Each of these north Mississippi food lovers looks at cuisine from a different perspective, but they all believe food builds community.
Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem
“Food is not just fuel. Food is about family, food is about community, food is about identity. And we nourish all those things when we eat well.”
— writer Michael Pollan
Food is a necessary ingredient for sustaining life, but it’s so much more. Not only does it fill our bellies, giving us energy for daily tasks, but food, whether shared with a single friend or a large group of family members, also brings us joy as it nourishes our spirits through these human connections. Those who boldly try cuisine from a diversity of cultures broaden their culinary horizons. Food — and the sharing of it — has the power to build community. And that is one important fact of food that has drawn Kalil Newton-Delacoudray, Joel Miller and Moises Lemus into different aspects of the business of food. A love of food and the desire to share food with communities, both large and small, are what these three have in common.
Originally from the island of St. Kitts in the Caribbean, Kalil Newton-Delacoudray, 50, has lived in Tupelo with husband Theodore and son Joshua, a high school senior, the past decade. Her husband, from St. Croix, came to Tupelo to work with Toyota.
“It was a little isolating at first,” Newton-Delacoudray said. “But we survived. We’ve met some really good friends here.”
Some of those friend connections have been formed over food as Newton-Delacoudray has cooked and shared recipes from her Caribbean culture with others. She’s done some catering and several Cooking as a First Language classes. For the past year or so, she has prepared in her home kitchen a biweekly lunch of traditional Caribbean food, boxed it up and delivered it to about 20 who have preordered. A few of the traditional foods one might find in their lunch include oxtail and pigeon peas.
“I grew up picking, shelling and eating pigeon peas until I just couldn’t stand them,” Newton-Delacoudray said. “But when I moved away, that’s a big part of the culture that I have longed for.”
The name she’s attached to her sharing of food is Kalypso’s, a play on her name — Kalil — and a genre of music from the West Indies. Her dream is to one day own and operate a restaurant of the same name where traditional Caribbean food is on tap. The good news is Newton-Delacoudray’s dream is getting closer to a reality with a piece of property purchased for the project.
Growing up, Newton-Delacoudray did not have to cook. Her grandmother, who lived with the family, cooked daily.
“I never wanted for food and I never had to cook,” she said. “But now I taste my grandmother’s food in my mind and try to remember some of the things she put in her food. It’s through her food my grandmother showed her love. I wish I had paid more attention to her cooking.
“History gets lost that way — when we don’t write recipes down for the future.”
Newton-Delacoudray is a firm believer in the community-building power of food and the sharing of it.
“I believe if we can get everyone in a backyard over a meal, we can solve so many more problems,” she said. “I see food as a bridge that can help us see we are more alike than different.
“As a kid, I am remembering having to clean a bucket of fresh fish, but never stopped when eating it to be grateful. We need to stop to be grateful for meals, to realize the love and work that went into it. Coming to the table at the end of a day — that’s what it’s all about.”
Mexico-born Moises Lemus moved to the United States with his parents when he was 7. After a year in Nashville, the family settled in New Albany. Lemus is not a professional chef; he views food from the perspective of a businessman. The 34-year-old worked in Mexican restaurants all through high school and college — he found he liked having financial freedom. He learned much about the food service business by working in various positions, from busing tables to helping in the kitchen.
Today, Lemus owns his own Mexican restaurants in four locations. He opened the first El Agave in 2012 in New Albany. In 2016, he opened the El Agave in Oxford; in 2020, Southaven and in 2021, Tupelo.
“These days I am fortunate to have the flexibility to hop around between the four restaurants,” he said. “I manage my managers at this point.”
Lemus also listens closely to his customers. When he was asked if he might consider something in addition to El Agave, he did some research, saw what downtown New Albany needed and focused on that. Just a few months ago, Lemus opened Nico’s. Named after his youngest child, the restaurant is on the corner of Bankhead and North Railroad, once home to The Rainey.
Some might call Nico’s an Italian eatery, but Lemus would rather avoid labels. Yes, the restaurant boasts a bright red, 3,000-pound pizza oven from Italy, but Lemus did not want Nico’s to be known as a pizzeria.
“Nico’s can be anything — Spanish, Greek, Italian, American. It will have its own identity. It’s a nice, casual, well-rounded downtown restaurant,” said the father of Santhiago, 10; Ellie, 7; and 1 1/2-year-old Nicolas (Nico). “I wanted it to be a place me and my family could come and enjoy, too.”
After high school in New Albany, Lemus attended Mississippi State University and majored in international business.
“Plan A was to use my degree,” he said. “The restaurant business was supposed to be Plan B. It’s a lot of work, but Plan B has worked out OK. Restaurants and food have the power to bring a community together. People sit and enjoy a meal while catching up and socializing. That’s what I want to do for New Albany — bring people together.”
Joel Miller has made quite a name for himself in the Oxford hospitality industry. Some folks simply call him “Chef.” The Louisville, Kentucky-born Miller created culinary delights in kitchens in Memphis, New Orleans, Puerto Rico, San Francisco, to name a few, before finding his way to Oxford nearly 17 years ago.
In Oxford, he’s worked at City Grocery and the now-gone Yocona River Inn, among others. More recently, Miller was chef and owner of Ravine, just a few miles from downtown Oxford, serving food Miller called “Southern contemporary.” The Ravine remained a favorite spot in Oxford for 15 years until Miller closed it in 2022 because he had tired of the ownership side of the food service business.
Miller worked in restaurants during his college years and reached a point at which he said he needed to either make a career of the culinary arts or do something else. He chose to pursue becoming a professional chef and attended Johnson & Wales College of Culinary Arts.
“I was bad at college but good at restaurants,” he said, smiling.
Miller did not immediately fall in love with the food service industry. One of his earliest jobs was serving as a busser, and he hated it. But once he found his way into a kitchen, Miller found what would become his passion.
“I learned a lot about food and cooking from my grandfather who lived in the Delta, in Marks,” Miller said. “He was an excellent cook, and I would watch him.”
These days, Miller, 48, is the executive chef of Kingswood, a restaurant and bar, inside The Oliver Hotel, Oxford. The Oliver Hotel, formerly known as Chancellor’s House Hotel on the corner of University Avenue and Lamar Street, is the rebrand of the historic Oxford Hotel.
At Kingswood, Miller pays homage to the culinary history and landscape of his adopted state. The restaurant’s goal is to foster community through shared plates in a casual and comfortable space. The Kingswood menu features new American cuisine and showcases seasonal, locally sourced ingredients. Miller has long found inspiration for his culinary creations from the local farmers market.
“I’m honored to be a part of this journey of bringing this culinary vision to life,” he said. “I’m excited to be back doing what I love closer to the locals. For those who’ve dined with me in the past, they can expect everything they know and love about my style of cooking, but with a twist that gives a playful nod to the new hotel concept.”
There’s a lot to appreciate about the profession Miller has chosen. He enjoys that there is an artistic component to cooking. Sure, there’s the day-to-day grind, but there’s always a new menu to plan. He loves teaching others in the kitchen and watching food bring people together.
“I remember when I was a kid, no matter how scattered or busy we might have been all day, we would come to the table to have a meal together,” he said. “There’s a lot of camaraderie in sharing a meal. A good meal can heal a lot of wounds.”