Alex Eaton is at ease in his kitchen at The Manship, a neighborhood spot in Jackson, Mississippi. As he plates a dish to go out, he gently tucks a sprig of curly parsley for garnish. “I really wanted to open a restaurant that embodies my culinary heritage, from the places I’ve traveled to my own family’s Italian and Lebanese heritage,” Alex says.
The brainchild of Alex and his business partner, Steven O’Neill, The Manship is located within the Belhaven, a medical office building located across the street from the Baptist Medical Center. The restaurant has a big city feel, with a long bar located at the front of the house and comfy booths and tables that fill the long open space going back toward the open kitchen area. Artwork by local artists fill the walls and change on a rotating basis. An outdoor dining area accommodates those who’d prefer to dine al fresco, while a large private dining room is ideal for special events.
Cooking comes naturally to Alex, who began learning his way around the kitchen when he was a young boy growing up in Ridgeland, Mississippi. He explains, “Both of my parents worked—my mom as a nurse and my dad had an oil company. When I got home from school, I was hungry. I didn’t like milk, so cereal was not an option. My mom always cooked meals from scratch, we never had TV dinners. I guess I got used to eating good food early on.” Young Alex would come home and call his mom, and she’d talk him through the steps of preparing what he wanted to eat over the telephone.
When he joined the Boy Scouts, he was exposed to cooking over open fires. They began by cooking things like foil-wrapped catfish, but soon Alex was bringing marinated steaks and chicken to cook on the grill.
His interest in cooking continued into college. Using sinus surgery as an excuse not to live in the dorm his second semester at Mississippi State, Alex moved into his first apartment. “I made friends by inviting them over and cooking for them. Later when I had roommates, I took on the responsibility of cooking because I wanted the food to come out right.”
Thinking he might be good in the field of cooking, Alex spent a summer in Colorado to explore his options. “That was the first time I ever experienced a Whole Foods,” he recalls. He got a job helping a guy open a pizzeria. “It was really a front for a gambling operation,” laughs Alex. “But I thought, if this guy can open a restaurant, maybe I can too.” My dad came to visit, and we had a heart-to-heart talk about what I wanted to do in the future. I had a year left at Mississippi State to earn my business degree, and my dad said I need to work at a real restaurant in Starkville while finishing school to get experience and learn more about the field.” Alex went to work at the Bulldog Deli before landing a job at The Veranda. “That’s where I really got my feet wet.” He left for a while to work at the OkTok, a small two-cook, 30-seat restaurant. “It was a disaster! I learned there how bad things can get.”
The experiences confirmed Alex’s desire to learn more about the business, and he enrolled in the Johnson & Wales culinary program in Charlotte, South Carolina. He decided to attend that school because he wanted to stay in the South. Finding a job in a town that has an abundance of culinary students was difficult, but Alex ended up working at Rooster’s Wood-Fired Kitchen, which happened to be the restaurant where Alex and his dad ate on their visit to the school. While eating at Rooster’s, Alex’s father suggested that Alex try to get a job there. At Rooster’s, Alex met his mentor, Executive Chef Ramon Taimanglo. It was while working with Ramon that Eaton developed a passion for cooking with local ingredients and incorporating a Southern flair. Alex says, “Ramon not only taught me how to cook Southern foods, he taught me how to treat people and to respect the craft of cooking. I came to anticipate the seasons and got excited along with the farmers. It was amazing to me to see how those guys transformed ordinary pigs and vegetables into special things.”
After graduation, Alex thought about going to Charleston or Kiawah Island, but his girlfriend (now wife) wanted to get closer to her home of Biloxi. He explains, “We ended up in New Orleans, so we both had easy access to our parents, as well as my parents’ beach house and hunting camp.” The young chef worked his way around some of New Orleans’ finest restaurants, including opening Domenica with Chef Alon Shaya for the Besh Restaurant Group. “Shaya was a tough guy to work for. He was very particular. And John Besh ran his kitchens in a very militaristic style. My first week there, I was asked to cook for a party John Besh gave for one of his chefs who had gotten engaged. I had to cook on an outdoor grill, and everything went off without a hitch. That was one of the highlights of my career!”
