Photo by Isaac Harrell
When 31-year-old Simon Smith, a native of Oxford, Miss., moved to Richmond last August to pursue a culinary career, he knew that it would be a challenge to break into the local industry. But it didn't take him long to find his niche — in January, he took over as executive chef at Popkin Tavern, a casual restaurant in Monroe Ward.
Smith's hometown not only boasts the University of Mississippi, where he once pursued a business degree, but also James Beard Award-winner and Top Chef Masters-alumnus John Currence. Smith cooked at Currence's flagship restaurant, City Grocery, until he relocated to Richmond last year.
Just as Virginia-born chefs are often inspired by the bounty of local watersheds, Smith, too, has been influenced by Mississippi's natural resources. His ultimate goal is to open a restaurant of his own that pays tribute to the food he grew up eating. Smith's Delta drawl quickens as he clarifies the ins and outs of all that is buttered, battered, deep-fried and seasoned with cayenne.
"It was nothing for me growing up to catch a few catfish, skin and fry them up for dinner," he says. "It's such an obtainable resource [in Mississippi]; you can catch them in your backyard."
Popkin Tavern is known for its selection of 24 craft beers on tap and loyal billiards crowd, but the restaurant faces stiff competition in a several-block radius. Rappahannock, Comfort and Lemaire, among other nearby restaurants, attract diners from across the region. Smith is eager for Popkin Tavern to develop a similar reputation.
"My goal is to offer easily understood pub food using quality ingredients," he says. "I'm not trying to develop ultra-fine-dining recipes. I don't think anyone comes to Popkin [Tavern] looking for a $50 steak."
Brian Lawrence, general manager and former head chef at Popkin Tavern, echoes Smith's ideology.
"Our job is to deliver what people want," says Lawrence. "I try to make sure that we have Southern staples on the menu that people are familiar with but [that have a] unique twist." Lawrence says he has already seen improvements since hiring Smith — the restaurant's Valentine's Day dinner was a success, and at press time, Smith was working to unveil his new spring menu in late March. Several new dishes reflect his Southern upbringing, including Cajun pasta and blackened catfish with crawfish étouffée.
Smith and Lawrence are in the process of expanding the restaurant's charcuterie program and intend to develop more recipes that incorporate craft beers. "I would like," says Lawrence, "to see a fresh perspective on the food that we are putting out."
Sample Smith's take on Southern cuisine at Popkin Tavern, located at 123 W. Broad St., serving dinner Monday through Saturday. Follow the restaurant on Twitter @PopkinTavern to receive updates.