Restaurant nominated for James Beard Award less than a year after opening
By ALEX JACKS
Emily Blount combined her love for the big city and small-town life when she established Saint Leo of Oxford less than a year ago.
Blount opened her wood-fired Italian restaurant after settling in Oxford. Never did she believe her vision would influence so many people in such a short amount of time.
Saint Leo was nominated for a 2017 James Beard Award. The James Beard Foundation presents annual awards to United States restaurants, chefs and writers for excellence in cuisine, culinary writing and culinary education.
“We were nominated, along with 25 restaurant across the country, for the best new restaurant in the United States,” Blount said. “The awards are announced at the beginning of May. When I found out, I was blindsided.”
Blount generally does not use awards as incentives to fuel her endeavors.
“This was not my intention,” she said. “I didn’t have it in my head that this is what I would be going after. When I found out, I was shocked and amazed. Even if we do not make it any farther, it has lit a fire underneath me to continue to do well. We are just at the beginning.”
Saint Leo opened its doors for business on June 30, 2016.
“My husband is originally from Jackson, and I am from California,” Blount said. “We met in New York, where I worked as an actress. After getting married and having our kids, we decided we did not want to raise them there. When we moved to Oxford, I knew I wanted to do something in the hospitality industry. I have a passion for hospitality and food.”
While getting established in her new town, Blount began to notice how receptive the Oxford community was to food. When she realized how well a new restaurant would be welcomed, she made up her mind to open one. After homing in on the idea of establishing a restaurant, Blount began researching.
“At some point, I homed in on wood-fired pizza,” she said. “I grew up eating Italian food a lot, and I love it. I love food. Once I decided on the concept, I got very serious.”
Although she is not the chef at Saint Leo, Blount attended school at Verace Pizza Neapolitan in order to understand the concepts behind Italian food. It took her several years, with the help of friends and family, to establish the menu and atmosphere she wanted for her restaurant.
“One day I struck up a conversation with a friend of my husband, Dan Latham, who was a former Oxford restaurant owner, about my business venture,” she said. “That conversation began a collaboration between the two of us. He actually is a restaurant consultant, which I didn’t know at the time. But he helped me figure out a lot of aspects of Saint Leo.”
“We traveled to different places across the United States together to figure out the taste profile,” Blount continued.
Every item of the Saint Leo menu is based on the principal of Italian food, she said.
“Not all of the food is strictly Italian, but the where we got the idea and base of the food is,” Blount said. “We wanted enough options that spoke to different people. Healthy eating is also so important to me. I wanted delicious options that would not limit people. We focus on vegan, gluten-free, organic and local ingredients.”
Although most of the meals coming out of the Saint Leo kitchen are pasta and pizza, the eatery also offers dishes such as spicy seafood stew, Blount said. The restaurant also has an in-house bakery, where the desserts are made, she said.
In addition to providing wholesome food, Saint Leo offers a comfortable modern atmosphere with a little rustic flair.
Saint Leo is housed in a shotgun-style building on Jackson Ave. “I had a very particular idea of how I wanted it to look. I am a very aesthetic, detail-oriented person. I wanted the restaurant to be welcoming to all,” Blount said.
Blount believes she has had a strong economic impact on the community of Oxford by employing more than 60 people.
“I defiantly have a sense of pride and excitement about the jobs I was able to bring here,” she said. “I did not understand the impact until I was in it. The responsibility of employing people is important to me. It’s taught me a lot.”
Blount would like to see Saint Leo progress.
“I want to see us continuing to get better at our craft,” she said. “I want to continue bringing hospitality and great food to the forefront of our community.”
Saint Leo is open Monday, Wednesday and Saturday from 11 a.m. till midnight, Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. For more information or to view the full menu, visit www.eatsaintleo.com.