Char restaurant executive chef Derek George grew up in landlocked Iowa, but a culinary trail through kitchens in New Orleans, Knoxville, Jackson, and New York put plenty of polish on a meat-and-potatoes base.
“I almost feel like, sometimes, I’m revisiting my roots,” he says at the steakhouse with blue plate lunch specials. That’s fine by him, particularly with Char’s expansion during the seven-plus years he’s been on board. “It’s incredible; it really is, how we’ve grown,” he says, with catering and expanded dining space to accommodate the restaurant’s growing business.
Char’s comfortably classic ambiance swings from approachable Southern specials at lunch to white tablecloths, lower lights, high-end steaks and fresh Gulf seafood at night. In the foyer and throughout, black-and-white photos highlight prominent Mississippians in a way that says “home” and “special” in the same breath. That’s echoed on the plate, too.
“I promise you, we have the best New York Strip in the area,” says George, an admitted “ribeye guy.” “That strip is just incredible. It cuts like butter, with just absolutely top-notch flavor.”
George’s restaurant resume got an early start. He bused tables as a teen at a family restaurant chain and then progressed to waiter. His move to New Orleans at 18 — “quite a culture shock, to say the least” — woke up and shook up that young Midwestern palate. Fresh seafood was a revelation. “You don’t really eat seafood in Iowa. It’s usually frozen. … I couldn’t stand shrimp until I moved to the coast — crab, crawfish, any kind of fish that comes out of the Gulf. It just awoke that in me.”
He helped manage the Denny’s on Veteran’s Boulevard in New Orleans, but the front of the house work proved wearing. “In the front, you’ve always got to be positive of attitude, smiley, smiley, and it’s just not my personality, to be frankly honest,” he says with a chuckle. “I was like, what the heck? Let’s try the back of the house.” It wasn’t unfamiliar territory. Off and on through the years, he’d helped in the kitchen whenever possible. Even before then, with two parents at work, he’d learned to cook out of necessity.
“Once I started working in restaurants and realized there was more out there than roast and baked chicken and pork chops — that’s what led me to learn how to cook and develop my own palate.”
George’s first kitchen position was as a sauté cook at Copeland’s in Slidell, and next to Knoxville to help open another location. Over several years in Knoxville, he worked in pretty much every kitchen in town, he reckons, between main and second jobs at locally-owned eateries, including a French fine dining spot and the now-closed Italian Market & Grill. “At that point, I realized that I had a knack for this, so I wanted to expand upon my knowledge.
“That rock’n’roll lifestyle is probably part of the appeal, too, when you’re young,” along with the camaraderie and family feel of the restaurant world, he says. His culinary background also includes a previous Jackson stint at Nick’s and graduation from the Culinary Institute of America.
At a Southern-accented steakhouse like Char, beef may be the star draw, but signature seafood dishes earn a shout-out, from George, too. Pecan-crusted Blackfish is a popular pick. No-Filler Crab Cakes, with jumbo lump crab bound by a bit of pancake batter and Dijon mustard, shine with bright, angelic sweetness. Sin City BBQ Shrimp’s spicy creole sauce delivers a delicious, devilish kick. Plenty more classic, down-to-earth options tempt, too, with the quality and attention that dub them simply special. Located in Highland Village at 4500 Interstate 55 North Frontage Rd, Jackson, MS, Char opens at 11 am daily for lunch with lunch specials offered until 2 pm. Dinner service ends daily at 10 pm.