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Wally Joe: The Man Who Brought Haute Cuisine to the Delta

Wally Joe, chef-owner of the contemporary Memphis restaurant, Acre, began cooking haute cuisine in the unlikeliest of places: the Mississippi Delta. For years he and his family ran KC’s in Cleveland, the most serious fine-dining restaurant in the region, where he earned wide media attention for his sophisticated self-taught menu creations. In 1994, he became the first Mississippi chef invited to cook at the prestigious James Beard House in New York, and he continues to win critical accolades. But he never stays away from his Delta hometown for long.
Screen Shot 2014-05-23 at 1.47.52 PMWhere were you born and raised?
Wally Joe: I was born in Hong Kong and came over (to the Delta) when I was four. I grew up in Cleveland, Miss., and got a business degree from Ole Miss. We had a family restaurant (in Cleveland) for 37 years so I kind of went back to the family business and it just really took off from there.
What was your childhood like, being Chinese and growing up in the Mississippi Delta?
At home my mom and dad followed the traditional customs, but other than that I would say I had a really normal Southern upbringing. There wasn’t this concentration of a Chinese population in one town or area. It was just spread out all over the Delta. So my friends growing up — they were all just other kids, other Caucasian kids.
Was there ever a time when you didn’t feel like you fit in as a normal Southerner?
Well, we are in the South so you’re going to experience some racism here and there, right? Whether you’re black, Chinese, Jewish or whatever. That’s just the way of the world and that’s just the way it was in the South back then in the ‘60s, ’70s and even now, when things have progressed so much. Kids being kids, they don’t know any better. They only hear or are taught what their parents or other people are saying around them, so they are going to say (ethnic slurs) without thinking anything different. For myself, the first time you hear it, you are taken aback a little bit because you think you’re the same as everybody else, but then the first time you hear it you start realizing ‘Wow, maybe I’m not.’
Would you say that food was a big part of your life growing up?
It was. We had gardens that my Mom took care of. She grew lots of different vegetables. We raised chickens, ducks, pigeons. My dad bought an incubator so he hatched eggs and raised them and that was our food. We went fishing on weekends. We grew our own food, we raised our own food, we caught our own food. So I would say it was a big part of our lives.
Why pigeons?
Well, pigeons are one of the favorites of Chinese and French. We raised a lot of different birds, not just chickens and ducks. We raised quail, pheasant, and guinea hens.
What sort of things would you grow in your garden? Was it traditionally Chinese?
Well not necessarily. It was a lot of the traditional things that people would eat like tomatoes and beans, but also vegetables that weren’t so well-known back then. Things like bok choy, Chinese long beans, and bitter melon.
You say you traveled a good bit after college. What were some of the foods that you were exposed to?
I went to South America and Puerto Rico; I tried some Latin food while I was down there. Traveled a lot throughout the States and I wouldn’t say there was a regional cuisine that I was attracted to, but by that point had gained a huge interest in food and wine. So I was more or less visiting the great restaurants in every city. I spent a lot of time in northern California in wine country so that kind of increased my interest in wines.
You studied business; did you always plan on owning a restaurant?
No, I did not. When I was growing up in high school I would work every weekend and a lot of nights, too, because it was just part of the family business and our way. My friends were all going out having fun, going to games and stuff. Not that I didn’t, but it wasn’t an every weekend thing for me. I was like, “I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life.” In college, I thought maybe I wanted to work in a bank or in the corporate world. After I got my (banking) degree, I was going to go to Ole Miss law school. I decided that wasn’t for me. I was not going to be a person that was going to sit behind a desk all day.
What flavors/ingredients do you most associate with the Delta?
Well, the Delta is known for a lot of different things. Some things are odd and you wouldn’t think that it should be known for that, like tamales for instance. I guess for me, I think the ingredients more or less — the vegetables that we grew up eating. And the techniques. A lot of deep frying.
Did your family’s restaurant serve only Chinese food?
No it didn’t. I used to always like to say it was the most schizophrenic menu you have ever seen. Because when we bought the restaurant we kept the existing menu, which was full of fried things and the usual steaks, but my parents also incorporated this Chinese-American menu on the other side. This menu had just the ubiquitous Chinese-American items like chop suey, fried rice, sweet and sour pork, and beef broccoli. Very common things, nothing authentic about it. We had that for the longest time, until I graduated from Ole Miss and came back into the business, and that’s when I slowly incorporated the more modern cuisine that I’m doing now.
