Southerner by Tractors owners seek to bring 'sophisticated Southern' cuisine
It's a lot like having children, admitted restaurateur Teresa Blankenship.
She said opening a restaurant pairs a sense of boundless potential with acute anxiety. There's even the same lack of sleep.
"I have three children," she said, plus she and her husband Steve started the popular uptown restaurant Tractors in Jackson two decades ago.
"At first, it was 'Oh my goodness,'" she said. "Then I felt like I could handle it. Then the next one comes along and turns out they're a whole different animal."
But like children, she said, that's what makes restaurants fun.
"I couldn't do something that was the same day in and day out," she said.
Located in the Drury Plaza Hotel and Conference Center in Cape Girardeau, the Southerner by Tractors is the Blankenships' new project -- one heavily influenced by her upbringing in Batesville, Mississippi.
"We shelled purple-hulled peas and dug potatoes. We always had a garden," she said. "So I knew what that kind of food was supposed to taste like ... the hospitality, the selection of scratch items. There's something about the South."
Scratch-cooking in youth is an experience Blankenship shares with the Southerner's executive chef, Jason Evans.
"I started with my mom as a kid in the kitchen," Evans recalled.
In fronting the Southerner's kitchen, Evans said he sees an opportunity to engage his own creativity and that of his staff.
He's the one infusing an heirloom meatloaf recipe with smoked Gouda, Blankenship said. His is the homemade brown-sugar ketchup.
"I like to say he 'chefs' everything up," Blankenship said.
The result is what Evans calls "sophisticated Southern" cuisine.
Their offerings include "Mammaw's Hushpuppies," "Piggy Mac" (and cheese) and "Three Deviled Eggs Went Down to Georgia."
The dashes of Dixie extend from the menu to the drink selection -- ample bourbon stores, of course -- to the decorations.
Black-and-white photographs of Steve's grandfather and parents working on their Bootheel cotton farms hang near the hostess' table.
"Our vision is to show some of our Southern roots," Blankenship said.
The menu is small on purpose, Blankenship said. That helps keep it nimble.
Evans said it also will help him keep kitchen staff engaged by having, for example, a cooking competition to see whose dish gets featured on the weekend menu.
"Aces in places," Evans said, citing a mentor's philosophy. "It's utilizing the right people for the right job."
The restaurant's aces include general manager Cameron Bennett, assistant managers Marcellus Jones, Claire Skelton and Erin Bollmann and sous-chef Zach Martin.
"All of them bring local experience," Blankenship said.
And, yes, Tractors is staying open.
"We are absolutely going to [continue to] have Tractors," Blankenship said. "We love Tractors."