By JACK WEATHERLY
Who in his right mind would start a restaurant during a major economic downturn brought on by a pandemic?
Paul Adair, that’s who.
He had no control over it.
“The train was already rolling,” Adair said as he sat at one of the tables in Dumbo’s on Duling in the Fondren District of Jackson on Wednesday, the eve of the opening.
A lease had been signed and construction, however slow during the pandemic, got underway.
The restaurant, on Duling Avenue at State Street in the former CAET location, was supposed to open in April, he said.
Then the coronavirus nearly shut down the nation’s economy.
So there were two major hurdles. The slowdown, and then dealing with the reality of the plague – social distancing, limitations on seating and of course the masks and sanitizing steps.
It’s hard enough for an established restaurant to deal with the restrictions brought on by the virus.
First impressions can be lasting.
But for a newbie, “the first impression of the restaurant is a hostess with a mask on,” he said.
It’s not that Adair, 38, is a newbie.
He’s got a full decade under his chef’s apron. That was after he enrolled at Ole Miss in engineering only to find that he was not cut out for academia.
His father, Dr. Tom Adair, professor of physiology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, said that he was not going to send his son to college just to drink beer and have a good time, Adair said.
But it was not all wasted time. Adair worked at a couple of Oxford restaurants.
Next came five years in the Army, where he reached the rank of sergeant and participated in two deployments during the Iraq war, where he experienced the reality that someone was trying to kill him.
After mustering out, he attended the prestigious Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, New York.
Then a 10-month tour at 11 Madison Park in New York City before returning to Mississippi and Table 100 in Flowood.
Next he collaborated with Bowen Eason as the first chef and partner at The Gathering in the Town of Livingston in Madison County for five years.
He felt he was ready to make the next move in his career.
It took a year to put together a voluminous private placement plan for investors.
Then came the 150-days-out plan, where particular things had to be checked off each day.
He enlisted Mary Sanders Ferriss, designer of many hip, new restaurants in the Jackson area and elsewhere, and Scott Allen of A Plus Creative Signs, which creates hip, new signs.
Adair made sure that some of his interests were incorporated into the design. The running green borders along the edges of the tables include chess pieces, reflecting that he was a two-time junior state champion in the game.
So far, so good.
Perhaps his experience in the Army – with its “hurry up and wait” philosophy – had helped to prepare him for what came next: the pandemic.
Putting together a serious menu does take time, so maybe the dark cloud of delay had a silver lining.
You might not know it from the name of the restaurant, but fried chicken is its signature dish.
Why not in a city in the Deep South?
But why not do it a bit different?
Fried chicken at Dumbo’s comes in three flavors – Southern (of course), Honey Butter and Nashville (spicy).
Obviously this ain’t how your mother or grandmother cooked it.
It’s how a noted California chef, Thomas Keller, prepared it, Adair says.
What sets it apart, for example, is that it is soaked in a brine bath to add flavor and ensure moistness before it is put in the skillet.
There are sides that sound familiar, including collard greens, macaroni and cheese and butter beans.
And to drink with the fried chicken?
Champagne, he unhesitatingly offers.
Mais oui, Bubba.
Pre-dinner libations include an array of mixed drinks, both house and classic.
They might challenge the champagne. After all, what goes better with a hen than a rooster, which the name “cocktail” seems to suggest?
One of the house creations, Dumbo’s G&T, has a calling card with that name.
And that name?
It could be taken as a commentary on the dicey time to open a business.
But it seems that Adair’s ears grew fast when he was a kid, before the rest of him could catch up.
And it caught on. The name of the restaurant is a belated reply to those taunts.
Paul is quick to say that he is not doing this alone.
There are about 30 on the staff, including general manager Jessica Quinn, who comes from the Gold Coast at the Cultivation Food Hall in the District at Eastover, where she was bar manager, and executive chef Rashanna Newsome, most recently executive chef at Aplos in the District at Eastover. Newsome graduated from the Washburne Culinary Institute in Chicago.
Betsy Adair, Paul’s wife, is part owner and in charge of pastries, and she is mother to their three children.
Well, how did the first night go?
About 70 customers showed up and “it went really well,” Quinn said on Friday.
Oh, and the exterior sign went up on opening day.
BEFORE YOU GO…
… we’d like to ask for your support. More people are reading the Mississippi Business Journal than ever before, but advertising revenues for all conventional media are falling fast. Unlike many, we do not use a pay wall, because we want to continue providing Mississippi’s most comprehensive business news each and every day. But that takes time, money and hard work. We do it because it is important to us … and equally important to you, if you value the flow of trustworthy news and information which have always kept America strong and free for more than 200 years.
If those who read our content will help fund it, we can continue to bring you the very best in news and information. Please consider joining us as a valued member, or if you prefer, make a one-time contribution.Click for more info