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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Slick Rick's Cafe: A Daily Special

Story and Photos by Elodie Pritchartt

When the workers started renovating the newly closed restaurant on North Pearl Street in Natchez three years ago, I wanted to tell them not to spend too much money.  I’d seen restaurants come and go — good restaurants with good food.  And I’d about decided the location was jinxed.   I’d tried the restaurant business, myself, once.  I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.  It’s a tough business.  

The proprietor, Rick Simons, was young and eager and going all out to make it something good.  With a shaved head and a few well-placed piercings, he looked as though he’d be more at home in a heavy metal band than a kitchen.  I love being proved wrong. 

Since Slick Rick’s Café opened three years ago, there’s been a steady stream of hungry diners.  With just a handful of tables inside and one big table outside, its all-day hours make it an easy fit for anybody’s off-hour appetite.   

So what’s different this time?  The food.  And what’s so different about the food?  Its originality — Rick has a knack for taking an everyday dish like chicken salad or BLT and turning it into something special, using unusual ingredients like Portobello mushrooms, sundried and heirloom tomatoes, black bean salsas and special sauces and dressings he prepares himself with spices he creates, himself.  

He offers wraps and sandwiches using whole wheat or spinach tortillas, wrapped around tequila-lime marinated shrimp, blackened chicken and pork loin, toasted French bread topped with a spicy crawfish sauce.  There’s always a tempting assortment of pastries and cupcakes on hand, as well.

Rick has created his own line of organic spice mixes, which he sells in the café and calls red, black, salty and spicy, chili, garlic and herb, steak, and red-hot.

“You know how an artist likes to use certain colors in his paintings,” says Rick.  “These spices are like my palette.  Every chef likes to put his own signature on the way the food tastes and looks, and that is what you might call my thing.

Turns out I was right about one thing.  Food wasn’t Rick’s first choice.

“When I went to school I got my degree in recording arts for sound and music in Orlando, which is kind of the exact opposite of what I’m doing now,” he says.  “But they’re both creative ways to make a living,” he adds.  “It’s one of the few things that involves all the senses — seeing, tasting, touching, smelling.”

Simons learned how to cook at the foot of an African-American woman who worked for his family in Sandersville, Mississippi.  Rick knew her as Mama Johnnie. 

“I would hang out in the kitchen with her while she cooked,” he remembers.  “I’d pull out the bottom drawer in the oven and pull out all the pots and pans and get in the oven and watch her cook.  I learned how to make gravies and roux.”

Rick first got serious about food after a stint in college working for a catering company.  Not long after he started work full time at a restaurant, starting out as a dishwasher and eventually working his way up to second cook, then kitchen manager for daytime lunch.  He moved on to Chappy’s La Font Inn in Pascagoula where he remained for two-and-a-half years.   Then Katrina hit, and the restaurant was destroyed.

He moved to Natchez and tried a short stint in real estate, which just didn’t satisfy his creative urges.  He got a job at Monmouth Plantation, starting out helping in the kitchen and working alongside another noted Natchez chef, Regina Charbonneau.  He was eventually hired on an as the executive chef, helping open the fine-dining restaurant 1818.

“I wrote their first menu,” he recalls.

After about a year he started creating his spice line and went to work on Slick Rick’s café. 

He’s twice won first place in the Clash in the Kitchen fundraiser competition for the Mississippi Firefighters Memorial Burn Association in Jackson, MS.

The restaurant is now doing some remodeling of the kitchen as well as the menu.  Alongside its tried-and-true dishes like crawfish bread, the ultimate BLT, Mexican shrimp wrap and Rick’s famous chicken salad, he’ll introduce some new dishes, although he’s keeping most of it under wraps.  While you wait for your food, you can browse the spice collection, the pre-seasoned, cast-iron cookware and the beautiful, pink Himalayan salt blocks for seasoning or presentation.  He’ll also be doing more catering.

“I want to change the way Natchez sees the food industry,” he says.  “I’ve always heard that if you’re going to do something, pick one thing and do it well.” 

I think he’s done that.  Very well, indeed.

Slick Rick’s Café 107 North Pearl Street, Natchez, MS 39120  Phone 601.445.9900.

Hours Monday – Friday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m – 9 p.m.