Derek Emerson, Jackson’s Best… Cook?

(Photo Courtesy of Chef Emerson)

Derek Emerson is one of the most unique characters in the Jackson restaurant world. His reputation as one of the best chefs in the South is well earned, but he prefers to be called a cook, and what a cook he is.

Alongside his wife Jennifer, Emerson oversees his three incredibly successful restaurants in the Jackson area. His food is nationally renowned while he keeps things simple: sourcing the best ingredients he can find and letting the flavors stand on their own. He also operates off of maxims like “butter makes it better.”

The state of Mississippi doesn’t have a better friend to local farmers. One local grower is known for saying, “If I could find 10 more Derek Emerson’s, then I wouldn’t have to worry about my farm anymore.”

Emerson has been cooking in Jackson for years, but he’s most well-known as the chef/owner of the historic Walker’s Drive-In.

But Emerson started his career on an unlikely path. “I was a sandwich artist at the Subway on Northside Drive,” said a laughing Emerson. Soon he graduated to some of Jackson’s most well known kitchens where he spent time working for Grant Nooe at Brick Oven and Dan Blumenthal in the early days of BRAVO! Italian Restaurant & Bar. From there, he moved to Atlanta where he honed his skills for five years.

He returned to Jackson in 2000 to serve as Executive Chef for the opening of Schimmel’s with Jay Schimmel. He served there for a little over a year before he heard about the opportunity that would change his life: Walker’s Drive-In was for sale.

Walker’s Drive In is an institution in Jackson.

Walker’s has operated in the same location for over 50 years, but Derek breathed new life into the venue when he took over in 2001. In the years since then, Walker’s Drive-In has become one of the most important stops on any culinary tour of Mississippi.

As the name suggests, Walker’s used to be a drive-in diner. Located in the hip and historic Fondren area in Jackson, Walker’s offers a truly unique dining experience. The outside of the building remains unassuming and true to it’s drive-in heyday while housing one of the best dining patios anywhere in the city. The food is… simply world class.

Jackson’s foodies pack in just as tightly for the more casual lunch as they do for what has become Jackson’s finest evening dining scene. Over the years, Jackson’s secret got out and Emerson received impressive national recognition for his efforts. Named to countless lists in regional and national publications, he is also a four time James Beard Award nominee for Best Chef – South. The James Beard Awards are the Oscars of the restaurant world, and one nomination in a lifetime is a towering achievement. Four is otherworldly.

Thanks largely to Emerson’s unique take on Southern food and the success and recognition of his efforts at Walker’s Drive-In, a new era was ushered in for the Jackson restaurant scene, proving that food in our home town could be as good as food anywhere in the world.

As chefs and restaurateurs often do, Emerson continues to push the envelope.

In 2009 he opened Local 463 in Madison. Then in 2014, Emerson noticed a missing link in Jackson’s exploding culinary scene, so he added an intimate wine bar of the flavor that flourishes in larger cities. In the space right around the corner from Walker’s, Caet Wine Bar (pronounced KATE) features an expansive wine list that offers differently sized pours by the glass of amazing wine bottles. Lucky for us, the food never takes a backseat. Caet’s menu features mostly small plates that are meant to be shared, and Emerson’s signature style of rich thoughtful food is on full display.

Derek Emerson and his restaurants are Mississippi culinary treasures. You can enjoy Walker’s Monday thru Saturday for lunch and dinner. Caet opens Monday thru Saturday at 4 PM.

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