I’ve always enjoyed cooking and helping my mom or grandmom in the kitchen, whether it was making fried chicken or chocolate chip cookies or even tater tots. You’re still cooking. I got a job at the original Poet’s when I was really young, and it kind of went from there. I worked there for a couple of years and moved up quickly. It was pretty tough on somebody as young as I was; it was a bar scene. Obviously I felt there was more appeal to things other than washing dishes. I started bussing tables after washing dishes, then found out I was pretty good with a knife; I picked a knife up and started hacking on chicken, prepping it, trimming it, doing shrimp, and I got pretty fast at it, so that’s how I moved up into prep. I waited tables for a while, cooked, bar backed, did a little bit of everything. While I was at Poet’s, I worked at Sam’s Westside, which is where Broad Street is now. And then I worked at Mick & Mott’s, which used to be Jackson Bar & Grill, now La Cazuela’s. Then I went to work at Bravo!.
When I first started cooking, I didn’t realize you could buy knives out of a catalog, I didn’t realize there were “chefs”. I mean, I did, because I remember watching “Yan Can Cook” as a kid on television and loving that dude because he was awesome. I also watched “The Galloping Gourmet”. While I was working, I was learning. When I was at Poet’s, I didn’t know you had culinary schools and real knives, so I started to learn and pick up on it and began thinking I should learn what I could at one place and then move on to another. So I progressed through the restaurants around here and ended up at Bravo!.
I started out as a hot line cook my first night there and soon picked up a lot of shifts because I was always the guy who wanted to work more. I was always one of those guys out there working. I worked at Brick Oven for a while, because a guy I worked with at Bravo! worked there as well, and he told me they were short-handed and needed some help. I picked up a few morning shifts at Brick Oven while working nights at Bravo!. I didn’t work at Brick Oven too long because I wanted to devote myself more to Bravo!. I really enjoyed working in the Bravo! kitchen; its well-run, well-organized, and I got to learn a lot of things that I’d never had my hands on before, whether it was making pizzas or baking bread. I started doing things such as that right off the bat. After about the first year I was there, I was making the breads three mornings a week. It was when I went to work at Bravo! that I began to think my career path was leading to the restaurant business.
After a couple of years, I started looking at the culinary schools. I chose Johnson & Wales in North Miami. I knew I had to go to a place to work and earn income because I couldn’t go on full scholarship, I couldn’t go with all the money in the world, and I was going to have to get loans. I went through an advanced-standing program, which let me test in and get on with recommendations for having prior experience. By this point, which was 1997, I’d worked for five or six years in kitchens, so I was able to CLEP-out of the lesser classes, since they had a program for people with industry experience. This advanced program only required me to be there about a year and a half, but it was still a full culinary degree. I went every day, early morning to mid-afternoon, and then went to work at night. I worked at some really good places there. I worked at Mark’s Las Olas for Mark Militello, who was one of the bigger-named chefs in that area when I was there.
I’m a native to Jackson. I grew up here; my dad’s been a realtor here for almost forty years. I grew up on Whitworth Street, and have lived on Belhaven, Manship and Poplar Streets. I love the Belhaven neighborhood, the old houses, the feel of it, and it’s one of the most storied neighborhoods around as well. There’s a lot of appeal to that. I chose Jackson for my restaurant because there are simply more people here who would decide to go out to eat than there would be in a more remote location such as Madison, Ridgeland or Flowood. It’s a tougher sell outside of Jackson. For one thing, you don’t get the draw from outside people in Madison or other places that you do here in the city. Not as many people go out, and you just get your local crowd, but from what I’ve seen people from those areas are more inclined to come into Jackson to eat and then go back home.
When we first came in to this location, we liked the space and we liked the way it looked at night. I really liked the old black-and-white checkerboard floors, which are still here. We kept the ceiling grid, cleaned it and repainted it. I came in and had an idea about what I wanted, how I wanted it laid out, talked to my architects about it, and we ended up gutting the whole place, took it down to four walls. The only wall that was left standing was a four-foot section that had the electrical panels on it. Everything else is brand new.
I really didn’t put a lot of thought into the menu before we opened. I wrote a menu a long time ago and just sat on it. I had a couple of different ideas for what I wanted to do, and depending on the spot I got, I was going to do a different concept. If I’d gotten the place in Madison I was looking at, it would have been completely different. You don’t want to open up something too similar to something else; I wouldn’t open up a wood-fired kitchen here with my buddy Alex Eaton at The Manship up the street, even though I worked with the pizza oven at Bravo! and worked with one at Brick Oven. I wanted to incorporate that somewhere, but it would have been at a whole different end of the culinary spectrum: less of the Creole/French/American that I’m partial to as well, and more to the Mediterranean/Spanish/Italian. That may be one day or not, you never know. I’m content right here with this one place, trying to keep the doors open, keeping the business going and building a good name and reputation as these other chefs and restauranteurs are doing.
The dynamics of restaurants in big cities change a lot more than it does in Jackson, but I like it better here because a lot of restaurants have been around for a long time, which is my interest. You know, in a lot of these cities you have restaurants that change what they do and open up for a couple of years, then they’re happy closing down and opening up another restaurant. But I look at restaurants like Bravo! and Walker’s that have been around for twenty years or longer, and that’s where I want to be. Obviously you progress with the times and you change so you stay relevant. If you can. I don’t want to be one of those restaurants that are open for five or six years and then closes down and does something different. That’s really not what I want to do. The industry is a marathon, not a sprint. The work itself is a double marathon, but it is what it is. I want Lou’s Full-Serv in Belhaven to be relevant for more than a just few years. At the end of the day, what matters is treating customers right and putting a good, well-seasoned plate in front of them that they enjoy and want to come back for. That’s really as simple as it is.