There are so many different restaurants in the Delta owned by different ethnic groups. Why are these restaurants so successful?
Well, it’s just become a part of the fabric of the Delta; people don’t think anything otherwise. People accept you as part of the community; I don’t think they see you strictly as a specific type. There are several examples in the Delta. Lusco’s in Greenwood started out as Italian per se, but you wouldn’t think of it as an Italian restaurant. There is this place in Clarksdale [Rest Haven], they serve a lot of Lebanese food, but you don’t think of it as a Lebanese restaurant. I don’t think you would categorize it as anything; it is just a restaurant in the Delta.
Many ethnic restaurants in the Delta serve American food as well. Why do you think that is?
In a small town you’ve got to be all things to all people. You can’t pigeonhole yourself into saying, “Well this is a Chinese restaurant.” If you want to survive in business, just like any business, you’ve got to diversify.
Many of them are ghost towns.
They are. It’s sad to see and sad to say but it’s just the economic reality of it. There are not a lot of opportunities down there so the younger generation is going to go off to college, if they have that opportunity, and they are going to move off.
How does anybody make a living running a restaurant in a ghost town?
People drive all over the Delta to go eat, compared to Memphis. Memphis is a fairly big city; it would take you 35 to 45 minutes if you lived on one end of the city and then wanted to go downtown to eat. It’s no different, say, if you lived in Cleveland and you wanted to go to Greenwood for dinner. So it’s just a matter of driving to a different town as opposed to driving from one part of the city to another part of the city.
Should the rest of the world care to explore Delta cuisine?
Of course. Southern food is enjoying a lot of publicity in mainstream media now. So I think the Delta plays a big part of it.
What’s so special about the Delta?
The mystique. People always say that. There’s a lot of history there and it’s unlike any other part of the South, where in some ways things have changed and evolved and in other ways things have not. You can drive through a lot of the small towns and see people living the same way that they were 40 years ago.
In your career, how have you tried to keep food traditions alive?
Earlier in my career I did everything I could to get away from it. I didn’t cook Asian-influenced food and I didn’t cook Southern-influenced food, because when I was starting to get known they were writing about this Chinese chef cooking the food I was cooking in the middle of nowhere. You just don’t see that. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed, I didn’t want to be categorized, I didn’t want to be stereotyped, so I did everything I could to get away from that. But as I have grown as a chef and evolved, I rediscovered who I was and came full circle in how I cook and what I cook and what I do.
Describe how you cook today. How has your Delta upbringing informed your menu at Acre?
More than anything, the menu at Acre is seasonally and ingredient-driven. We don’t really hang our hat on the locavore movement even though we try to source most of the produce and meats locally. I want the ability and flexibility to be able to serve morel mushrooms from the Northwest in the spring. I want to be able to offer my guests skate and wild striped bass from the Atlantic, two of my favorite fish. I want to serve Wild Alaskan or Colombia River salmon when they are running in the spring. Otherwise, I don’t serve salmon the rest of the year. Growing up as a Chinese-American in the Mississippi Delta afforded me a perspective on food that most cooks don’t have. I absorbed the cooking techniques as well as the flavor profiles of the various cultures there. Even though you might not see overt references on my menus, hints of the flavor profiles sneak in there somehow.
Why did you fight so hard to not be stereotyped?
Back in the late ‘80s, there was no Food Network. People weren’t as obsessed with food as they are now. So when they see somebody like myself, especially in the Delta, they would see Chinese chef first, Chinese food first. So that’s the reason I moved away from all that, and that’s mainly why I think I was getting the national and regional attention that I was — because I wasn’t a stereotype.
Is there anything you would want people to know about the Delta or Mississippi in general?
Yeah I do. I have traveled all over the country cooking, and when they would ask me where I am from and I would say “Mississippi,” I would hear the stupidest things. I mean people think there are still lynchings down here. For the longest time I was a traveling ambassador of fighting those negative stereotypes. It’s a great state; the Delta is a great place. There is a lot of history there. We are not a bunch of backwoods hicks that are running around lynching people or riding around in our pickup trucks just getting drunk on highways.
– Story by Camille Mullins and photos by Jared Burleson, The Land of Plenty magazine, Meek School of Journalism and New Media

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