at [email protected]