One of Oxford, Mississippi’s oldest and most noteworthy establishments, City Grocery, has named Eric Tait its newest chef de cuisine. Once nicknamed “Saladman,” Eric now mostly goes by Tait. Now it’s his time to shine as he officially takes the helm in one of the most prominent kitchens in a town with a booming dining culture.
Oxford has always had an interesting and dynamic food scene, at least for the nearly twenty years I’ve lived here. When I first arrived, I quickly found myself in the middle of the glorious chaos of the Square’s restaurant community. This culture remains one of my favorite things about living in Oxford—there is a sense of solidarity among industry workers that endures even as the culinary landscape changes and grows.
Diners who frequent local restaurants often build relationships with the people who work in those spaces. You may have your favorite server or hostess who always greets you by name, or a beloved bartender who recalls your usual order. But how often does the casual diner interact with the kitchen staff? Don’t forget that a restaurant’s success relies on a healthy collaboration between the more visible customer-facing folks and the back of the house workers who may only emerge from the heat waves of their stations when the shift is over.
Chefs can be mysterious. In a post-Food Network era of celebrity chefs elevated to rockstar status, we have come to expect big personalities in the kitchen. We imagine crisp, clean white coats adorning a no-nonsense professional with crossed arms and serious RBF. It’s a familiar trope for the profession, but in my experience most chefs are not so “hard.”
Chef Tait definitely doesn’t come across that way (see his press photo below for a good sense of his personality). He is young, for sure—but at thirty-three he has already been working in kitchens for seventeen years. More than ten of those years have been in a leadership role.
Tait spent his early childhood in Mobile, Alabama, and eventually moved to Iuka, Mississippi, where he finished high school. He had his earliest food service experience there, first delivering pizzas for Mr. C’s Pizza Company, and later working for Freddy T’s at Pickwick Lake. After graduation, he moved to Oxford, which he now calls home.
A stint at Lenny’s Sub Shop (RIP) preceded his arrival at Bouré, where Tait began to make connections within the restaurant group. Soon he found himself traveling alongside City Grocery founder John Currence to food and wine festivals across the country. He recalls one standout incident when he and Currence arrived at their hotel.
“We were doing the Chicago Food and Wine Festival, and Andrew Zimmern was sitting over with the Foo Fighters in the lobby … and [John said] let’s go talk to these guys real quick. I was like, oh just the most famous TV chef and the [expletive] FOO FIGHTERS!”
Besides getting to meet famous people at big events, Tait’s travels with John helped him to hone his approach to all manner of details on the job, including what he refers to as the “politics.” “It’s all about pleasing people,” Tait says.
Indeed, the Grocery is famous for the exemplary hospitality of its staff. They are known to go above and beyond in the execution of service, which is a feat many of their peers aspire to but often fall short of the high-water mark set by Currence’s team.
Tait likes to run his kitchens with a sense of silliness and camaraderie. The kitchen environment can be overwhelming, with the sweltering atmosphere next to a sizzling grill, the bodies bustling to and fro; the back of the house is no place for timid souls. But it doesn’t have to be grim or tedious. A fast-paced kitchen will thrive with the right leadership. Tait manages to keep morale high while holding the chaos at a controllable level for successful service. Tait’s team benefits from his youthful enthusiasm, which is backed up by a strong work ethic and the intensified level of adulting required to raise a young child.
John Currence recalls watching Tait essentially grow up in the restaurant group. “Our relationship goes back, gosh, almost 20 years to when he first came to Bouré. Eric was a kid, and Eric acted like a kid, and then he grew up into a young adult who still wanted to be a kid,” said Currence. But after a break from City Grocery Restaurant Group, armed with the new perspective gained from fatherhood, Tait returned asking for a second chance.
“When he came back on board, he was the backbone of … the restaurant,” Currence said.“It was very easy for me to see, and he has done nothing except impress me and everyone around him with his dedication and ability.”
The Grocery has been through many eras in its thirty-plus years of service. A testament to that longevity is the loyalty of so many of the staff who have been with the restaurant for ten or even twenty years, which is generally unheard of in the high turnover culture of restaurants. When I asked Tait why he thought people stay at the Grocery for so long, he said “When you cook, sometimes you have a mother—the mother sauce, something left over from the batch before. Then you always save a little bit, and it keeps that flavor, the essence of this is what you don’t want to lose. There’s always been a little bit of mother personality [here].”
It is a thread that carries through over time. As people come and go, they leave their marks on the history of a place. It’s up to the next generation to honor and continue that tradition while remaining true to their own role in the story. Regardless of the inevitable changes, you will always be able to get the famous shrimp and grits if you want it, and you will always walk away from a Grocery experience feeling its authenticy.
One aspect of Tait’s approach in the kitchen is what John calls the “humble nature of his food.” City Grocery has long held a reputation for being a place for special occasions, somewhere to go for celebrations and elegant dates and an extraordinary dining experience. And while the Grocery is still that place, it is also becoming more of a neighborhood restaurant where friends can have a fun, relaxing lunch or enjoy asophisticated dinner any given night. Currence says he has always aimed for the Grocery to serve food that is approachable—quality-driven but recognizable—rather than overreaching and trendy.
This love for his craft shines through in Tait’s approach to cooking and his eagerness to learn and grow.
“He’s cooking from his heart,” said Currence. “I think people who are into food love to be able to connect with the person who is cooking for them.”