Balliceaux charged out of the gate six years ago with a solid menu created by chef Russell Cook. Meanwhile, the restaurant began slowly turning its focus to the live music in its back room. Cook left to join the faculty at Culinard and the menu changed — not necessarily for the better.
Owner Steve Gratz was aware of the shift and didn’t like it. “We’ve had a really difficult time, I think,” he said in April, “with the size of the kitchen and getting the food out to the tables in a reasonable amount of time.”
He wanted to make dramatic changes and return to the restaurant’s original mission — one that combined great food with great music. And trips to Asia made Gratz crave Indochine cuisine — the food of Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.
Since Balliceaux closed June 7, Gratz has spent his time refurbishing the interior and upgrading the restaurant’s sound system. He’s also found a chef who could bring the cuisine he envisioned for the new Balliceaux to the restaurant’s tables.
John Wilson, a St. Christopher’s graduate, spent most of childhood in Richmond. He did what he thought most people would expect and became a business major at the University of Mississippi. But even after a switch to journalism, it didn’t feel like the right path.
“I’ve always had a lot of interest in food and cooking,” Wilson says. “My mom tells this story that at around 10 or 12, I announced I wanted to be a chef.”
Wilson had met Lemaire’s Walter Bundy, also a St. Christopher’s alumnus, at the school’s career day and approached him about a job. Bundy immediately put Wilson on the line, cooking breakfast and lunch. The young chef stayed late to help prep for dinner.
“[There] was so much interesting stuff going on there,” Wilson says, “but I sort of burned myself out.”
After a year, he left to complete a four-year degree at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and made a few forays into restaurants in the Northwest and Northeast. He was derailed by a skateboarding accident, coming back home to recover from a broken leg. It took more time to heal than he expected.
“The longer I was away from New York, the less sense it made to go back,” he says. A friend told him about the job at Balliceaux.
“It’s a cuisine I love — although it certainly wasn’t my forte — but I love eating Thai and Vietnamese,” Wilson says. “And I’m learning about Cambodia.”
He’s assembled a menu based on what he might like to eat, combined with a lot of research and local ingredients. Time spent walking Spain’s 500-mile Camino de Santiago last summer gave him an unexpected new perspective.
“It really changed the way I look at food and cooking,” he says. “They really respect the ingredients over there and get so excited when things come into season.”
Wilson wants to combine that excitement with Spain’s way of socializing over small plates of food full of seasonal ingredients. For instance, a dish such as Thai green papaya salad will be festooned with Virginia peanuts, along with Hanover tomatoes. It’s a way to make local specialties work with a menu that will have plenty of exotic ingredients when the restaurant reopens Sept. 1.
“I think you can apply the French foundation and technique [that you learn in culinary school] to everything,” Wilson says.
And he’s still bringing a lot of what he learned from culinary school’s Asian cuisine instructor to the menu he’s now written, he says: “We’re really excited — we’re all really feeling good about it.”