During the first twenty-something years of my life in Starkville we certainly ate at restaurants from time to time. But there are not a lot of vivid taste memories from the first decade, particularly of dishes that were especially good. I guess that’s normal for a kid. Bad memories are few and far between as well, save that one oyster at Shoney’s and a spoiled carton of chocolate milk at the Ward Elementary cafeteria that still inspires full body shivers.
As I progressed through high school the scene began to change. Early prom dates were honored with the cafeteria trays of the Western Sizzlin’; later ones got treated to the original location of Harvey’s. (Thank you Mr. Bean. Thank you so much.) Aside from the mainstay of Starkville Café, other places with memorable food began to pop up – Oby’s, Little Dooey, Bulldog Deli – places that I looked forward to coming back to over the next two decades when I lived far, far away. Four years ago, when we moved back to Starkville the scene had changed again. We got chefs.
I know I’m probably going to get in some trouble saying this, so allow me this disclaimer. There were bound to be some chefs in Starkville in the seventies and eighties. Surely. But I wasn’t aware of them, and though good restaurants were discussed, individual chefs were not. Now, however, American culture has evolved from Julia Child and Yan Can Cook to the Food Network and Cooking Channel. Chefs have become celebrities and our taste buds are the beneficiaries.
Beyond the celebrity aspect, chefs have become competitors, and it’s not limited to Top Chef, Man Vs Food, or the Next Food Network Star. Since my return to Mississippi I have been involved as a judge, coordinator, describer or eater in at least seven different cooking competitions in Starkville alone. The most recent was the Starkville Area Arts Council’s Forks and Corks event at Magnolia Manor. And let me just say…we got chefs.
There were prizes, and I’ll tell you who won what as we go along. But for the sake of fairness, I’ll describe everything in the order in which we wandered.
The first dish we chose was the fig ice cream from Chef Paul Brasfield at BIN 612. Dessert first, you say? Oh yes we did. We are adults. And it didn’t ruin our dinner one little bit. (Kids, don’t try this at home.) Chef Paul won the Presentation medal for this one: local fig ice cream with caramel and candied pecans, served over lemon sponge cake and finished with a local berry coulis. I’m not sure I’ve ever had fig ice cream before, but by golly if I ever have a chance again I’m going for it. People were still talking about it the next day. Hopefully, if there is a next time, Chef Paul will let me bring my Jethro Bodine-sized ice cream bowl and fill ‘er up.
Next up was the Veranda. Chef Jay Yates took a simple Southern staple and gave it serious pizzazz. The base was a thick slice of Lancaster Farms green tomato, battered and fried as God intended. On top of that was a little mound of king crab and avocado salad, adding a rich, creamy element to the tart crispiness of the tomato. Then on the sides were two different sauces: cilantro lime hollandaise and sriracha honey aioli. I’m the kind of person who likes having choices, but doesn’t particularly like choosing. So I appreciated having both sauces – with the salad on top, I could create all kinds of unique bites, all good. My comment to the wife was that this was something I would definitely order at the Veranda.
On the other side of the room, Chef Matt Bronski was dishing out the Harvey’s interpretation of one of my favorite dishes of all time. They called it Mississippi Gulf Seafood and Low Country Cheese Grits, but even that long name doesn’t begin to describe the plate. The grits were simple, cheesy and creamy, topped with butter-poached shrimp and lump crabmeat. But there was also a touch of cherry tomato salad with cucumber and fennel, and a little baby spinach on the side – all that in a pool of tasso ham, andouille sausage, and bacon gravy. But wait! There’s more! The grits were surrounded by a ring of flaky phyllo dough with dill pressed between the layers. As The Wife noted, there was a lot happening on this plate, and it was all right up my alley.
Down the hall we found Chef John Fitzgerald of Restaurant Tyler, who won the Best of Forks and Corks (chosen by the guests) for his Smoked Catfish Tamale Cakes served over tomatillo salsa verde and topped with house-smoked bacon confit, herb crème fraiche and Vardaman sweet potato chips. I’m not a big tamale guy, but I could surely come to love them if they were all made like this. Bacon confit: French technique, meet Southern goodness.
The last savory dish was prepared by Chef Leon Jefferson from Central Station Grill, who won the medals for Best Taste and Originality. It was surf and turf like I’ve never seen before. Pan-seared bay scallops wrapped with smoked brisket, a balsamic-infused white barbecue sauce, and Florentine potatoes. I hate to say it, Bacon, but your days of monopolizing the scallop-wrapping business might be over. This worked.
We started with dessert; we ended with dessert. Chef Barbara Vasser from Aramark began with a base of sponge cake, added a thick layer of what she called cheesecake mousse, another layer of strawberry cheesecake mousse, and finished it with a drizzle of strawberry daiquiri sauce. Cool, creamy, and just right for the warm summer night.
We are Starkville. And we got chefs.