Jesse Houston: Chef on the Half Shell

We had a little oyster bar at Parlor Market. That’s how I met Craig Noone; we worked at an oyster bar in Stephan Pyles’ flagship, so with the tiny oyster bar in Parlor Market I got to see how Jackson feels about seafood and oysters. That planted a seed, and when I was leaving City Grocery in Oxford, I decided that Jackson would be a good spot for an oyster bar.

Since the oyster bar is the heart of Saltine, we keep the rest of the menu very seafood-centric, and being in the South, we keep the menu Southern-rooted. Then again being who I am, I like to keep things fresh and creative, to push the envelope. It’s a challenge with this concept because being in Jackson I think we get a little more of the old school mentality here towards Southern seafood, whereas at the Parlor Market, even though it was very much Southern-rooted, it was from the get-go known as a place where you could go and get an off-the-cuff creative meal. Here there’s a bit of resistance to that, so catfish, po’boys, the oysters, the wood-fired oysters, the redfish on the half shell are our top-selling dishes. The more creative dishes are harder to sell. We have an Asian influence in the calamari dishes, which is an ode to Paul Qui, who I got the opportunity to work with while I was at culinary school at the Le Cordon Bleu in Austin. He does a Brussels sprouts dish he’s very famous for that has the same kind of sauce with herbs, mint, cilantro and cabbage. The oysters Lafitte I would say is the most New Orleans-style dish we have, and we put that together while on a trip to Lafitte, Louisiana to fish for redfish, using what we had around us. We went into a little crawfish shack, ordered a couple of pounds, peeled them ourselves and put some on the oysters we had on the grill at the fishing camp. Then we have the white Alabama barbecue sauce, once again playing up Southern dishes. The citrus butter with coriander is a nod to a lot of the garlic butter oysters you’ll find at places such as Drago’s, but a lot brighter and more floral.

This summer when we opened the oyster market was very bad. It certainly wasn’t the prime season for Gulf oysters by any means, and due to different regulations in Louisiana that seek to control the quality of oysters, the only ones that could leave the state were those harvested on refrigerated boats. The oysters go straight from the water into refrigeration and from those boats into a refrigerated facility or on a refrigerated truck to Jackson. That’s a huge expense. There aren’t a lot of people who do that, so we had many customers who were upset because we didn’t have Gulf oysters. When we opened, our oysters were sourced from Virginia other places on the east coast. They were very inconsistent in size, people only wanted the big ones, so it was a struggle. But as the temperatures went down, the oysters have become more available, and we no longer have that issue. We have them coming in literally every single day. I probably get anywhere from eight to twelve sacks of Gulf oysters a day, almost a thousand oysters that we go through, and we get probably another twelve to eighteen hundred from other parts of the country: the Pacific Northwest, Virginia, Massachusetts, New York, all over.

Almost all oysters these days are farm-raised, but oysters out of out of the Gulf are still wild. Even though most of the wild oysters along the east coast were eradicated back in the 1800s, and they introduced new species, some of which were invasive and killed off the native populations, you can still get wild oysters from the Gulf. I’ve heard of some great oyster farm programs in the Gulf as well. Derek Emerson was sharing some great stuff with me the other day; he and Chris Hastings were talking about these oysters off Dauphin Island that are grown in baskets that tumble in the surf, which give the oysters a great shape and salinity, and have almost no mud or dirt because they aren’t on the bottom. The other day a supplier out of Birmingham offered me some oysters called “Bama Beauties”. They were sold out at the time, and they were expensive; they were (my cost) a dollar an oyster, and I’d have to be selling them at almost $3.50, the same price I’d ask for a really high-end Pacific oyster. More gourmet Gulf oysters are starting to pop up, but the challenge will be getting people who are used to $1 or $1.50 oysters from Mississippi or Alabama to buy them.

I never considered opening anywhere but Fondren. This is where I spend all of my free time; this is where my friends seem to gather, where I run into people I love. I thought with all the other great restaurants, we could create a wonderful restaurant scene here. Of course, there already was, but I wanted to jump into the middle of it. Duling Hall wasn’t my first choice, though when I first moved to Jackson, before the Parlor Market opened, Craig took us to Duling Hall, and I walked over to the space that is now Joan Hawkins Interiors and thought it would make an awesome restaurant. Fast-forward to last year when I was looking for spaces, I was actually looking for a house, so I looked on State Street and Mitchell Avenue, but we just couldn’t make anything work. I talked to realtor Mike Peters and told him I wasn’t totally committed to a house, and he walked me through this space. With all the original brick, windows and floors, it just came together, I couldn’t be happier, and I can’t imagine it anywhere else.

I put this restaurant in the hipster capitol of Jackson, and I anticipated my friends and younger people, but I have more of an older demographic. It’s really mixed. I do get some people from out-of-town due to the great articles in “Southern Living” and “Garden & Guns”, but for the most part it’s really different from my expectations. I’ve thought about how the restaurant will evolve a lot. Things are still up in the air as we try to keep the house packed and discover what will drive people in to build our lunch business and early weekend business. The craft beers have really picked up more than I thought it would before we opened. It was always going to be a bar that focused on craft beers. We have thirty-one draughts. At first wine and cocktails were ahead in the mix, but soon the craft beers began outselling them. So we’re pushing that envelope and advocating the craft beer scene in Mississippi, which has growth spurts as well as growing pains.

The creative food is where I feed myself, it’s what I enjoy doing and why I love being a chef, but I have to ask myself if it’s right for here. Whereas I used to be able to put anything I wanted in front of people at Parlor Market, people would try it because it sounded interesting and love it and embrace it, that’s a struggle here. It’s a learning curve on the floor and in the kitchen, and though because of the long hours I work it feels like I’ve been here for five years already, we’ve only been open for six months. I have to keep reminding myself that.

Photo by Jotham McCauley

 

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