GREENWOOD — She’s always had two canvases. Plate and picture. A thoughtful taste, a considered look find spots where global influences dance on Southern ground at chef/artist Taylor Bowen-Ricketts’ Fan & Johnny’s. Jalapeño slices and pineapple chunks, warm and sweet, cuddle on flatbread under a mozzarella blanket. A painting of ripely rendered oranges nudges a thought of Cézanne filtered through Southern folk. Both passions find fresh expression at Fan & Johnny’s. Her year-old lunch spot at 117 Main St., named for her maternal grandparents, is the restaurant that ha s teased her imagination since childhood. Known for her artisanal Delta fare, Bowen-Ricketts was a semi-finalist in the James Beard Foundation Awards for Best Chef — South in 2011. “Pretty awesome,” she says. This past October, she and other talented chefs were invited to share A Tate of the Delta at the James Beard House in New York.
Some major influencesBowen-Ricketts grew up in Jackson and returned to her Oxford birthplace for college at Ole Miss, studying art, philosophy and religion, “probably three of the most useless degrees there are, for the restaurant business,” she says with a peal of laughter. Well, maybe not. That bold painting of the oranges is her creation. Ditto for the old quilts, freshened up with her artwork and additions, that pull double duty on brick walls as sound absorber and a warm touch. Making food and making art have long been Bowen-Ricketts’ twin passions, from drawing pictures on the job at her dad Bo Bowen’s office to early stints at Rainbow Co-op and For Health’s Sake in Jackson. Her mom was a utilitarian cook, but visits to grandparents, Fan and Johnny Black in Louisiana, opened another world. “They made it a party,” she says — an all-night affair with lots of exciting flavors and fun. “That got me from a very young age. “I always told them that I wanted them to open a restaurant,” she says, and a fictitious eatery bearing their names would turn up in the background of her drawings. She was in college when she lost her grandfather. “When he died … I quit the sorority, I started working at the Hoka.” Grades fell, but she was getting an education. Oxford is where she really got into the food business at the Hoka Theater, the late-night hangout and its from-scratch Moonlite Cafe, and then at friends’ new vegetarian Harvest Cafe. Fresh, whole foods were characteristic of each. “So my cornerstone of food was just real cooking,” she says, “not necessarily healthy food but fresh food and fresh ingredients, and paying more attention to the flavors. “I am by no means a vegetarian, but it makes you pay more attention to the other components of the meal, or the ingredients you have on hand, when you take away that fence post.” It wasn’t glamorous. It was exciting. “From the beginning of the first food-related job I ever had, I felt just as much inspiration from slicing tomatoes as I did … making art. “It just all made sense.” Her Oxford years were peppered with a string of restaurants for her and husband-to-be Darby Bowen-Ricketts, including John Currence’s and Palmer Adams’ then-new City Grocery and Darby joining friends to open Proud Larry’s. She and a friend opened Yocona River Inn. Graduation fit in somewhere. “I didn’t go to class much. But I was definitely learning,” she says, crediting great folks she worked for and with at each step. “The creative freedom was there.” She recalls conjuring a weekly menu at Harvest Cafe, “just vegetables, and there weren’t a whole lot of fancy ones like you have now — it was just mushrooms, onions, potatoes, carrots. And a lot of it was grown there.” Meet farm-to-table, decades ago — “very similar,” she wryly notes, “to this area, 100 years ago.”
An artful touch“All this time, I’m making art and selling it,” she says, curating art shows at restaurants and, after her own family’s start, teaching art classes in her home studio. “She really cooks like she paints, and paints like she cooks,” says pal Martha Foose, cookbook author and James Beard Foundation Award winner in Greenwood with artwork by both Taylor and Darby in her kitchen. An oysters and biscuits dish at Fan & Johnny’s is “a real Tayloresque sort of thing. It’s fancy, but then she’s got this homey element of the biscuit, that I think is a real treat.” Foose’s go-to? A barbecued shrimp po-boy, “all good and buttery and Worcestershire-y,” that piques her own Hoka nostalgia. Another longtime friend, LeAnne Gault, describes Bowen-Ricketts’ food ways. “She pulls flavors and inspiration from all over the world to come up with these just fabulous dishes that take you on this journey. … There’s Asian and Middle Eastern, but it’s all kind of dragged through the swamp at the same time. You know, not in a bad way,” she notes those Louisiana kitchen roots. “She is world-class. … Everything she does is honest and true to who she is,” Gault says.
Mississippi Delta-boundThe Ricketts landed in Greenwood about a dozen years ago, for an opportunity at the Viking-owned Delta Fresh Market and restaurant that focused on organic and gourmet foods. It was ahead of its time, she says, recalling efforts to straddle the tastes of culinary professionals on one hand, Delta housewives and farmers on the other, on an iceberg lettuce and fried food landscape. The restaurant part moved into its own space on Main Street as Delta Bistro, and “grew into awesomeness,” she says. Formal culinary education in intensive classes built on the hard-knocks knowledge she’d gleaned on the job. But times changed and the opening of the additional restaurant Delta Bistropub around the corner proved a drain. The original Delta Bistro — “that I had put my heart and soul and sweat into,” she says — was closed. The new place was a frustrating fit for her; she dissolved her restaurant partnership with Viking founder Fred Carl, took time off and geared up for a fresh start. She never stopped cooking. The 117 Main St. location, reborn as Fan & Johnny’s, marked its first birthday July 11. It’s open to the public 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays and Friday evenings in the summer, plus hosts private events. Bowen-Ricketts also fits in game dinners, as well as private chef gigs at hunting camps, she says, chuckling, “which are not ‘camps’ at all.” Fan & Johnny’s vision circles back to what Bowen-Rickets always has wanted to do with her life. Cook high quality, very conscious, good food— “a dying art in this country” — for the community. Spend time with her teenage daughters. Make art. “And, I want to be able to do all of that,” she says. Her earliest food memories are very sentimental and Southern, she says. “Even though I take influence from all kinds of global cuisine, the foundation is definitely Southern food. I take that and use mostly regional ingredients,” she says. She uses customer feedback, too. “I try to let them steer my ship. I want them to be happy.” Atmosphere, company, mood all play a part. Her clientele includes many talented hostesses and relatives thereof, “and that’s what they want their food to taste like.” She’ll tap her own collection of old, spiral-bound cookbooks for inspiration. “However, I skip over the cans of condensed mushroom soup.”
Photos by Rory Doyle