For more than a decade, California native Derek Emerson has worked tirelessly to cultivate his very own style of classic Southern cuisine in Mississippi’s capitol city. Now, the three-time James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist owns four of Jackson’s most well-known spots for homestyle eats, where he gets to share his passion for the food he learned to love so many years ago in his grandmother’s kitchen.
What made you want to become a chef?
My family was always into the coolest restaurants. Family vacations were based around certain restaurants. I had been going to these places in New Orleans, New York, and Los Angeles, and I always really enjoyed it. I used to cook with my grandmothers, too, and I decided one day to go to culinary school. I just worked hard after that, and now we’re here.
You’re originally from California. How did you get your start in Southern-style cooking?
I have family that is originally from Meridian, Mississippi, but I actually moved to the South in high school. I had one grandmother in Mississippi, and she liked to cook a lot. You’d go to her house on Sunday, and she’d have three meats and six vegetables on the table. I would visit for the summer, and she made a style of food I really enjoyed—so that was [the style] I went with.
What has it been like to open several of Jackson’s most notable restaurants?
I think my favorite thing is getting a restaurant running right, and I really enjoy the challenge of getting people into those places. I enjoy the menu development and trying to get people to try different things.
What’s your go-to comfort food this winter?
I love a good hamburger. When it’s done with the right ingredients, there’s nothing better. I’ve ordered a burger at the nicest restaurants in New York. I probably shouldn’t have, but it’s something you can’t go wrong with.