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Indy’s “Ambassador of Awesome”

Meet the man behind Chef’s Night Off and Return of the Mac

Writer / Mary Ryan
Photographer / Jamie Sangar

We all remember “that kid” from the neighborhood. The one who was always in trouble on the bus, getting suspended from school or dropping out of school. They’re the one you look back on and wonder, ‘what ever happened to so – and – so? I wonder if they ever figured it out.’

R.J. Wall was definitely that kid. Growing up in Geist Landing and attending Lawrence North High School, he was the one always getting in trouble. Amidst the trouble maker though is a philanthropic spirit who has a passion for pets and nature. So, how does someone whose major interests include food and drinks, music and travel make a career out of it after dropping out of high school at 17?

When your business card reads “Ambassador of Awesome” there’s likely an exciting story to follow.

Some people say, “Not all who wander are lost”. This couldn’t be truer for Wall. He spent most of his 20s and 30s, not lost but trying to figure out where “home” was. He moved from Indy to Louisville, California, Denver, Chicago and then returned to Indianapolis when his father was battling cancer. Along the way, he’s hiked at Garden of the Gods, Mt. Ranier, and the Rio Grande Basin abroad and Cedar Bluffs and Grubb Ridge locally, always carving out time for hiking as one of his true passions. For now, home is in Broad Ripple where R.J. is an active member of the Broad Ripple community and the Taste of Broad Ripple event.

At the forefront of his journey, R.J. started out like several of us did through his 20s and early 30s — working in restaurants. He held a variety of positions from busing and bartending to waiting tables and eventually running the front of the house. He’s a self-taught wine and liquor connoisseur and full-fledged foodie who cultivated his love of food and beverage into a flourishing business.

After being on the road for years, R.J. knew Indy was where he wanted to call home. Few immortalize being a Hoosier like R.J. who has the state of Indiana, corn stalks, a mail pouch tobacco barn and Indy 500 flags tattooed on him as well as “American” across his knuckles.

Moving back to Indy after traveling around the United States and taking in different culinary locales, he saw an opportunity in Indiana and seized it.

Upon returning to Indianapolis, Chef’s Night Off “CNO” was born.

“Chef’s Night Off started in Chicago with Graham Stein, former Sous Chef of Fat Rice and Jay Schroeder, a beverage wizard in Chicago,” Wall says.  “When I moved back to Indy our restaurant and bar scene was really starting to get some legs, and I wanted to facilitate that growth.” 

CNO is a “pirate dinner” where sous chefs and line cooks from locally owned restaurants and bars can highlight their culinary brain children at pop-up dinners all over Indianapolis focusing on slow food. 

Not stopping with Chef’s Night Off, Wall could see the heavy metal and rock music scene in Indy was growing in regards to promotion or production. Take his love of his dog Dahlia and his love of metal music and you get Dahlia Presents. Dahlia Presents not only promotes shows, but they also seek out talent, book bands and organize shows in Indiana including rock, punk and metal music.

“Dahlia Presents was an accident,” Wall says. “I was running HiFi (a concert and special events venue) and wanted a reason to partner with 3 Floyds, so I did a tap takeover the day before Winterfest and 3 Floyds equals metal, so it was an easy marriage. Because the HiFi had such a reputation for sounding awesome, all the best bands in town were easy to get to play there. After 2 to 3 sold out metal shows, Jason King, longtime friend and talent buyer at The Vogue, and Dan Kemer, at Live Nation, brought me under their wing to fill a promotional void left in the Indy metal scene. I am extremely lucky to work with the people I do”.

When asked about his success with CNO and Dahlia Presents, Wall says success is a journey you rarely take alone.

“I’ve worked with Josh at The Vollrath, Monolith Festival at Red Rocks, at The HiFi and as well as a few other things, and he brings the infrastructure, support and a multitude of other benefits to our partnership,” Wall says. “I’ve learned a great deal over the years from him and continue to do so. I share this success with Indy. If it were not for the support of Hoosiers, we could not do it.”

When two businesses were not enough to keep R.J.’s wandering soul busy, one of the biggest food events to hit Indiana was created.

What are two things people love? Mac N’ Cheese and food fests. With that, Return of the Mac made its debut in Indy, followed by Bloomington and last month in Noblesville.

“This was a marriage of MOKB Presents and CNO,” Wall says. “MOKB Presents co-founder and my partner, Josh Baker, kicked around this idea for a while and finally pulled the trigger last November.”

They thought about how to get folks together to indulge in the world’s greatest comfort food and decided to bring chefs in from all types of cuisines and restaurants to create their own version of the cheesy staple and create a mac n’ cheese fest of sorts. Return of the Mac has already hit the road this spring and plans to do so this summer and fall, so keep a look out for an event near you.

Don’t forget to mark your calendars for the next CNO & MOKB Presents event on August 20th at Sangrita Saloon. It’s the Broad Ripple Village Summer Seafood Boil and Block Party with Pork and Beans Brass Band and DJ Ryan Stroble. It’s sure to please your palate with as much crab and lobster as you can gobble down. Search “Broad Ripple Village Seafood Boil” on Facebook for ticket info.

About Mary Ryan

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