Truth Tellin' with Levon Wallace
Disclaimer: The premise of this article was to play Truth or Dare in a public place to see just how crazy Levon was willing to be. However, upon arrival to Hattie B’s, I completely chickened out (like that pun?!?) because I didn’t want either of us to be JERKS at someone else’s restaurant. Sooooo stay tuned for Truth or Dare or something similar to show up in the future, but in a location in which we won’t ruin another guests’ experience – it’s basically our motto at Strategic Hospitality and I have to adhere to it as much as I possibly can. Sorry for letting the rule-follower in me take over; I honestly really hate when that happens.
It’s seriously 90 degrees outside and Levon Wallace and I have plans to go eat hot chicken at Hattie B’s. We don’t know each other that well aside from one magical night at The Catbird Seat and The Patterson House with two other colleagues, and I would say the evening was a smashing success because he is a part of our tribe now. BUT today, the day we are to eat hot chicken and play Truth or Dare, is only his second day on the job.
We meet up at Hattie B’s, where I am desperately trying to hide that fact that the pepper smell in the air isn’t making me choke just by BREATHING, much less eating, the chicken that is to come. I’m panicking a little bit and feeling like an amateur and I suggest that eating outside sounds lovely doesn’t it?
Because who doesn’t like to sit outside when it is 90 degrees?
But it is Levon’s second day so of course he obliges. We make small talk while we wait for our food. We each ordered the small dark but he went HOT with cole slaw for both sides, and I went MILD with a side of slaw and a side of macaroni and cheese. We chat about our kids, mutual acquaintances, you know, the easy stuff.
But in all honestly, Levon IS easy to talk to. We’re the same age, though he seems so much more accomplished than I am. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Levon went to San Francisco after high school and attended the California Culinary Academy. He then worked in some amazing kitchens around the country, honing his skills and advancing his profession. In 2008 he opened his own kitchen in Martha’s Vineyard. (Y’all, he and I are the same age, so when I was running around with a dog and a job at an agency, he was running his own kitchen, married with one child and a second one on the way. Just saying.)
In 2012 Levon left New England for Louisville, where he became the Executive Chef of Proof on Main in the 21C Hotel. Two years later he found himself in Nashville doing his thing, and he really liked it and wanted to stay.
“I’d been stopping in Nashville for years during my travels from one coast to the other and we always really liked it here,” he told me. In fact, they liked it so much that they moved here. Levon and his wife Kim (who I am convinced is a unicorn or a fairy or something because she sounds too good to be true) bought a house just outside of Nashville where she and the kids lived while he was in Louisville.
So here we are, very established, got-it-all-together Levon with me, the girl who is recovering from choking on the scent of hot chicken and sitting outside sweating to death at Hattie B’s. It’s then, amongst the heat, that panic strikes me yet again and I decide we CANNOT play Truth or Dare here. It’s not fair to the other guests we might annoy. I don’t want to ruin their lunch. Plus, most of them are smart and inside in the air conditioning so it seemed even more strange to challenge him to dares on the deck with just two other tables. So we decide to just play truth, and for the most part y’all, Levon isn’t afraid to tell it.
First question. “Do you pee in the shower?” I ask him.
“Oh. Oh it’s like that,” he replies and pauses. Janet Jackson sings about an Escapade over the speakers, which seems very appropriate given the year the song came out and the maturity level of my question.
“Let’s just say I believe in efficiency, “ he said. And I knew then that this was going to be a fun lunch.
Next question: Do you and your wife have a hall pass?
Levon needed me to explain this one. He and his wife, the aforementioned unicorn named Kim, have been married 15 years. They have two children. They just seem to go together, like peanut butter and jelly or biscuits and gravy. Levon doesn’t wear a wedding ring; given his profession it can be quite a safety hazard, so instead he tattooed this heart on his ring finger and it just might be the sweetest thing I have ever seen.
So, Levon and Kim are moving through life on the same wavelength and have never talked about having a hall pass, but he seems confident in the marriage and says that yes, they could have a hall pass. He can’t name a specific person for either of them but says with certainty that if it were to come up, they would each have the opportunity to enjoy a freebie. This, my friends, is a solid match.
Next Question: Do you regret any of your tattoos?
