Rachel Phuong Le is perusing the dessert cases at La Brioche Patisserie in Fondren.
"If I get something, will you share it with me?" she asks.
She decides on a fruit tart and the "Anna" entremet, which features Nutella mousse and hazelnut praline crunch. When the desserts hit the table, she immediately takes out her Canon DSLR and begins taking photos.
Food photography was her entry into the food world, she says. Those who frequent the Jackson Foodies and Eat Mississippi Facebook pages may recognize her name from her work, as she is a frequent poster on the former and an administrator for the latter.
The Long Beach, Calif., native moved to Jackson about six years ago. She was only supposed to stay for six months, but when she got here, she says that she fell in love with the hospitality and never left. Now, she is preparing to launch her own restaurant, Poké Stop, in Jackson as part of the incoming Cultivation Food Hall, set to open in the District at Eastover this summer.
Recently, the Jackson Free Press sat down with her to talk about life, eating, cooking and bringing other food cultures to the metro area.
What brought you to Jackson?
My sister (Tami Le) has a business out here, and she's kind of by herself, and we don't really have family out here. So literally, she called me, and she said, "Can you come out with me a few months just to hang out?" ... I put in my two weeks (at Ross Dress for Less), and I said, "Get me a ticket." That week, I flew over here, and after that, I just kind of really fell in love with the town. She was really surprised because when you're from a city, and you have everything at your fingertips, a lot of times people don't really want to relocate. I came to find out that I think I'm not (as much of a) city girl as I thought I was.
... I think part of it is being in California ... not everybody really talks to each other much, so you kind of lack that being able to talk to people.
I came home to visit (recently), and I was sitting in my front yard, and a neighbor walked by with her dog, and I was like, "Hi, how are you?" He heard and grabbed his dog and went across the street. People don't interact with each other. It's kind of like, "You mind your business; I mind my business," so I feel like I didn't get to experience that for like 27 years of my life. Now that I'm here, I'm like a talking, walking machine.
How did you get into food?
... It started off back in, like, 2005 when I got a little camera phone, and I was like, "What should I take pictures of?" and the only thing I enjoyed taking pictures of was food. Back then, it was just so weird because everybody would look at you like, "Why are you taking pictures of French fries?" ... (Now) I'm a walking menu, pretty much. It's funny. I don't even know where some of these people come from. ... I'm on other food pages, and I will just have random people from Washington (asking for restaurant suggestions).
The other day, I had someone from New York go, "Hey, where should I eat when I'm in New York?" and I'm like, "I've never been to New York, so I don't know."
It's nice to see where everyone is at and where my pictures are going, just to see people getting inspired by what I eat, by wanting to cook it, by wanting to go out. People share with me their recipes, their food pictures, and I just love it. ... I could scroll through my Facebook all day, and I would not get tired of it because I love every single food page that's out there, so all day long, all I look at is "food, food, food, food."
How did you get into cooking?
I think it's because, being in a very traditional Vietnamese family, a lot of times, the mother is like, "That's my kitchen. That's my area. You don't get to enter my area."
They don't even want us in there, so I never got to really learn cooking from (my mother). When I was on my own, that was when I said, "I really want to get into cooking, and I want to just learn how to make these things that I'm eating at restaurants."
... I was pretty young when I started taking pictures of food, so what, I was like, 16, 17, you know? It (wasn't) like I could afford to go out all the time, so when I was eating, I was trying really hard to remember in my mind, like, "What's it taste like? What similar spices can I use? What texture is this that goes into this dish?" And I tried to mimic it as much as I could when I got home. What motivated me was being able to copy that dish and make it look exactly the same, and it became a hobby. It became really fun. Now, I just completely enjoy it because it's like, "I taste it. That's what it looks like. Copy it, Rachel." And I come home, and sometimes, I can make the exact same thing, and it's so satisfying because it's like your work of art.
Tell me something memorable about the Jackson food scene.
I will always remember being at Bully's (Restaurant for the first time). I looked it up for good southern food. I had never really had southern vegetables or anything like that before, and so I looked up this place, and it was in downtown Jackson. I was talking to someone, and they were like, "You're going to go to that part of town?" I said, "What is so scary?" ... I went, and I sat in the front for a second, and I (said to myself), "It's OK, Rachel. You're going to go in there. What's so scary about this?" I go in, and the first thing I saw when I walked in was a woman standing there, and she was like, "Hi, welcome! Come on in!"
They sat me down, and I sat next to a JPD police officer, and he was eating—it was on a Monday, and he was eating liver and onions, and some veggies.
So I said, "I'm going to order what he's having." That was my first time having liver and onions, and southern-style vegetables, and rutabaga. I had never heard of rutabaga until I moved here.
Oh my gosh. It's like six years later, that is still my all-time favorite place to go. ... It's not just there because of the food. (It's) just feeling like I'm at home, even though I've never had a southern family, but they make you feel so welcome. ... It was so memorable to me because that was when I realized I love southern vegetables, and after that, I started going anywhere for southern food because I wanted to try different southern vegetables.
Why choose to stay in Jackson over cities with bigger food scenes like Atlanta or Memphis or Chicago?
I think because I have a connection to more of the locals and the people here. I just enjoy it more. Every single time I walk into any local restaurant, (I'm) not just there for the food. I'm there to see Mrs. Glenda (Cage Barner at Sugar's Place). I'm there to see Mr. (Tyrone) Bully. I'm there to Geno (Lee at Big Apple Inn). So it's like, they're welcoming, they say, "Hi," and you're talking; you're conversing. So when you're at these other places, they might have different food that is good, it's a different scene, but you don't feel that homely connection. And a lot of people, even though it's through food, you need that connection. You need that personal connection. That's what really keeps me here, and that's what I really enjoy: going out and patronizing these places.
