For Miles McMath, the key to owning a culinary landmark and becoming a celebrated chef at the James Beard House in New York — one of only a few in the entire nation — is a love for what you do and plenty of hard work and determination.
McMath returned from New Orleans about 13 months ago to his wife's hometown and to reopen his down-home-style restaurant that has helped put Hernando on the map.
It's a restaurant that bears his name, "Junior's," a nickname that conjures up plates of catfish, cornbread and pitchers of sweet tea.
But don't let McMath's folksy demeanor and humble personality fool you. The 46-year-old has ascended the heights of culinary greatness.
McMath, besides being accorded the honor of becoming a James Beard chef — a title which gives him cooking privileges at the New York restaurant anytime he desires — has starred in nationally-syndicated cooking shows on the "Food Network" and the "Cooking Channel."
As the former Executive Chef and Director of Culinary Operations at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, he's the only former hospital chef ever given cooking privileges at the James Beard House.
'That's an honor because you have to be invited," said McMath. "Once you are invited, you can cook there anytime you want. You just have to let them know when you would like to come up."
McMath attended the James Beard House culinary exposition with fellow chefs Felicia Willette from Felicia Suzanne's in Memphis, Andrew Michael of Andrew Michael's Italian Kitchen and Ryan Trimm, owner of Sweet Grass in Memphis.
He has owned Junior's twice and returned this last time in order to spend the next few years in his wife Julie's hometown as his boys, Graham, 14, and Gus, 9, and daughter Mary Ann, 15, finish school.
McMath most recently worked as executive chef at Jacmel Inn Restaurant in Hammond, La.
Junior's continually wins the love and admiration of his customers.
"We'll have 200 to 300 people for lunch in here daily," McMath said.
The restaurant is open Monday through Friday, from 10:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. nightly.
"We're even open on Mondays, a day when some restaurants are closed," McMath said.
His two sons, Graham and Gus, have been working in their father's restaurant this summer. Wife Julie keeps the restaurant's books and handles the business end of the eatery.
He has three employees who are learning the kitchen and service side, Clay Payne, Darren Reed and John Allen.
McMath, a member of Bakers' Chapel United Methodist Church, is also active in his ministry outreach work, assisting individuals in the community to get back on their feet after encountering misfortune.
McMath said it's in his nature to give back to the community.
"The relationships that I've built in the community have lasted," McMath said, adding that he moved to the Hernando area when he was 19.
McMath, a native of Birmingham, Ala., said he and wife Julie have put down roots.
He hopes that love for community is reflected in his cooking and the dishes that he serves.
"It's the people, the history of this town that I love," McMath said. "It's still a quaint, cool, old town, although it's growing fast. The people make it special."
McMath began cooking when he was just 15. Wild game was his introduction to the culinary arts.
"My mother didn't really like to cook game so at 15, I began to cook game like squirrel, rabbits and venison," McMath said. "With Southern food, you taste memories. Now, with so many restaurant chains having branded concepts, there is not too much character to it (some food). Here, we get comments like 'man, that is just like my great-grandmother's cooking.' It's a dying art. People don't write down recipes any more. You have the Delta and the Hills, or Appalachia. We have a Delta and hill tradition here. It's part of what makes us unique."
Robert Lee Long is Community Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune. He may be contacted at email@example.com or at 662-429-6397, Ext. 252.