Levon Wallace, executive chef at Louisville’s 21c Museum Hotel and its showplace restaurant, Proof on Main, announced he is leaving the restaurant in March to work for Link Restaurant Group in Nashville. The business is owned by famed New Orleans chef Donald Link, owner of Cochon and Cochon Butcher, among other properties.
Wallace came to Louisville in 2012 to replace Michael Paley, the hotel’s original executive chef. Paley also opened Garage Bar and Metropole, the restaurant in 21c’s Cincinnati hotel, before leaving the company last October to pursue a still secret opportunity.
Wallace called his departure bittersweet, but knew he couldn’t pass up the chance to work for Link.
“I’ll be the overseeing chef of the Cochon concept in Nashville while we work on other projects,” Wallace said. He lived and worked in Nashville before coming to Louisville. “Donald’s approach and his lens on Southern culture and Southern foodways is something I am definitely aligned with.”
Sarah Robbins, senior vice president of operations for 21c Museum Hotels, said the hotel will miss Wallace’s passion for his work, but she said the risk of hiring great talents is someone else likely will court them.
“When you hire great people, they always want to explore, too, and when someone else hires them, that’s a sign you had someone really good,” she said. Wallace brought “a culinary viewpoint to Proof that was all his. That was just one impact he had on the restaurant.”
While 21c will launch a nationwide search for Proof on Main’s next chef, Robbins insisted that includes not only Louisville, but possibly a promotion within the company.
“We’re definitely not ruling out something internally, and we’ve done that before,” she said, referring to the August promotion of sous chef Richard Sible to the role of Garage Bar executive chef upon the departure of Michael Paley. In addition to advertising locally, she said, “we’re going to extend that search to a national level also.”
Robbins said the goal isn’t to find another Wallace, but to hire a confident chef who can put his or her own stamp on the menu in a way that expresses their creativity.
That doesn’t mean classics created by Paley or Wallace will disappear from the menu, however.
“Those dishes aren’t going anywhere because people have grown to expect consistency,” Robbins said. But she’s not insisting Wallace’s replacement meets a strict set of menu guidelines either. “I’m less interested in trying to fit somebody into a box. Rather I want to see what, creatively, a chef can bring to the table.”
A Los Angeles native, Wallace said he’s thrilled to be staying in the “middle South, which I fell in love with when I first visited 11 years ago.” He lived and worked in Nashville before moving to Louisville, so he’s familiar with the area and eager to become a part of its current restaurant boom. Yet he says he’ll truly miss Louisville and his 21c team.
“The hardest thing to walk away from will be the warmth and generosity I’ve received here, not only in this kitchen, but from the town of Louisville,” he said. “I was always made to feel very welcome, and I’d like to think I’ve reciprocated in that. I’ve really had fun.”
And what would he tell his incoming replacement?
“Lucky you. I’m serious, I’d say, ‘Congratulations. You’re coming to a great place,’” he said. “I’d also tell them to make sure you come prepared with arms very wide open, not only for the warmth of the people of Louisville, but also this team. It’s really one of the best I’ve ever seen.”