Spunk, boldness, pluck, determination. All are synonyms for the word moxie; all are apt descriptions of Chef Tom Gray. His culinary evolution has made an indelible food-print on the First Coast.
Sitting in the office that he shares with his wife Sarah Marie Johnston, in their space at the trendy and comfortable Broward Studios on Felch Street in San Marco, you can sweep your eyes over the wall and tables and quickly sum up the energy and ideology of this local culinary legend.
“Excellence is born of preparation, dedication, focus and tenacity. Compromise on any of these and you become average,” is one quote hanging on the wall that clearly attests to the vision, talent and drive that made Chef Tom a First Coast icon.
His food-print continues to evolve as he and Sarah Marie make another bold step forward. A step that takes moxie.
“Dream Bigger,” is another framed saying in their office; that is what Chef Tom and Sarah Marie have done with the conception of Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails, opening this month at the Markets at St. Johns Town Center. This labor of love started as a culinary dream that grew to an idea and has flourished into the reality that is Moxie. Coming at the pinnacle of his already illustrious culinary career, Moxie also represents the next step in the evolution of Chef Tom.
The fact that Moxie is Jacksonville-centered is evidence that Chef Tom is anchored to the First Coast; he is a native, one of our own – a graduate of Orange Park High School. He and Sarah Marie have made a conscious effort to remain on the First Coast. “We love Jacksonville,” he says. “We love the people and we are connected to our neighborhood.”
The Evolution Begins
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Chef Tom’s culinary career started in New York City. It evolved as he cooked and collaborated in Los Angeles, San Diego and Napa Valley – where he met Sarah Marie, who as the former manager of The Campus Store at the Culinary Institute of America also understands food, flavors and how to makes guests feel welcome. The offer to be a founding partner and executive chef at Bistro Aix brought them back to the First Coast. Bistro Aix opened in 1999 and became a local favorite. And as the love of his food spread among his patrons, his patrons became friends. The pair departed Bistro Aix at the end of 2012 to focus energies on their new restaurant project.
The growing restaurant community and relationships with other local chefs further cemented their First Coast roots. Chef Scotty Schwartz, of Fernandina Beach’s 29 South, started the ball rolling on local chefs getting together in each other’s home to cook together. “We have a good network in our community of chefs and restaurateurs,” says Chef Tom. And while there might be some friendly competition, there is mostly a spirit of gratitude that local food is being celebrated by these chefs and their dining guests alike.
The Next Step
So the arrival of Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails, specializing in contemporary American cuisine is heralded by these local chefs as well as the food loving First Coast public as surely as it continues Chef Tom’s evolution. “I love the name Moxie,” says Chef Tom; it has a personal touch as well. “It means gutsy, but it is also the name of the state drink of Maine and I used to drink it when I visited Maine as a child,” explains Chef Tom, and clearly those Maine summers are memorable childhood standouts. “We’ve collected experiences, ideas and food and Moxie is an infusion of all of those things,” adds Sarah Marie. General Manager Jerry Mullen rounds out Moxie’s executive management team.
If you know Chef Tom and Sarah Marie, you know their attention to detail which is clearly one of the hallmarks of their local success. This twice-nominated James Beard Award for Best Chef: South, 2009 and 2010, pours his heart into his food, wine, cocktails and the atmosphere that allows them to be presented in their finest light. Daily trips to the Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails construction site – they both have their own personalized hardhats – not only have added to their growing excitement over their project but have allowed them to manage step by step, what is going into the building. Their office also mirrors their keen desire to pour themselves into Moxie – blueprints, china samples and menu mock-ups are just a few of the items that give a feel for what’s in store. Every aspect of Moxie is on their daily radar. It is both their business and their baby.
The St. Johns Town Center neighborhood seems an ideal location. “It is the center of every direction in Jacksonville and we are creating something there that has not been there,” says Chef Tom. “We’re growing our local food options and complementing what is out there with a local element. We want to deliver the message that we are locally owned and that Moxie is a true family run restaurant.”
The Art is in the Details
Continuing their community connection at Moxie is crucial to them and the kitchen is designed with that in mind. “Our guests can sit facing the kitchen and see all that is going on back – we have removed a last barrier that typically exists between the dining room and the kitchen,” he says. “We want our guests to be able to say hello and really feel like they are at our house.” Other personal touches are the art centerpieces by local artists Dennis Campay and Mico Fuentes that fill the restaurant’s open spaces.
They carefully source their ingredients to lessen their carbon footprint. “We make the most of what we have here and get a lot of our resources from Twinn Bridges Farm in Macclenny,” says Chef Tom. He has worked with Twinn Bridges since 1999. Fresh sustainable food was the way they cooked in California at the time but it was just starting here on the First Coast when they arrived.
“We source local but we also look at the smartest sustainable choice. For seafood we look at our First Coast options and then work our way up the coast. Above all, we want the products to taste good,” says Chef Tom. “We make the best decisions for our guests based on flavor and wholesomeness.”
Their food is prepared with a light touch and fresh local flavors. Moxie will feature, among other things, charcuterie, a wood fire grill and diverse menu offerings for lunch, dinner and weekend brunches. “We’re not trying to duplicate what we’ve done in the past. Moxie is completely fresh and new. Our main goal is for every guest to leave saying ‘Wow that was great,’” says Chef Tom. Cocktails also take priority. “Tom is a cocktail enthusiast,” says Sarah Marie. “He likes to muddle and stir.”
The signature dish on Moxie’s menu? “I won’t know until my guests tell me,” says Chef Tom, because it is the guests who will determine which items on the Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails menu will become fresh local favorites.