Alex Eaton: Chef on Fire

As I was getting a degree in business and communications at Mississippi State my father asked me what I wanted to do; he told me that when I finished at State, he’d help me with anything I wanted. I told him I wanted to cook. He said that I needed to work in a restaurant while I was in Starkville to see if that’s what I wanted, so near the end of my college career I worked at The Veranda, just to learn basics; how to use a knife, what my pans are, so I wouldn’t look like an idiot when I got to culinary school. When I got to Charlotte (to attend Johnson and Wales), we had duck confit at a restaurant called Rooster’s Wood-Fired Kitchen, and my dad said, “You need to learn how to cook this dish.”

When I worked at Rooster’s with Jim Noble and Ramone Taimanglo, I was learning more there than I was from school; being at Rooster’s put me in the top of my class. The Manship has a lot to do with what I learned there; it’s not that I copied them, it’s about the adventure I had going to the East Coast, going down to New Orleans, then back up here. The style of the menu, a la carte, is a lot like Rooster’s, but at lunch it’s like most restaurants in Jackson: meat and two sides, wood-fired pizza, sandwiches, red fish on the half shell, steak kabobs.

Basically, I think that every chef needs to be cooking things they had as a child that hit home. I’ve trained all over the country and went to the best cooking school in the nation, but some of my best dishes come from my mom’s table. My mother learned how to cook from her mother, who is a Lebanese Cajun from White Castle, Louisiana, so that’s all kinds of crazy mixtures there. We’d have cannelloni on Sunday nights, we’d have maple ribs on Saturdays; all of my dishes and desserts are inspired by my mom.

I’ve been working in New Orleans, and the stuff there is really heavy. I worked in a place called Domenica, one of John Besh’s restaurants, which is northern Italian instead of southern Italian, mostly olive oils, vinegars, seafood dishes. But since The Manship is in a health-care environment, I knew I had to bring lighter food. I get a dish and I ask myself how I can make it light; for instance, using vinaigrette instead of a butter sauce or a Greek dressing instead of a steak sauce. I also want to offer local food in season, as fresh as possible, and I try to get as much of my inventory locally. We buy oils, vinegars and herbs from international sources, but when it comes to meats and seafood we’re trying to get as much as we can from around here. The Lebanese were merchants, and having a lot of Lebanese genes, I love talking to sales reps and farmers and bartering and trying to get a better deal just from being a good person.

The Manship is the brainchild of me and my partner Stephen O’Neill. While I’ve been training, I’ve been coming up with what I wanted to do as a chef in my first restaurant. I’ve been a chef all over New Orleans, but I never actually learned how to make money doing it. Stephen approached me a year ago and asked me if I’d like to hear what he had going on. We were introduced by our friend Bill Lampton, who said to me, “I know you’re happy at Eat Here Brands (which was with Al Roberts and Bill Latham), but I have a guy I want you to meet. So we met one day, and I basically told Stephen that I wasn’t looking to be anyone’s chef, I was looking for a business partner. So we got to talking and everything was kicking off well, and he had the location (1200 North State #100) picked out and he had half of his investors lined up. So he said, we’re going to be business partners, but the stipulation is you’re going to have to bring the other half of the investors to the table. And I said alright, but we’re going to use my concept. Bill knows a lot about the bar business, but The Manship is basically my food concept and design of how I want the restaurant to be as far as a la carte service, wood-fired cooking, my philosophy on everything.

Stephen and I are a great mixture; he’s really into high-end spirits and cocktails, the vibe is big city with good up-tempo music, we have an open kitchen serving food a la carte, similar to a steak house, but not. It’s turned into a seafood hot spot, high-end steaks and of course the Mediterranean aspect. Most people here are doing Southern food, which is fine, I love it, but we’re concentrating on the Mediterranean angle and when I say Mediterranean, I’m talking Lebanon, Greece, Italy, Spain, not just a lot of red sauces. We do have chicken spaghetti with a red sauce using fresh basil and local mushrooms. I charge what I feel is a very fair price for the product I’m giving. If you want an under $10 lunch special, you’re not going to be eating something out of a can or something that’s bad for you. I think people respect that, and that’s the clientele I’m after.

Sure, we have unhealthy options, but we have sides to share so you can get a taste of everything; you don’t have to order a huge plate of anything. It’s all a la carte, and I think people like that. Say you don’t like cauliflower, and I’m serving the short ribs with a cauliflower puree. Well, you’re instantly not going to order the ribs because they come with the cauliflower. So at night, you order what you want. Everything is seasonal. We haven’t gotten to do soft-shell crabs yet because they’re out of season, we’re going into crawfish season now and we’ve had oysters on the menu since we opened in October, charbroiled, fried, you name it.

When I was growing up, I guess I had a chip on my shoulder; I never wanted to come back to Jackson until I could bring it on, and I feel like this is my way of showing you need to respect people when they’re young. As long as you’re parented well, you’re going to end up being very successful. We’ve been very busy, lots of neighborhood business, a lot of politicians; we’ve become sort of a politicians’ hot spot. We have people from all over coming to eat. We really didn’t do any marketing, we just opened the doors. This is the place people are bringing their friends from out of town to show off Jackson. We have a friend to do our artwork, we’re about to open up the patio, the weather’s just getting right for it, we have a banquet facility that’s been booked solid, and I’m having a baby Wednesday (Feb. 19). Things are just ginning.

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