A husband-and-wife team will see a lifelong dream realized and one of the city of Jackson’s most eclectic areas will add another unique venue in August.
Chef Jesse Houston and Rachel Horn Houston are bringing a new oyster bar dubbed Saltine to the historic Duling School building in Jackson’s Fondren neighborhood. Saltine, named for the cracker commonly eaten with oysters, promises to offer a menu of creative oyster and seafood dishes with a bright, modern ambiance that also pays tribute to the history of the area and facility.
“We looked all over Jackson for a site for our restaurant, but we couldn’t find anything,” Rachel remembered. “We wanted to put the restaurant in Fondren — we felt it was the perfect fit for us — but there was nothing available. Then, the space came open in the Duling School. We finally found our place, and it was where we always wanted to be.”
For both Houstons, Saltine is the culmination of career plans.
Jesse is a native of Texas, who first began cooking as boy.
“My parents divorced, and I went to live with my dad,” Jesse said. “He wasn’t very good at cooking. A lot of meals went straight in the garbage.” He added with a laugh, “I started cooking to keep from starving to death.”
Finding his place in the kitchen, Jesse went on to culinary school in Texas where he would meet Mississippian Craig Noone. Noone often mentioned that his goal was to return to Mississippi and open his own restaurant, and Jesse told him that if ever realized that dream, he wanted to cook for him.
“One day, he called. I packed up and came to Jackson. I had never been here; didn’t know anything about the city,” Jesse said.
Working at Noone’s Parlor Market in Jackson, Jesse began a love affair with oysters, researching their local history and studying the differences in their flavor and preparation from one area to another.
He would subsequently go to Oxford to cook at John Currence’s City Grocery before returning to Jackson to begin work on Saltine.
By that time, Jesse had already met Rachel, who has a wide educational and career background including front-of-house management and design. A native of Jackson, Rachel showed early on that she had diverse interests, earning three undergraduate degrees from Mississippi State University. She originally worked in the banking industry, but feeling unfulfilled joined her mother’s kitchen and bath business. She went from handling payroll to becoming a certified designer before the economy forced the business’ closure.
However, Rachel had been working on and off in the restaurant industry, waiting tables and gaining experience in management. She relocated to Nashville, Tenn., working in design and moonlighting in restaurants, before moving back to Jackson to be with Jesse and work on the Saltine concept. (The couple will soon celebrate their second anniversary.)
The Houstons ran into a challenge that threatened to derail Saltine before it even got past the conceptual stage. Because Duling School is an historic site, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History has requirements for the space that the Houstons had not expected. Negotiations and new plans cost the couple time and money, but in the end both said the changes were a plus.
For instance, the Houstons are bringing back many of Duling’s features, such as restoring the vintage lockers. They are also incorporating themes from “Moby Dick” and “treasure Island” and using file folders and clipboards to enhance the school atmosphere.
All of this has not hindered the Houston’s vision. In fact, it has grown. Originally envisioned at 3,000 square feet, Saltine, which is expected to employ approximately 50 workers, will be closer to 3,300 square feet, and the number of seats has increased from 100 to 140.
Oysters will be sourced from the Gulf of Mexico as well as both coasts and Canada. Menu items will include oyster backs with pickle juice and bourbon, salt-crusted trout, smoked catfish pate with caviar and broiled tune collar.
Work on Saltine continues, and the Houstons said they are confident the restaurant will open in August.
For more on Saltine, visit www.SaltineRestaurant.com.