Chef Profile: Michelle Wallace
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2021/2022 print issue of Quench Magazine.
How do you apply classic culinary techniques to down-home barbecue and Southern cooking? The two approaches may seem incongruent. But if you ask Michelle Wallace, the answer is deep in the soul.
A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Wallace grew up in a big family with a knack for home cooking. Though she initially thought she’d follow in her mother’s footsteps with a career in nursing, after college she switched tracks and enrolled in the culinary program at the Culinary Arts Institute of Houston. The experience afforded her a chance to study abroad in Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai, where she learned to draw on the bold flavors of traditional regional Chinese cuisine. After returning to Houston, she worked at celebrated seafood restaurant, Pesce, and later for a boutique catering company. But in 2016, she was lured into the magic of Texas barbecue.
Gatlin’s is a family-owned restaurant specializing in Texas Barbecue and Southern Cuisine in Houston’s Oak Forest neighborhood. The concept grew out of a pastime of Greg Gatlin, who had garnered a local reputation for making barbecue for special events and tailgating functions for his alma mater, Rice University. Eventually, he launched a restaurant in 2010. Once word spread of the family’s flavorful barbecue with classic Southern accents, daily lines started forming out the front door with hungry patrons, eager to get a plate of finger-lickin’ goodness.
Though Gatlin managed much of the kitchen, he was inspired to bring on a little more expertise after an engaging conversation with Wallace at a mutual friend’s dinner party. At the time, Wallace already had plans to launch a food truck serving specialty sandwiches. But when she struck up a conversation with Gatlin, the rest was history. Wallace shared some of her story on Texas barbecue and Southern cooking.
BARBECUE MEANS DIFFERENT THINGS TO DIFFERENT REGIONS ACROSS THE U.S. WHAT’S UNIQUE ABOUT TEXAS BARBECUE?
First of all, Texas is cattle country, which means the barbecue is all about beef. Brisket, ribs, and all other cuts of beef are going on to the smoker these days. You’ll also notice that there isn’t a lot of barbecue cooked with sauce. It’s all about the rub. You may find a barbecue sauce at the table like you would ketchup or mustard at a burger place, but it’s really meant more as a condiment, not as part of the cooking process.
GATLIN’S ALSO HAS A FOCUS ON SOUTHERN CUISINE. HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THAT?
Southern food is really an integral part of our history. Growing up as an African American in this country, many of the meals we ate really translate to the history of slavery and our need to be resourceful with the ingredients we had. In so many dishes, you see traces of the flavors and ingredients we brought from Africa, such as yams, okra, and dirty rice. At Gatlin’s, we make about 150 pounds of collard greens a week. We smoke the neck bones we use for the stock to simmer the greens. It takes time to make the stock, and we simmer everything slowly so that it all comes together. Southern cuisine isn’t just something you can whip up. We use simple ingredients, but the flavors are layered and complex. It’s time. It’s patience. It’s just who we are.
BEST CHILDHOOD FOOD MEMORY:
My dad was a police officer when I was growing up in St. Louis. Oftentimes he would bring home barbecue from all the great barbecue spots in town when he would get off his shift. But he liked to make it himself during his time off. My favorite memory is when he would pull off a little piece of meat just before it was ready and sneak it to me, and we’d snack on it. It was just the two of us out there taking a little sneak peek before we served it to the family. I had a big family, and it always made me feel special when we would share that little bite together. It was the best.
FAVORITE COMFORT FOOD:
There’s a little Asian market here in Houston called Viet Hoa that I love. Sometimes, I’ll go pick up a roasted duck and make some flavorful noodles or fried rice to go with it. It’s one of my favorite things.
FAVORITE INGREDIENT TO COOK WITH:
There are a couple of things I always have on hand, like fish sauce. I use it all the time when I cook. But I also love mussels. I’ll make them with all sorts of different ingredients like pancetta, blue cheese, and basil, or Thai curry, or Spanish chorizo.
YOUR GO-TO RESTAURANTS IN HOUSTON:
I always try to make it over to Pondicheri, a local Indian restaurant. I absolutely love their food. I also love the Asian food at Street to Kitchen. And I’m always on the hunt for the best burger. Right now, I’m a big fan of The Post Beer and Wine Garden in the Heights neighborhood.
WHO IS YOUR MOST SIGNIFICANT CULINARY INFLUENCE:
Not to be super cliché, but my grandmother had a natural take on food. I used to love to watch her cook. She was never super elaborate, but she took her time, and she never measured anything. It was all by taste. It taught me to use my senses to go beyond what a recipe might say to make sure the end result was delicious.
MUSIC YOU LISTEN TO WHILE COOKING:
When I first started at Gatlin’s, the kitchen was super quiet. There was no music. But I just love working with a littlemore energy. Now, we’re always listening to something like Motown jams or CeeLo Green. And I love this local Houston rapper, Tobe Nwigwe. He’s a Nigerian-American with this really amazing voice, and I love his unique sound.