“You make a living by what you get; you make a life by what you give.” — Winston Churchill
I n spring of 2001, when I had just moved back to Memphis from New Orleans and started scouting locations to open my restaurant, I came across two separate features in the Lifestyle section of The Commercial Appeal that highlighted two legends of the Memphis restaurant scene. Charlie Vergos of Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous and Thomas Boggs of Huey’s Restaurant were both titans in this business, but they were humble men who were always happy to share their secret to success. The advice they gave was simple, yet invaluable to me as I began to think about how I wanted to model my business: Always count your blessings, and pay them back to the community that gives them to you. One of the things that makes Memphis such an epicenter for cuisine is the sheer volume of unique, locally owned restaurants that call this city home. From the old and established eateries that have stood the test of time by consistently providing delicious food, to the young and contemporary places where fledgling chefs are showcasing new talent and ideas, thousands of distinct culinary voices lend this city its flavors. Memphis is not a perfect place. But amid its poverty and blight, the food scene serves as the pulse of the community, a positive force that brightens lives and brings together people from all walks of life.
I can’t afford to write big checks to nonprofits as corporate America can, but what I can give is my time and my craft, like so many others in this city. More than a hundred nonprofits in Memphis approach chefs daily for charity requests that include everything from donating gift cards to serving 750 bite-sized portions at a black-tie event. The Memphis social calendar is brimming with chef-driven dinners and galas for nonprofits.
These large-scale and high-dollar events are great for high-profile charities, but they’re not the only way our food scene gives back. Perhaps even more important and closer to my heart — although far less publicized — are the grassroots efforts that require the food community’s help and support daily. The spirit of generosity that flows so freely from the Memphis food scene isn’t just restricted to restaurant owners, but permeates the industry on every level — from food distributors to line cooks, waiters, caterers, cooking instructors, food writers, cafeteria workers, soup kitchen volunteers, and the list goes on. Their gifts include such things as running the coffee cart at the Memphis Farmers Market, teaching a cooking class for the Church Health Center, instructing a four-week series for teens through Knowledge Quest, and helping plant and maintain any of the dozens of community gardens scattered across the city.
Memphis is filled with givers whose labor of love is food. These are the community’s unsung heroes. I’d like for them and for Memphis as a whole to know that their efforts are what make this city such a wonderful place to call home. The food scene has played a pivotal role in shaping Memphis culture, but the real reason we’ve thrived to such an extent is the support of a community that opts for local over chains. Next time you’re at an event, look around and I guarantee you’ll see the usual suspects — your local restaurateurs — plating up food with a smile.
We owe much to the community, and we’ve found our way of giving back. I think that Charlie Vergos and Thomas Boggs would be proud.
A Jonesboro, Arkansas, native, Felicia Willett is the executive chef and owner of Felicia Suzanne’s restaurant in downtown Memphis. She is also the creator of Flo’s Homemade Goodness, an all-natural gourmet product line of pickles and preserves.
• Photography by Justin Fox Burks •