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Viking chief partner in upscale venture

Wally Joe opens signature restaurant in Memphis

Wally Joe calls the food preparation area in his new signature restaurant in Memphis “a dream kitchen.”

And he should know.

Joe, 39, of Cleveland, is the executive chef for Viking Range Corp. in Greenwood and Chef de Cuisine of K.C.’s, a world-class restaurant established in Cleveland in 1974. His partner is Viking CEO Fred Carl and the range-making corporation is a minority partner in the deal. Colleen DePete, former cooking school coordinator for the Viking Culinary Arts Center and a fellow chef, is the general manager.

“We’ve had a long-standing business relationship with Wally for several years and I wanted to further that relationship,” said Carl. “I’m very familiar with Wally’s cuisine and his success at K.C.’s. This was a very good business opportunity for us. Having free access to a state-of-the-art kitchen like the one we’ve put in Wally’s restaurant in Memphis will be of great benefit to Viking.”

Designed by world-renowned restaurant kitchen designer Mark Stech-Novak of Oakland, Calif., Wally Joe’s showcase kitchen features a European-style layout with an island and ranges on each side. Prep stations are located behind the ranges and refrigerated storage is underneath stainless steel counters. Because of point-of-preparation refrigeration, the walk-in refrigerator and freezer space are relatively small.

Large kettles and oblong braising pans tilt for easy food removal. When more steam is produced, the highly engineered yet quiet ventilation system automatically adjusts to remove moisture from the environment. There’s a separate area for dessert and pastry preparation.

Plates are stored in warm compartments under the counter and finished dishes are stashed on a long counter. Instead of heat lamps or heat wells, food is prepared “a la minute,” in an open atmosphere where the kitchen “is the stage, the dining room the auditorium, and the food and wine, the entertainment,” Joe said.

“It’s definitely my dream setup,” he said.

Because Viking doesn’t produce commercial ranges, Wally Joe’s kitchen is, unfortunately, without one.

“We don’t make restaurant equipment, but it’s something that’s of very serious interest to us,” said Carl. “We’re excited about the opportunity of using Wally’s kitchen as somewhat of a laboratory. You name it, he’s got it. We want to get ideas from day-to-day use of that equipment and it’ll influence our own equipment.”

Joe’s cuisine is best described as modern-American with global influences, reflecting hints of Asia, Italy and the Deep South, yet deeply rooted in classical French techniques. But don’t look for chicken. It bores him, he said.

Instead, diners will find lamb, salmon, pork, sea urchins, skate wings and other unique items. In addition to choosing only organic meats and produce from trusted vendors, Joe increasingly uses infused oils and vinegars and vegetable purees and reductions instead of heavy doses of butter or cream to sprinkle his recipes with flavor and texture.

“The menu changes constantly, at least every two weeks,” said Joe. “I can be a little edgier in the Memphis market, where sophisticated travelers come through to dine. In a small town, I had to keep it somewhat safe to keep the local patrons coming in.”

Opening Wally Joe, a 134-seat restaurant located at 5040 Sanderlin Avenue near Mendenhall Drive in east Memphis, was a “natural progression,” said Joe.

“For a number of years, a large number of our clientele had driven to or flown into Cleveland to dine at K.C.’s,” he said. “I’d developed a pretty good reputation regionally and nationally, and Memphis was a larger market for me to show my talents.”

At Wally Joe’s, appetizers range from $8 to $16 and entrees are priced from $14 to $35.

“People consider us fine dining, and we are, but the prices are low enough where people can come in several times a week,” he said. “It’s not strictly a fine dining/special occasion restaurant.”

After working in the family restaurant during his teen years, Joe headed to the University of Mississippi. During school breaks, Joe followed the culinary trail throughout the U.S., South America and Puerto Rico, journeys that fueled his zeal for food and presentation. After graduating with a finance degree in 1987, Joe returned to the family restaurant, where he sprinkled the menu with upscale dishes, and garnered a regional and national following. Undeterred by a fire in 1992, the family rebuilt the restaurant and reopened it a year later.

In 1994, Joe became the first Mississippi chef invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York City. Since then, Joe and his recipes have been featured in national publications, including Bon Appetit, Chef, Food Arts and Gourmet and TV shows, such as “Great Chefs of the South.”

On May 19, Joe was at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Chicago for K.C.’s induction into the Nation’s Restaurant News Fine Dining Hall of Fame. Established in 1980, it now includes about 180 restaurants, including Commander’s Palace, where Wally Joe’s chef de cuisine, Andrew Adams, previously worked. K.C.’s is the only Mississippi restaurant to make the list. In neighboring states, only one restaurant each in Arkansas and Alabama are members of the Fine Dining Hall of Fame. Of 13 restaurants in Louisiana that made the list, only one is located outside the New Orleans area.

“I’m totally blown away by it,” Joe said. “To get recognition in a small town is very hard. For us to be included in a list of the greatest restaurants in America is an enormous achievement and honor.”

Since its May 3 opening, Wally Joe’s has been solidly booked every night.

“He’s starting out with a bang,” said Carl. “I know he’ll hit a home run.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at (800) 993-3392 or lwjeter@yahoo.com</a.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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