McEwen’s brings a decidedly unique taste to Oxford.
Though the restaurant originated as a branch of McEwen’s Memphis, it quickly found its niche on the Square just two years ago.
“When we opened, we carried a lot of [McEwen’s Memphis] stuff, but we quickly realized we had two different markets, said executive chef Rob Ray. “We made it through the first football season, and the menu just wasn’t what Oxford wanted. It’s great food when you’re in Memphis, but we kind of had to make it our own.
According to Ray, regional dining preferences are usually easy to define.
“People are like, ‘oh this isn’t New York you can’t sell a $100 plate.’ It’s exactly the same when it’s just an hour down the road,” Ray said.
What makes McEwen’s food truly unique evolves from Chef Rob’s dedication to using only locally produced food and ingredients for his dishes.
“Basically, when I took over, the first thing I did was get all our of our food purveyors to go through all their lists. They have thousands of items and I wanted to know what was in Memphis, Tennessee, Alabama and Louisiana,” Ray said. “I bought everything and somehow I put it on our menu. Sustainable foods are the only way you’re going to make it.”
One of McEwen’s largest local providers is Woodson Ridge Farms, the source of its daily “Farmer’s Plate” lunch special. According to Chef Ray, Woodson Ridge Farms chooses the vegetables and he makes a dish for the day. Other providers include St. Bethany Fresh in Pontotoc and High Point Coffee Brewers in Oxford.
Occasionally, Mother Nature adds a layer of complication when it comes to sustainable food supplies though. If a crop fails, then McEwen’s is out of luck. The menu is constructed seasonally, though typically a season doesn’t go by without some changes.
“People have been pretty open-minded about McEwen’s; we change our menu a lot, a minimum of four to five times a year,” Ray said. “To some chefs and restaurant owners — even customers — it’s frustrating. I love it, our managers love it, the staff loves it and our customers seem to adjust.”
For Chef Rob, commitment to sustainability and non-mass produced products is much more important than a constant supply.
“Yeah I could get carrots year round, but do you know where those carrots are coming from, because I sure as hell don’t,” Ray said. “I’d rather get my carrots from Woodson Ridge and when (the crops) fail, I’m like ‘what else you got?’”
A go-with-the-flow attitude is a necessity for those devoted to sustainable foods. Chef Ray urges diners to be open minded about the seasonal availability of some foods. To him, the priority is to be sustainable and green.
“The best thing about my job is that it’s ever-changing,” Ray said. “Very rarely, do you get bored. If you do get bored, then you need to change something.”
Getting to know the local purveyors is another favorite focus for the talented chef. Not only does he know his suppliers, he relies on them as well. Ray said that despite the horror stories circulating about the sky-rocketing cost of beef, and poor crop yields around the country, he is grateful to have steady farmers who offer McEwen’s quality and quantity far surpassing anything he could order from California or Mexico.
“You can form a relationship with [suppliers],” Chef Ray said. You know they come in here and I get to see their face, I get to see the dirt on their hands.”
The Oxford McEwen’s staff is constantly involved in local charity events and often collaborates with Ole Miss. The restaurant also hosts private parties and events and takes its food to several competitions each year. But none of that compares to the adventure and mystery when a regular — but undisclosed — customer comes to town in his or her private jet.
“We have this person, who we’ll keep anonymous,” Chef Ray said. “We cater their private jet when they fly into town. They’ll call us when they land, say ‘hey we need food’ and it’ll be so specific — like avocados. When we don’t have avocados, I’ve got half the kitchen running frantically around town trying to find Cape Cod chips or anything to substitute. They’ll say ‘oh we need this in 45 minutes.’”
The mysterious guest challenge fits perfectly into Chef Rob’s playful approach to cuisine and makes him and the staff feel like contestants on the Food Network. Chef Rob said it’s more like playing than work. He enjoys trying new ingredients, textures and tastes.
The undeniably unique McEwen’s Oxford prides itself in its understated flare.
“We really rely on word of mouth. We believe in advertising ourselves by having good service, good food, and making people happy,” Ray said.
– Grace Sullivan is a student in the Meek School of Journalism and New Media.