Dining in the Delta
Oxbow Restaurant Owner Hayden Hall mixes country cooking with high-concept flavors along with a dash of community engagement
Interview by Casey Hilder | Photos by Yen Studios
For Hayden Hall, owner and head chef at Oxbow Restaurant in Clarksdale, cooking
is a journey that’s brought him full circle. From a lowly dishwasher in one of the Delta’s most revered restaurants to a regional restaurateur that has worked alongside culinary auteurs like Wolfgang Puck and Susan Spicer, Clarksdale’s hometown boy and his high school
sweetheart, Erica, have found a new
purpose in cooking their unique blend
of Southern fare.
Click Magazine: How did you get started in the food industry?
Hayden Hall: My first restaurant job was at Bill Luckett’s Madidi Restaurant around 2000. I was just a dishwasher at first, but I really fell in love with the atmosphere – the smells, the sounds, the people, all that stuff.
CM: Did you eventually undergo any formal chef’s training?
HH: I went to the Mississippi Culinary Arts Institute in Columbus. It was really small at the time I went there, but it’s definitely grown in the past few years, just as the industry has. So many people have really been pursuing this “route” nowadays and it really surprises me. I meet parents who tell me their kids are looking at med school, law or culinary school. I’m like “Whoa, I don’t know if those three gigs are in the same class.”
CM: How did the idea behind Oxbow come about?
HH: Around this area, you have a lot of Oxbow lakes... The word “oxbow” refers to a river that sort of breaks its path and then comes back to where it started, forming a lake there. I think it kind of reflects the journey that my wife and I went on over the past few years.
CM: And what started that journey?
HH: It’s kind of a serendipitous story, really. I was a chef at the local country club and decided that I wanted to see how the rest of the world lives. I started off by moving to Washington, DC, and opening a restaurant with Wolfgang Puck called The Source. My sister was working in DC and she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. We left to be with her. She’s fine now, though, but my time there really changed the direction of my career.
CM: Where did your path take you after that?
HH: After working and The Source and making a short trip back to Clarksdale to help a group of friends open a restaurant, we packed up and moved to New Orleans. I found a job as a sous chef working under Susan Spicer at one of her restaurants in the French quarter.
CM: What was it like working under Susan Spicer?
HH: She’s been around for so long that she’s basically an icon of the Southern food world – a complete culinary genius. Working for her definitely challenged the way I think about food. So many great people have come through her kitchen doors that are all big names now, in New Orleans and beyond.
CM: Did you pick up on any New Orleans-style cooking?
HH: Not at all. New Orleans wasn’t quite her style — I was trained to cook different cuisines, from Korean to Ethiopian. She specialized in these sort of worldly cuisines from all different cultures and ethnicities, which was cool for me because I’d grown up around Southern cooking my whole life, but I was just starting to see the real power of fusing that into more worldly dishes. That’s kind of what drives us at Oxbow now.
CM: Was there anything in the New Orleans culture that struck a chord with you?
HH: We got to New Orleans after Katrina and there was such a revitalization going on after the storm. We saw a lot of rebirth going on and a lot of similarities to our own hometown of Clarksdale. There was a lot of culture, grit, authenticity, music and history. We’d have loved to stay there longer, but I felt like our little town needed the same thing. But we definitely picked up a few notes from the New Orleans playbook to take home.
CM: What was the moment you decided to go home?
HH: One of the things that was really interesting to me about New Orleans was that everyone there knew about Clarksdale. I was always reminded of how cool the place was, although I had never really seen it myself. I remember seeing this saying on a T-shirt, ” Laissez les bons temps rouler,” which meant let the good times roll in French. I remember hearing that the origin of the quote had something to do with finding beauty in the deprecation. New Orleans people celebrate the beauty of these dilapidated, rusted out places that fill up their town. I thought to myself “Hey, I come from the most dilapidated place around. This can work.”
CM: What was it like when you returned home after years away?
HH: Used to, when somebody was here, they’re lost. It’s become something of a popular destination now. It’s amazing that so many of the businesses owned downtown are owned by transplants, people who came down initially for a festival or something and decided to stick around and get a piece of property.
CM: What are some ways you guys have been involved in the revitalization efforts?
HH: I’m the president of a group called Clarksdale Revitalization along with Roger Stolle and a few others. We just had a farmers market this past summer and we’re trying to build it up some more. The thing about the South is that we tend to move a bit slower, and I once heard somebody say that Mississippi is like the South, but more so. Well, Clarksdale can sometimes be like Mississippi, but even more so. We’re slow to adapt, change and add new things. That can be a good thing and a bad thing. We’ve got a lot to change that can’t happen soon enough, but some of the old standbys are part of the draw here.
CM: How did you guys come up with the limited menu items that have come to define Oxbow?
HH: We started out with really simple items, what everybody’s used to: burgers, chicken salad and pimento cheese – stuff that nobody would be scared of and everybody’s used to. But we took each recipe and tweaked them each one of. Take our burger: It’s not just a typical burger like you’d find in a country store. It’s got balsamic shallot jam, house made pickles and a bunch of little different things that make it unique. For a while, it was a learning process and you’ll occasionally have someone come up and ask “What the hell is balsamic shallot jam and why is it on a burger?” It took us a while to teach people and experiment a little. And one of the products that came from this was our seared tuna tacos, our most popular item.
CM: Where did you get the inspiration for the fish tacos? Doesn’t sound like an very Delta dish.
HH: Seared tuna tacos. Well, it’s completely random to this area and one of those things we just kind of threw on the menu, but it’s one of the things we did and it really stuck with customers. We had so many ordinary people who weren’t foodies – electricians, plumbers, farmers – come in and order this and ask about it. They’d always ask “Tuna? Like, from a can?” and I’d have to reassure them that it was seared in a wok, cooked rare and that sort of thing. From that point on, you’d see them in there two, three times a week ordering the stuff. That was kind of one of greatest accomplishments, teaching locals how to eat a new way.
CM: How about the rest of the menu?
HH: The rest of the menu is pretty average to the region, but the specials are what have set us apart. On a daily basis, you’ll see a bánh mì sandwich, Korean barbecue, a few vegetarian and vegan dishes. We try to — well, I hate the words “fusion” and “twist” — but there’s really no other way to describe it. We’re mixing a traditional item, that’s familiar to people like a taco and mixing in some kohlrabi. People tend to think “Well, it’s in a taco. How bad can it be?”
CM: What are some other ways Oxbow stands out from the crowd?
HH: But when we came back around 2010, it was a weird time in the economy and we were doing something a little different. A lot of the local diners had dozens of things on the menu, and we crafted our own menu with about six items. We stuck with that. Fewer items on the menu, sometimes it changes daily or weekly. We try to use as many local items as we can, nut here in the Delta we just aren’t there yet. Even folks up the road in Hernando have easy access to a big, open farmers market and we’re still struggling with that. Right now we’re looking to gain more support for local growers, as well as more outlets for them to sell.
CM: Kind of like tricking a kid into eating Brussels sprouts?
HH: Exactly. Everything we do, the food is the vehicle, but the overall objective is to revitalize and change some perspectives.