Table Talk

Crab Cakes and

By Michele D. Baker  |  Photography courtesy of James Patterson, Tom Head, Charlie Godbold

James Beard-nominated Chef Derek Emerson serves the Jackson community with several acclaimed restaurants.

Five-time James Beard nominee Derek Emerson was born and raised in Beverly Hills, Calif., but spent his youth traveling the world with his father, a professional photographer. On these travels and during summer breaks, he discovered Southern cooking in his grandparents’ Meridian, Miss., kitchen.

“I came to Mississippi the summer I was 17 and just never left,” says Emerson.

After a brief tenure at a Subway sandwich franchise and working in the kitchens at the Brick Oven and BRAVO! in Jackson, Emerson attended culinary school in Memphis. Emerson next headed to Atlanta and worked at such renowned establishments as Nava, Buckhead Bread Company, and Blueridge Grill. Here he perfected his crab cakes, adapted from his culinary mentor’s recipe (and believed by many to be the closest thing to heaven in the Deep South). He soon accepted the executive sous chef position at Dick & Harry’s, considered one of Atlanta’s best restaurants.

After six years, Emerson returned to Mississippi as executive chef at a new Jackson restaurant, Schimmel’s.

“That was where I first introduced my crab cakes, nothing but a wet mix and pure crabmeat,” he says proudly. That’s also where Emerson met Jennifer, now his wife and business partner of two decades. Together, they are a staple of the central Mississippi food community, living and working — and constantly adjusting — to life as restauranteurs during a global pandemic.

The Emersons’ start in the culinary community began in 2001, when the pair jumped at the chance to purchase a Jackson landmark — Walker’s Drive-In, a nostalgic 1950s diner in the heart of the Fondren district. Under the Emersons’ management, Walker’s Drive-In has become the “mothership” for their growing restaurant empire. The surf-and-turf fine dining favorite is recognized in local and national publications and known for its scrumptious seafood dishes including crispy fried lobster skewers, Everything Crusted #1 tuna, veal and lobster Kathy (named for a longtime customer who ate the dish every week), and redfish Anna with lump crabmeat.

Next came Local 463, an urban kitchen designed to be a more family-friendly spin on Walker’s, in nearby Ridgeland, Miss. The popular lunch spot is known for salads, flatbreads charred on a wood grill, and daily blue plate specials including catfish every Friday.

“We source the freshest local ingredients to make my versions of Southern comfort food with a big city twist,” says Emerson. “My favorite is the rosemary and honey-glazed fried chicken.”

Wine bar CAET (pronounced “Kate” and named for one of the chef’s four daughters) is Emerson’s foray into tapas and features a menu ideal for an upscale — yet comfortably casual — seafood and oyster bar dining experience, and a full bar.

“Walker’s never had a bar, and I wanted a place for the over-30s crowd to have a nice drink before dinner,” he explains. CAET features sharable appetizers like tuna crudo and cauliflower Saganaki; filet, ribeye, and strip steak; and decadent desserts (try the Key Lime tart); plus a full range of fresh oysters. The drink menu includes wine-by-the-pour, signature cocktails, local craft beer, and a full menu of whiskeys.

Emerson’s fourth establishment, Parlor Market, is housed in an 1898 building on Capitol Street in downtown Jackson that once served as a grocery store specializing in local produce and cured meats.

“We still focus on locally grown products, and cure our own charcuterie, so that ties back into the history,” the chef enthuses. “My favorite dishes at Parlor Market are the braised short ribs gnocchi and the lamb Bolognese.”

As with all Emerson’s restaurants, the menu changes seasonally based on what’s available from local farmers, including The Garden Farmacy — an eco-farm in rural Hinds County operated by Taylor Yowell and Marbury Jacobs — and Fertile Ground Farms, a regenerative urban farm growing nutritious chemical-free produce on three different sites. “I’ll call up Taylor [Yowell] and tell him to bring me whatever he has left from his farmers market stand,” says Emerson.

Since early spring, Emerson has implemented a multitude of changes and upgrades in response to the evolving needs and safety concerns of restaurant ownership in 2020.

“We’ve reduced our hours at CAET from lunch and dinner six days a week to dinner only Monday through Friday,” he explains. “At all the restaurants, we have removed some tables to create more distance between seats, and we have added additional outdoor seating. We ask people to wear a mask, observe social distancing when waiting for tables, and we have no-touch forehead thermometers. Our first priority is to keep our staff and customers safe and comfortable.”

At a time when restaurants, bars, and businesses of all kinds are closing their doors, Emerson is determined to make it work.

“We’re getting more to go orders than ever before, and our deliveries are way up,” he says. “At my restaurants, we build an experience for people, and I feel good about that. We’re doing what we can to be good community partners, supporting local farmers, sourcing local ingredients. It will come back better than before. You have to look at the positive. We’re still here.”

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