Levon wears tattoos really well. I’m not sure how to explain this other than they suit him. Like maybe we was born with them. So I was dying to know if he actually hates any of the ink on his skin.
“Not really. Kind of. I laugh at some of them, like deeply laugh, and I think what the fuck was that, but I own it.”
Tell me one of the ones you laugh about and think wtf.
“I have this pretty big Tyrannosaurus Rex. It’s ridiculous. The girl who did my tattoos at the time texted me and said she had this T-Rex she was really excited about and I responded and said, what’s a Trex? I don’t even know what that is. So she corrected me and sent me a picture of it and thought, oh well that’s cool, okay, you can do it on me.”
“So I went down to the shop and while I was thinking I would put it somewhere discreet, for some reason I then let her put it right here.” He pulls his shirt over to reveal the upper chest area right under his left shoulder.
There it is, a multi-colored T-Rex that looks a lot more like a friendly dragon than the largest land predator ever to exist. He’s roughly the size of a potholder on his skin.
“Oh, it’s not even finished?” I ask him. The color doesn’t go all the way through Levon’s version of Puff the Magic Dragon.
“No, I left. I told her I would come back and let her finish it and I never went back.”
“Oh so that was it? That was the end of the relationship?”
“Yes,” said Levon. “I couldn’t ever go back.”
And that is how Levon ghosted on his tattoo artist, but has a giant rainbow dinosaur dragon to carry on her memory.
Next Question: What’s the last photo on your phone?
“Oh shit. Oh no.”
Levon opens up his phone and scrolls a little bit, so I am unsure if this REALLY is the last photo, but it’s sweet and it’s his second day so I let it ride.
“It’s a picture of our new cat, Colby Jack Attack Wallace, being a lover boy and he and Kim are sound asleep.”
Levon shows me a sweet picture of Kim and an orange tabby cat snuggled up in a chair. Colby Jack is the third cat to grace the Wallace household, and Levon tells me the story of how he came to be a family member – though the other two cats don’t really know it yet.
“This is number three, he’s from the Sumner Humane Society. We already have two so he is only in our bedroom right now while the other two get acclimated.”
He goes on to tell me the intricacies involved in bringing home a new cat to a household that already has cats. It is much more elaborate than either time I brought a human baby home to my house to meet their dog sibling, which consisted of me walking in the front door, setting the carrier down, and letting the dogs smell the baby. It was fine. There was no drama.
Levon continues to tell me about Colby Jack and how he is a cat with a dog-like personality, how he wants to sit in your lap and be with you. Lexi and Rosie round out the cat menagerie at his house. Though I am not a cat person, I am an animal person in general and I love that he is too.
I think he could read my mind because he then said, “Are you a cat person or a dog person?”
“Dog,” I said.
“I think dog people like that, I don’t want to say dependency, but that kind of companionship where the dog is super stoked to see you all the time, and that’s how this cat is,” said Levon.
“Then why don’t you have a dog? Have you ever had a dog?”
“Yea, I have. I feel like it’s not an even playing field. A cat, if I need to go do stuff, I give it some food and some attention and then I’m gonna go do what I have to do. A dog, I can’t really just go away for two days. Somebody has to feed it and walk it and do these things. It’s kind of like having a kid who doesn’t grow up. I just don’t have the kind of lifestyle to support a dog. To me, the whole cat/human dynamic is kind of romantic in that whole rendezvous kind of sense. I like the spontaneity of the romance, the relationship. Like I see her around and I’m like, oh hey, there’s Lexi, I’ve seen her for a couple of days and she wants nothing to do with me, and then all of the sudden she wants to hang out, so I’m like yea, let’s hang out. ”
I am learning Levon is a passionate guy. I looked up orange tabby cats after our lunch and learn that apparently orange tabbies are known for being incredibly affectionate and craving human attention. I also learn that they are the color of appetite. According to Goethe, a German artist, poet and politician (head scratcher on that combination, yea?) color is essential to how we experience the world, and yellow-red is a sign of warmth and gladness. More modern psychology says that orange is an appetite stimulant, and if you love orange you probably love people sitting around the kitchen table, conversing and enjoying each other’s company.
Levon was totally an orange tabby cat in a previous life.
Next Question: How many hats do you have in your collection and how do you store them?
