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Flavors of Success

Meet a few north Mississippi chefs and bartenders who have gone above and beyond to hone their talents and share them with the community.

Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem

Working in the food-service industry is not for the faint of heart. Catering, cooking and bartending can be a difficult, demanding and definitely backbreaking and foot-aching business. But most who have chosen this professional path speak of it with a particular passion.

And even with the long hours spent in restaurant kitchens or behind the bars, there are chefs, bartenders and bar/restaurant owners who make time to pursue other activities related to their love of food, beverages and good service.

In this annual food issue, Invitation Magazines is happy to showcase a few of these passionate people in the food-service industry who have gone way beyond their daily jobs.

Ross Hester and Joseph Stinchcomb: Bar Muse

Ross Hester and Joseph Stinchcomb met in 2016 while working at St. Leo in Oxford for the restaurant’s opening night. The two Ole Miss grads, who both found an affinity for restaurants and the hospitality industry, ended up spending about five years at St. Leo.

Hester was recently asked by the owners of The Lyric, to check out a space in a front corner of The Lyric in Oxford. Hester summoned Stinchcomb to look, and the two became partners, owning and operating what would become Bar Muse where they have been serving cocktails and small bites for the past year.

The duo recently put their creative thoughts together and planned a pop-up in the alley outside a space that had been unused for a number of years. The idea morphed into the two owning Good Day Cafe, where they serve what they call “elevated sandwiches.” There are seats in the alley for those who wish to eat there.

“We wanted to inject a little liveliness into the food scene,” Stinchcomb said. “We have a lot of friends who cook but have no where to cook. So, we offer them a kitchen and an opportunity to bring new foods to the culinary scene in Oxford.”

Head chef Patrick Hudgins comes up with the menus for the pop-ups, which are breathing new life and energy into the space.

“Pop-ups attract new clientele, give people who enjoy cooking a chance to be creative, help in terms of profitability,” Stinchcomb said.

Hester and Stinchcomb are making plans for upcoming events. They’re reaching out to chefs for future pop-ups. They’ve had a Sunday Supper Club inside Bottletree Bakery, which was a five- to six-course seated dinner, and they hope to plan more.

“Our strengths complement each other,” Hester said. “I am more practical and business-minded, and Joe is so creative and personable. He has some of the most creative cocktail ideas. We get along well, we even hang out outside of work and these days we sometimes seem like an old married couple that finish each other’s sentences.”

Good Day Cafe is open 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; Bar Muse is open 4 p.m. to close Wednesday through Saturday, and 3 to 8 p.m. on Sundays. Follow on Instagram @barmuse_oxford and @good_day_oxford.

Ali Watts and Paige Garrett: Harvey’s

Ali Watts and Paige Garrett can be found multiple evenings each week behind the bar at Harvey’s in Tupelo. Garrett, 29, is a graduate of Saltillo High School and has worked in food/beverage service all of her adult life. She’s been at Harvey’s for nine years and loves it.

“I can’t see myself doing anything else,” she said.

Watts, 24, is a graduate of Tupelo High School, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Mississippi in English and education. After helping with some catering, Watts said she found herself really enjoying it. She has been at Harvey’s nearly two years.

“Paige is actually my mentor,” Watts said. “She has taught me everything I know.”

Encouraged by their former bar manager, the duo signed up to compete in the 2022 Iron Bartender Competition at The Powerhouse in Oxford on Aug. 12.

“I was definitely not confident,” Garrett said. But Watts was right there with her bartending partner.

“I was nervous as could be,” she said. “We were definitely the underdogs in the competition and were told by some we didn’t have a chance because we weren’t from Oxford.”

Still, they persisted, moving forward in preparation to compete.

They’d bounce ideas off each other while trying to come up with the cocktail they would make for the competition. They practiced mixing ingredients though they were not assigned the liquor for the competition until the week of the event.

Watts and Garrett experimented with lavender (grown by Watts), simple syrup, ginger beer, lemon juice, Butterfly pea flower tea (also known as blue tea) and edible glitter. Their assigned liquor? Gin. And the name of their creation? Supernova.

The night of the competition, the two ran out of their popular concoction with a long line of hopeful tasters still waiting. Thankfully, supportive family members went in search of a few needed ingredients for making more Supernova.

When the winners were announced, Ivy Watts, sister to Ali, screamed at the top of her lungs. The Tupelo twosome were named the 2022 Iron Bartenders.

“We were shocked,” Garrett said. “We just looked at each other in disbelief.”

Watts nodded in agreement.

“We had an amazing support system, too,” she said.

The two hope to enter again next year. But in the meantime, they were invited to bartend a Halloween Gala at The Powerhouse in Oxford and created a Halloween-themed cocktail for the event.