Why is it important to bring other food cultures into Jackson?
I think that Jackson has a really good food scene. I think people here really long to try different things. I think they want to, and I want to be the person that introduces them to that. ... I've really enjoyed the last few times I've had (foodie) meet-ups, where I show people, there's (Carniceria) Valdez. There's Pho Huong. There are different places you can go and try different things, and now these people love (those) places. They're willing to try it; it's just no one is there to show them, and sometimes it can be a little intimidating.
I know it's something that Jackson wants. I know it's something that everybody here wants, to try something different. There are just not enough people to bring it in, and even if some people do bring it in, do they trust those people, really? I want to be that person. I've always (supported) other Asian local businesses, too. I'm like, "You've got to go over to this Thai place if you want Thai food," and then, I let them know what starter dish to get because you've got to kind of push people into it a little bit. ... To me, in the near future—this is just the beginning—I really want to bring other cultures' food here and introduce Jackson to it.
Give me an example of starter dishes.
At any Thai restaurant, if you were to go, I would really recommend pad Thai. Pad Thai is just a stir-fried rice noodle dish, so you can get any kind of protein you want. You can do chicken, beef, seafood, whatever you prefer, and pad Thai doesn't have a lot of spice in it either because a lot of Thai food is very spicy, or it's very tangy. (Pad Thai) has a very good balance between tangy, sweet and spicy.
For Vietnamese food, absolutely pho. Pho is amazing. It's slow-cooked beef bone broth, and usually, we cook it for 12 to 24 hours, so you get all the fat and flavor from the bone marrow, but when people try pho, they're just like, "Well, there's a lot of different meats in there." For starters, I always tell everybody, "If you're going to have pho, get the meatball and beef brisket." They're fully cooked, and it's nothing weird. Just meatballs and brisket, and then after that, you can try other things.
I did a meet-up probably back in (November)—the first meet-up to show the pho experience. It was about 25 people that joined, and now it's like all of those people go on a regular basis, and now they try different things. They try pho with tripe; they try pho with shrimp; just different things. I give you a starter dish, and it's what you feel comfortable with getting after that.
How did the idea of opening Poké Stop JXN come about?
I've had it multiple times in California and different places, and (when I go) I kind of pick and choose what I like. So (I was) like, "We don't have any of that here." We need something that can cater to a lot of different kinds of diets because nowadays, everybody, they can't eat gluten, or they're gluten-free, or they're dairy-free, or they're low-carb, or something like that, and vegetarian. And we don't have a lot of those options, so I wanted to bring a healthier, lighter fare to Jackson because I feel like we need it, and then, I wanted to bring a lot of really good, fresh ingredients, and also be able to cater to people who are dairy-free, gluten-free, (on a) low-carb diet, who are trying to eat healthier, so I'm trying to promote a healthier lifestyle, as well.
It's like, you can eat (whatever food) you want, just in moderation, but then also, you know, you can come here and eat as much as you want and don't really feel the guilt too much.
When I'm visiting (California), I eat multiple times a day because I just love going on the food adventures and trying out new stuff and trying different cuisines. Every time I go back, there's always something new, and poké was just one thing that I was so, so in love with.
What is poké?
We're going to be using a lot of fresh sashimi, sushi-grade fish, and it's (quick-) marinated, or it's in a sauce. ... Basically, you get to customize your own bowl. It's like doing your own sushi roll, but instead, it's deconstructed sushi rolls in a bowl. It just makes it easier to eat. That's how they do it in Hawaii. I'm going to have specialty sauces, so every time you come in, you're going to have a different kind of bowl, so you're not going to be having the same thing every time.
... Even when I've been to a few in the South, the poké places, I just feel like what I have and the sauces that I've come up with are really special to what I'm starting up. To be honest, it's very unique; it's very different, so I'm very excited about that. I've even told my friends in California about it, and they're like, "That concept is a little different," you know, and "I wish we had something like that here." I feel like Jackson is going to get something very special that even big cities aren't getting.
What makes it unique compared to other poké places?
I have six sauces in the making already that are delicious. We had (them) in the test kitchen, and it was just phenomenal. I'm still trying to come up with a few more sauces, specialty, just for that. My sauces, basically, there's no way you can go home and copy them. To be honest, if it's something I can go make at home myself, then it's not that satisfying because I'm like, "Eh, I can make this at home."
But I know how the consumer feels, so I want to make sure that it's something where when you eat, you feel special—where I know this is not something I can duplicate at home, and I can only get this here. I want it to be like that because a lot of poké places I've tried, it's like, "OK, I can go home and do the same thing." I wanted to make it ... my own, so I've gotten with a chef here (Alivia Townsend), who develops a lot of sauces for the restaurants around here, and she helped with a few of mine.
Why is it important to eat at and support locally owned restaurants?
Because you want to support local people that live here, that invest in the city. Every time I can, I try to eat at locally owned restaurants because, to me, it's just like I feel at home, and the food to me is better. I feel like they can cater to what you like, versus big chains, it's hard for them to cater to what you want. I can go into Sugar's and go, "Hey, I want my waffle crispier today. I want a little bit of cinnamon on it. Let me do this and that." And they'll be like, "OK." They'll give it to you however you want it.
I like to be able to support locally owned businesses because, to me, it's just like I'm helping out my brother, I'm helping out my sister. That's how I see them. Why would I want to put my money somewhere else when I could just help my brother and sister out?
For more information on Poké Stop JXN, find the restaurant on Facebook and Instagram.