Gary Hawkins: Chef with a Secret

“If I have a philosophy behind my food, it would be to keep it simple. I get the best product I can, one that works for me, and I let the seasonality and freshness of the flavor profiles come through.”

Gary Hawkins, executive chef at Sophia’s Restaurant in Jackson, lets his food do his work for him. Sophia’s, at the Fairview Inn in Jackson’s Belhaven neighborhood, is a jewel in the city’s culinary regalia. The restaurant has an impressive setting: a historic 1908 Colonial Revival mansion, one of the few remaining architecturally significant period homes in the city, now a four-diamond small luxury hotel. Sophia’s serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch in an atmosphere imbued with Southern hospitality.

Hawkins received his training at the Memphis Culinary Academy. He grew up watching what he calls “the original Food Network”, PBS. “People like Julia Child, Nathalie Dupree, Jacques Pepin and others inspired me to get into the business,” Hawkins said. “I’ve been cooking professionally since 1993, when I started at Paulette’s in Memphis. At that time, Paulette’s was the place to go, there wasn’t such a plethora of restaurants as there are now. The first Friday night I worked, I was put in charge of the popovers, and we did 550 servings. I almost had a fit.”

With the exception of an 8-month hiatus in 2010 working with Craig Noone towards the establishment of the Parlor Market on Capitol Street, Hawkins has been at the helm of Sophia’s since Sept, 2006. “Before I came to the Fairview, we had talked about what kind of menu we wanted,” Hawkins said. “We wanted to accentuate Southern aspects, especially for people traveling through from the West and Midwest staying here. For them, Southern cuisine is a new experience. They’re not sure what grits are, things like that.”

“So we’ve been playing up our Southern angle,” Hawkins said, “But lately we’ve switched to not so much Southern as American, which is somewhat of a catch-all phrase, of course, but it allows us to broaden our scope. We were doing a ‘daily Gulf fish’, now we’ve gone to a ‘daily fish’. For instance, halibut is a great fish, but it’s not from the Gulf, so this adjustment gives us more latitude, the ability to serve things like halibut with sweet corn grits and jalapeno/basil cream, presenting something new and adding a Southern twang to it”.

While accentuating the Southern facet of Sophia’s seems to carry a considerable amount of appeal to out of town diners, Hawkins says the restaurant’s vintage decor is somewhat of a drawback for locals. “I’ve heard some people say it’s like sitting in your grandmother’s tearoom. We’re looking to redo, trying to get away from the white tablecloths and seven-piece settings.”

“People thirty and under know of the Fairview as the ‘wedding place’,” Hawkins said. “They come here for a wedding and go to the lounge, but they have no idea that Sophia’s is six feet away; they have no clue. We’re toying with the idea of switching to dinner on Mondays through Fridays because when we have weddings on Saturday nights, the restaurant is screened and you can’t see in or out of the dining room, but diners can still hear the crowd and music.”

“We’ve been called Jackson’s ‘hidden gem’ in that people really don’t know about us,” Hawkins said. “But as busy as we are, I find that hard to believe. I think people who come here for dinner find that the food is better than they expect, they enjoy the one-on-one service, and they like being able to relax and have a great meal.”