Vishwesh Bhatt: Snackbar

Vishwesh Bhatt, 56, was born in India but has, for the past 30 years, called Oxford home. His father came to Oxford as a professor of physics at the University of Mississippi. Bhatt shares life with his wife Teresa and a friendly dog named Bob. Bhatt, known as Vish to those who know him best, has been the executive chef at Snackbar since 2009.

He started cooking for a living in his late 20s, but his most important connection with food began much earlier — he has always liked to eat.

“I began cooking out of necessity,” he said. “I needed a job, and kitchens were usually a good place to get a job. That’s how it started. And my mother was a really, really good cook, and I grew up watching her.”

Bhatt attended culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Miami.

The James Beard 2019 Best Chef: South winner now has something new to add to his list of accomplishments. On Aug. 16, Bhatt’s very first cookbook was published. The beautiful cookbook, “I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes from a Southern Chef,” was three years in the making.

“I always wanted to figure out a way to tell stories,” he said. “I reached a point where I had enough of a cache built up and thought it was the right time.”

After selecting the recipes that would be featured in the cookbook, the food was photographed by Angie Mosier. Agent and friend David Black helped secure publisher W.W. Norton. The foreword is written by restaurateur John Currence.

When the book was released, Bhatt took some time away from the kitchen and hit the road on his first book tour.

“It was a little tiring with the traveling,” Bhatt said. “But I saw friends I haven’t seen since COVID. And it was overwhelming to see support and love from people I’ve never met.”

When he received his initial copy of “I Am From Here,” Bhatt was overjoyed.

“I was shocked at how good it came out,” he said. “I had such great help with photography and editing. I am grateful for all the support. It makes me want to do another book.”

Judd Grisanti: Grisanti’s

Judd Grisanti, 50, has spent his most of his five decades near or right in the middle of the restaurant business. From his grandfather Elfo, his father Rinaldo and his uncle “Big John” (Grisantis all), Judd Grisanti learned the family secrets of Italian cuisine. The original Grisanti’s restaurant opened in Memphis in 1909.

“I’ve always loved cooking,” Grisanti said. “When I was 8 or 9 years old, I’d stand on wooden Coke crates to help, until I was tall enough to get rid of the crates.”

These days, Grisanti spends most of his time in Oxford, Tupelo and New Albany.

He packages his Italian favorites to sell in local grocery stores. He credits Clay Knight at Todd’s in Tupelo with teaching him about the grocery industry and helping him expand into 60 stores.

“I wasn’t sure if it would work, but I hung out and watched because I wanted to see who was buying the prepackaged food,” he said. “There were ladies dressed to the nines and booted working men, all buying the food. I was overwhelmed.”

Grisanti, who attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York City in 1989-90 and later the CIA in California, now has a space in Tupelo: Uptown Grocery at 316 N. Spring St., where he brings the tastes of the original Grisanti’s by way of pop-up dinners. He’s held one, and once he secures his ABC license, he hopes to do the popups on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, every other week. He’s also considering a monthly wine dinner, live music on occasion and pickup lunches. And he will, of course, continue his catering.

Cooper Miller: Forklift

Cooper Miller has been executive chef/owner at Forklift in Tupelo for four years. The Amory native worked in a plethora of kitchens before heading to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Atlanta. He was not always an adventurous foodie.

“I was an extremely picky eater when I was a kid,” he said. “I’d eat hamburgers and pizza. Then on a visit to Breckenridge, Colorado, at the Briar Rose Chophouse & Saloon, someone ordered escargot and dared me to eat one.

“I ate one, then two, then more and ordered a second and third. From then on, I tried everything, and it changed my world.”

In May, Miller won the Mississippi Seafood Cook-Off in Gulfport. His wife Lauren signed her husband up for the competition without his knowledge.

“She was playing around on Instagram one day and read about the competition on the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources site,” Miller said. “She didn’t tell me what she’d done but told me to be looking for an email. She’s one who believes in asking forgiveness, not permission.”

Coming up with a dish for the competition was no easy task, Miller said.

“One morning at 2 a.m., I woke up with an idea,” he said. “I love Latin American cuisine and decided on fish tacos. Of course, that’s super pedestrian, but I would figure out how to make it fancy.”

And he did. At the competition, the other competitors had brought along sous chefs and lots of equipment. Miller did not. But his fish tacos, made with dried chorizo and potato-crusted snapper, homemade salsa verde and pico de gallo, garnished with finger limes, led him to a unanimous win.

He was awarded a plaque, a crown and an invitation to the National Cook-off in New Orleans in August.

In New Orleans, Miller did not win, but his seafood dish — Douban Yu, steamed snapper with a fermented black bean salsa — pleased the judges.

“One of the judges, John Folse, found me after and told me my dish was his favorite,” Miller said. “Having heard that, I said I could go home now. What an amazing thing to hear.

“The outpouring of support was soul-warming. I was asked to do so many interviews. It was really a life-changing experience, even without the win.”

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