"I used to hate bread pudding. Usually it's dense and sticky and ew," Levon Wallace says with a shudder.
But today, as he rips apart pristine baguettes and soaks them in a milky, eggy solution at our Test Kitchen, he declares, "I'm having a new love affair with bread pudding."
Wallace, the chef at Proof on Main inside 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, is transforming what was once a catchall for stale loaves into a crisp, buttery beauty, filling a hot cast-iron skillet of charred baguette bits, splashes of sorghum syrup and a smart addition of butternut squash that's been roasted and caramelized with brown sugar (see the recipe).
Squash, roasted in sugar and cinnamon | Levon Wallace spooning the squash into the bread pudding mixture
His not-too-sweet riff on the dessert is inspired by capirotada, a savory Mexican-style bread pudding filled with dried fruits, cheese and squash, that his Mexican mother made for him growing up in the rough parts of East Los Angeles.
"This is how I like to cook," Wallace shares as he mixes the milky bread with his hands. "Cooking is very sensual. You have to engage your eyes, your ears, even your mushy parts like your heart and your gut."
Wallace is wearing a black Dodgers hat. Underneath one rolled-up plaid sleeve, there's a tattoo of In-N-Out's Animal Style burger. "It's got a double meaning," he explains. "I really, truly love that burger, and that is also the only way to live."
But for this man who looks like he eats, breathes and dies by Los Angeles, home is actually the South. There, at his restaurant, Wallace is getting deep into the land, selecting seeds to plant with Proof on Main's horticulturalist and dreaming up delicious things to do with tomatoes in the summer, nightshades in the fall and butternut squash right now.
As the smell of sweetly roasting squash fills the kitchen and he tosses toasted breadcrumbs with cinnamon sugar, Wallace gets pensive.
"I would say I'm a Southerner," Wallace shares. "It's not about geographic location. It's a lifestyle and a mentality of 'take care of your own, don't holler too much, be kind to your neighbor, use what you've got.'"
But that hat?
Wallace says, "I still have to cheer on the home team."
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