Food & Wine // 5 min Read

BlackSheep

Written by Courtney Hampson

May 3, 2021


Written by: Courtney Hampson | Photography by: Krisztian Lonyai

An emergency room administrator walks away from a six-figure salary for a six-dollar-an-hour gig in a kitchen. After a decade in health care and despite the lucrative career trajectory, Matt Wallace’s heart was pointing him in another direction. So, he left the hospital behind and began a 60-mile commute to Athens, Georgia, and to Farm 255. There, the farm-to-table movement was in full bloom, and Wallace was hungry—for culinary skills and knowledge.

“At Farm 255, I learned how to take care of things. Every employee had to work on the farm at least once a month. Your pay was what you picked.” From there, he headed to Woodfire Grill in Atlanta, where owner/chef Kevin Gillespie’s Top Chef star was just starting to sparkle. At Woodfire, Wallace learned technique—how to cut a fish, how to season, and, more importantly, the difference between season and spice. “I also learned that showing up early and staying late gains you favor,” Wallace said.

From Atlanta, Wallace’s tour de Georgia continued in Augusta, where, among other things, he was responsible for Mercedes’ catering during the Masters, no small feat. Eventually, he made his way to Hilton Head and Clayton Rollison’s Lucky Rooster, a busy tourist-driven spot where he learned “how to serve 300 people in four and a half hours.” A few culinary consulting jobs followed as Wallace learned the business side of restaurants, every stop on his journey providing valuable lessons that brought him to today, where he stands behind the bar in his own restaurant tucked tidily into a 900-square-foot space.

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Blacksheep is a culmination of Wallace’s experience, dreams, and, frankly, life savings. A little brick building on Boundary Street in Beaufort, South Carolina, Wallace and his wife had driven by the spot dozens of times. “When I saw it was vacant, I finally got up the nerve to call, and the price was too high. A few months later, it was still vacant. I called again; price was still too high. A year later, the owner was finally willing to negotiate with me,” Wallace said.

Wallace spent a few months perfecting his concept, sketching potential logos, and writing check after check from his savings account when COVID-19 hit. Suddenly, he was planning a restaurant opening two months into a pandemic with a 50 percent capacity guideline. Everything had changed. The original plan of a small but loud place—where first-come, first-served tables abutted each other and patrons shared conversations and bumped elbows while eating lots of different things—became a six-table restaurant with a nine-item menu, where reservations are required, you cannot reach out and touch your neighbor, and Wallace is not passing snacks across the bar for you to taste.

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Instead, what has developed is even more special than Wallace realized it could be. He knew this was not going to be easy; it would be different than anything he had ever experienced. To start, Blacksheep’s kitchen is likely smaller than yours, and there is no oven, no hood, no range. Wallace is cooking every dish in a 550-degree wood-fired oven. Now dubbed “Dolly,” this oven was brought in by the previous restaurant owner and required a wall to come down to get her in. So, lest he divert the bulk of his opening budget to tear that wall down again, Wallace knew she was staying put.

So, Dolly stayed, and Wallace built his concept around her. Dolly requires Wallace to find alternate recipes in lieu of classics. When he wanted cheesecake on the menu, he researched and uncovered a Spanish Basque–style cheesecake (on menu number four and simply divine) that he could cook at a high temperature. Turns out, Dolly is teaching him a thing or two, too.

While Dolly may very well be the visual centerpiece when you first arrive, you quickly notice the deep green walls, eclectic art, vintage glassware and china, irreverent light fixtures, and the pink buffet.

A mix of new and old, warm, and bright all set the tone for the sensory journey you are about to begin. A curated song list vibes in the background, and the glow from Dolly warms the space so you feel like you are dining at a friend’s home. And, in essence, you are.

Wallace makes sure to stop by every table, delivering a course and explaining how it is composed in order to connect with each guest at least once during their meal. Krista Duffy, the only other Blacksheep employee, serves as general manager slash hostess slash dishwasher slash sommelier and remembers every customer, their drink preferences, and, more importantly, their story. Seventy-five percent of guests are making their next reservation before they finish their last course, and that is not just because the food is stellar; it is because everything is. Duffy’s attention to detail, such as knowing you will always order coffee but will need loads of cream and sugar to get it just right (guilty), is part of the magic.

Blacksheep’s menu changes every two weeks and features seven mains and two desserts, along with a thoughtful collection of beer and wine. The concept is simple: for a prix fixe price of $45, you choose three mains. Or, you do it like my eating partner and I do and order absolutely everything on the menu. At this point, the menu is simply procedural for us, because it is impossible to choose. Oh, we tried it Blacksheep’s way the first time, reverse engineering the menu to try to eliminate dishes versus selecting our favorites. We failed that exercise epically but have gained so much. (We are not alone.)

Wallace orchestrates a menu mixed with cold and hot dishes (a necessity given Dolly’s capacity), but the common denominator among every dish and each menu is flavor. Flavors you never knew existed, and flavors you could never imagine pairing together. You cannot overthink the menu or question, “Do I even like beets?” It does not matter. You will love beets when you are done.

What Wallace learned at Woodfire Grill was how to exploit flavors. “Kevin Gillespie taught me that salt doesn’t necessarily come with pepper. I use spices and herbs and acid to bring excitement to food. Anthropologically, that is how food cultures are created. We have more in common than we do not, so be curious, be open-minded,” he said.

If herbs were a love language, cilantro was Wallace’s way to my heart. The marinated octopus on menu number one was topped with crushed peanuts, a pile of cilantro and other herbs, chili, and sweet peppers. A top-three dish of all time in my culinary Rolodex. At Blacksheep, you often find yourself trying something you would not normally eat or may never eat again. Last month, I watched my better half inhale a bowl of mushroom soup. He hates mushrooms. He also did not like fish before Blacksheep but has happily converted since.

Shaking his head, Wallace tells me that a lot of people say to him, “You’re living the dream.” He pauses for a second, and his mouth shifts into a half-smirk as he continues, “Actually, no, this a colossal amount of sacrifice, decades of sacrifice. This is a marker for me.
I cannot take it too seriously, but I also cannot take it too lightly.”

As Wallace continues to cook for a full house each night, shrugging at his quick success, he remains grounded in the principle that Blacksheep is a reminder to him that the most important thing one can do is follow the things that are in your heart, be your true self.

So, what happens next? There is a sign in the kitchen, visible only to Wallace, that reads, “Better every day.” And he says, “That is a model and a mantra I will not ignore. We will always ask, ‘What do we need to be better?’”

“There is no limit to what I can learn here,” Wallace said.

Wallace is a Southerner; he loves food. But this is a new concept, and he is realizing more than ever the power of food, saying, “We’ve lost a lot this year, and I believe it is my responsibility—all restaurants’ responsibility—to bring together community. I am working to drive human connection, not in a small way, in every way.” •

Read the original story in the Spring / Summer edition of the bluff.

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