Alex also cooked for Susan Spicer at Bayona before working at Mr. B’s. “That was perfect for me. It was an established restaurant, with people who had worked there for 50 years. I learned so much. I was in heaven! I was the lead sauté, and that gave me the confidence I needed to move on.” He let Jackson restauranteurs Bill Latham and Al Roberts know he was in training in New Orleans but ready to come to Jackson if the right opportunity opened up. Latham and Roberts had just purchased Table 100 in Flowood, and they didn’t really have a concept. “I had some ideas and I ended up doing a sort of episode of ‘Chopped’ for them. Within a week or two, they offered me a job working with Chef Mike Roemhild from Germany.” As Chef De Cuisine at Table 100, Eaton achieved many accolades including Best Restaurant, Best New Restaurant and Best New Chef awards just to name a few. “I spent two years at Table 100, and I loved it. We had weekly profit and loss meetings, and I always took notes. I was infatuated with Bill’s style and Al’s demeanor. After working with them, I decided I wanted to be a good businessman who happens to be a chef.”
Not sure he was ready to go out on his own, Alex decided he’d never really know until he tried. “Bill Lampton introduced me to Steven O’Neill. He had what I didn’t have, and I had what he needed. I helped to raise capital to open The Manship so that I’d have buy-in.”
The restaurant is in its third year, and it’s doing quite well. “I had the farm-to-table concept at Table 100, although I didn’t want to tout that. I believe that should simply be expected. With The Manship, I wanted to draw on my travels and places I’ve lived and cooked, as well as my Italian and Lebanese heritage, while keeping our ingredients as local as possible, from the artwork on the walls to the wood we use in our stoves to the folks growing the produce and other products we use.”
There are providers Alex uses all the time for items on The Manship’s menu, including Salad Days Produce ,Two Dog Farms Produce , and Mississippi Bees , all out of Flora. They use Delta Grind Grits from Water Valley and Gil’s Bread from Ridgeland. The restaurant’s coffee comes from Beanfruit Coffee, a coffee roaster in Jackson, as well as Mississippi Cold Drip. The olive oils and vinegars come from J. Olive Company in Ridgeland. Strawberries and heirloom tomatoes come from Reyer Farms in Lena, and the shitake mushrooms come from Mississippi Natural Products in New Hebron. Alex purchases pastured pigs from Home Place Pastures in Como and ducks from Chapapeela Farms in Husser, Louisiana, a farm that John Besh helps fund. He also buys produce from Covey Rise Farms in Husser. All the cheeses served come from St. James Cheese Company in New Orleans. The restaurant also uses other local vendors during different seasons.
“We began using Delta Blues Rice the minute it came out,” says Alex, “but I had to learn how to cook it! Alex explains that at The Manship they “parboil it, rinse it, then steam or bake it.” After they parboil and rinse it, they spread the rice out on a sheet pan with butter and bay leaves and slow bake it so the butter will soak into the rice. “It may take a little more time to prepare the rice this way but, wow, what a difference in flavor. That’s not something you can get out of an Uncle Ben’s box! The Arant family is just a great family. They are nice and polite and a pleasure to do business with. Knowing that I’m helping to support a family-run farm by using their product in my business is a good feeling. They support me too; they come in to the restaurant to eat from time to time.”
One of the most popular lunch dishes at The Manship is the Monday lunch special, which includes a hamburger steak with local shitake gravy, Delta Blues Rice and a choice of a side, a great deal for just $10.00. And that sprig of curly leaf parsley on each dish Alex prepares? “That’s an homage to my grandmother, who always garnished everything with parsley. It’s an emotional connection I have with the grandmother, and it’s become my signature.”
Written by Susan Marquez