“Hmmm, yea, I mean, it’s not as bad as some, it’s not an obsession. It is definitely part of my EDC [every day carry] and I’m not gonna lie, I think I just like the snugness of a hat. Cause I like my hair, I have a full head of hair, I’m not hiding anything,” he says as he lifts his hat to reveal a much fuller head of dark hair than I would have guessed. “I probably have 15 hats. They’re not like, on display somewhere, there’s not like a wall of hats. I’ve got a wardrobe thing and my hats are in there with my stuff. A lot of them I hand over to my son and say hey, this would look good on you.”
“And does he agree?” I ask.
“He doesn’t care at all.”
I do not comprehend this but I pretend I to. My daughter is now 4 and has had an opinion on her clothing — and everything else — since before she could talk or even knew why she needed to wear clothes to begin with. Now she has an opinion not only on her clothes but mine too.
Next Question: Levon IS a chef, so I have to ask a few cooking questions, right?
What is your least favorite thing to cook, either at home or at work?
This one gives Levon pause before he finally says, “In quotations, Spanish rice or Mexican rice or orange rice or whatever you want to call it. That’s my least favorite thing to make. I don’t know if it’s because I grew up eating that stuff and it’s just not the best way to eat rice. It’s all greasy and overcooked and just ugh. ”
I actually didn’t know you could make that other than tearing open a pouch and sticking it in the microwave, so I am surprised by this answer because I didn’t know anyone besides Uncle Ben’s can make orange rice. This is why he is a chef and I am not.
Next question: What food trend do you wish would go away?
This is easy, right? I say.
“No, no this is not easy,” says Levon. “There are so many.” He thinks for a minute, I’m sure sussing out all of his potential responses and trying to determine the best one.
“You know what I wish would go away? This celebrity chef mentality, this idea that a chef with an ego is acceptable and normal. Being a chef, working in a restaurant, comes from a place of service. It’s because we want to give, it’s the culture of who we are. When the cooking is about the chef or the food more than the guest then we’ve lost touch with the very core of what we are doing.”
Mic drop. Levon, on his second day, doing some hardcore truth tellin’ and I want to stand up and applaud but I restrain myself.
Next Question: What is your weirdest habit?
“Hmmm. I feel like that takes a certain level of self-awareness.”
“Text your wife,” I say. And again, because he is a nice guy and it is his second day, Levon obliges. But when her response comes back, he shuts me down.
“No. No, I can’t tell that. I just can’t. Let me ask her for the next one.”
(So truth be told, after lunch he told me what Kim said is his weirdest habit. I didn’t think it was that bad but I swore to keep his secret, so I will.)
The next one, as he called it, is that he has a soft spot for the reject produce at the grocery store. Apparently he will always buy the bags of rejected potatoes or peppers or whatever fruit or vegetable the grocery store employee deemed too ugly to sell.
“So a couple days ago I was at the grocery store and it was like a big bag of jalapeños for $1, so I couldn’t resist the deal. I bought two bags and pickled them and canned them. I’m like an old man who can’t pass on a deal, I’m like my very own home ec class.”
For those of you kids out there who don't know what home ec is, it’s a class they used to teach in some high schools where you learn to do real life things like cook and clean and sew a button on a shirt. I think they quit teaching home ec around the same time that they quit teaching cursive handwriting, and that’s when we all knew public education had really hit rock bottom. Thank God Levon and I went through the public school system in time to be trained in things such as these.
Last question: If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?
“Oh, that’s a really tough one. I love this question because a lot of people would answer invisibility. I mean part of me would love to be able to fly because, I mean, it sounds amazing to be able to fly, right? To travel and do all this other stuff, but it’s so selfish. Why wouldn’t you choose like, the power to heal or something that is more helpful to others? So I would probably pick that, something that would be more helpful to others.”
That was my last truth.
You know, the intention I had going into the lunch was to see if Levon was a daredevil. I wanted to see if he was the type of person to just not give an eff. But as it turns out, I was the chicken and what I learned instead is that Levon is a lover – of cats, people, hats, and ugly vegetables. He’s passionate and honest and optimistic. He’s loyal, even to his shitty cat Rosie. Had we played Truth or Dare, I may not have learned these things about him, so I’m okay with the fact that I was concerned about disrupting the other two tables on the deck at Hattie B’s. It was worth it to learn about such a cool man that I’m now really looking forward to working with.