From Mississippi to Vermont
Looking back, my love of cooking and the outdoors began when I was very young. For my fifth birthday my mother bought me a Mattel Easy Bake Oven, to which my father countered with a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun and yet another fishing pole. A shotgun, .22 caliber rifle and a jon boat soon followed. The little oven was soon forgotten, however, the joy of making cakes under that 25 watt light bulb was baked into my psyche. Getting an early start in the kitchen also made for some pretty tasty campfire meals.
By six, my favorite TV show was The Cooking Cajun with Justin Wilson. It came on Sunday afternoon before my other favorite, Wild Kingdom. Like any good, young Southern boy, I'd leave home for days with buddies running trotlines and frog gigging. We began holding fish frys for ourselves and friends. Our side dishes were only a slice of Wonder bread and scoop of mustard coleslaw, but it all worked.
By twelve, a friend and I had built a little cooking operation; it was small compared to the BBQ's our father's, uncles and their friends put on. However, we were determined to be as good as them and we would make sure we just happened to drop by their cookings at Town Creek or one of their tractor sheds. These men were well known outdoorsmen, craftsmen, businessmen, even gamblers, but they seemed to have gained the most respect for their various cooking expertise. One was the best BBQ man, one gumbos, and the other Cajun specialities, another had mastered the art of deep frying virtually everything, another the best with game and so on. They were our heroes.
As a pre-teen, sitting among older women with bushel baskets of peas, beans or garden pickings wasn't how I envisioned spending my weekends. But these kind ladies canned and pickled thousands of jars of fruits and vegetables and taught me a lot. Back then, Farm to Table wasn't a trend, it was a way of life. We also raised our own catfish fed with grain from the local feed store, and took advantage of the okra, black-eyed peas, butter beans, turnip greens, and pecans, from our gardens as well as from friend's and family's.
At the University of Mississippi, my path to cooking continued. I'd hunt, catch and cook for the frat house or friend's apartments. A number of college buddies grew up much as I did and we shared insights. How to roast venison was exchanged with crawfish boils, marinated and grilled dove breast was traded for pan fried quail and so on. Of course, we also learned together, how to spike a watermelon and make an intoxicating delicious "fruit punch."
After college, I worked in the Mississippi Delta for congressional candidate Webb Franklin. He owned some prime deer habitat, and this made for plenty of venison to experiment with in the kitchen and on the grill. Upon Franklin's election to Congress, I moved to Washington, D.C., far from the swamps and woods of Mississippi, but close to many new restaurants and tastes--including my first real Chinese restaurant. It was here, in D.C., that I also had my taste as a food distributor. During the campaign, I had made friends with some folks who owned a farm-raised quail farm and they would ship up cases of frozen quail and I would sell them to local markets.
I started visiting New York City on weekends after meeting people in the restaurant and public relations business based there. I was in awe of the diversity of food in Manhattan. I was offered an appointment with the Fish and Wildlife Service in D.C., but the allure of the Big Apple was too strong. Instead I took a job with s small public relations firm in Brooklyn with food clients--the final road to being a partner in my first restaurant, Acme Bar and Grill in New York's Noho and becoming a distributor of Mississippi farm-raised catfish.
After several years in New York City, my love of the outdoors was just one of the reasons, I decided to move to Vermont and buy a house. The plan was to live in Vermont and work in the City, and it worked fairly well until I opened River Run Restaurant in 1991 in the small town of Plainfield. After a few short years, River Run took on a life of its own and it became a full time job for me as the cook. River Run was a place, a great place, that people loved for its food and the community. A regular, writer David Mamet, termed River Run "The greatest place on Earth". However, after 18 years of River Run and a business offer I couldn't refuse, I decided to sell this great place and focus on cooking outside of the restaurant and pursue, more seriously, a career as a professional bass fisherman. I was very fortunate in both of these endeavors. Cabot Creamery, a farmer owned cooperative and Maker's of the World's Best Cheddar, agreed to sponsor my fishing and give me a job as a spokesperson/chef. Combining my cooking and fishing had been a dream since I first entered the restaurant kitchen and now it was finally realized.
From the chopped BBQ at T.K.E Drugstore in Tupelo, the crawfish gumbo at Mistillis's in Oxford, the steak and fries at Hawk and Dove in D.C., scrambled eggs and scrapple at Skeeter's in Bethany Beach, Delaware to the Thai Lagoon below my New York apartment to the Four Corners of the World Deli In Vermont, and of course, River Run, it's been an incredible journey.
Many years later now and I'm still cooking, fishing and enjoying both more than ever.