9 Questions With Two Jacksonville Top Chefs

Executive chefs Tom Gray (Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails) and Waylon Rivers (Black Sheep Restaurant) talk southern hospitality, their favorite foods, and what it means to be from Jax.

By Eddie Velosa

Executive chefs Tom Gray of Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails and Waylon Rivers of Black Sheep Restaurant, are two of Jacksonville’s most respected, innovative and exemplary chefs whose restaurants embody the future of this city’s thriving young culinary commonwealth.

Both are vibrant and passionate, and represent what it means to be from Jacksonville—a hotbed for aspiring chefs, emerging restaurateurs and foodies alike. Their contemporary American, farm-to-table cuisine and robust mixology programs are blueprints for emerging establishments thirsty to stake their own claim on the First Coast.

And with Sip & Savor Jax: Jacksonville Restaurant Week fast approaching, we wanted to share with you a little of what inspires them. Bon appétit!

1. What makes Jacksonville unique in terms of its foodie culture and culinary landscape?

Chef Tom Gray: Jacksonville is a true melting pot and you can't pigeonhole it into one main category. There are lots of ideas coming together from far and near, with a real sense of entrepreneurship and desire to contribute. I love that Jacksonville's neighborhoods are a way to identify the unique characteristics from our city. Southside is different from San Marco; Downtown from the Beaches. Each is distinctly unique and a draw for locals and visitors to enjoy the offerings.

Chef Waylon Rivers: It is a city on the rise in terms of building its food culture into something that is being recognized as a culinary destination. Obviously, we have southern heritage to build off of and access to great seafood. There is a group of talented chefs pushing us into the national spotlight.

2. What is your favorite food to eat? What is your favorite food to make? What is your most popular dish?

Chef Tom Gray: It's hard to turn down a good plate of carnitas tacos or fresh fish right off the grill. I'm a sucker for ice cream, too! Our most popular dishes at Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails is our Chicken + Waffles and our Deviled Eggs. So ironically, it's the proverbial question of: “Which came first?”

Chef Waylon Rivers: I like to eat all kinds of food so that is a tough one. It really just depends on what I'm in the mood for. One day it could be Korean BBQ, tacos or fried chicken. For the most part, the food I like to cook and eat is comfort food. When I am cooking at the restaurant, that could be served in a more refined manner, but in my opinion is still comes from a place of comfort to me. The most popular dish at Black Sheep is our Poutine with house made pastrami and smoke short rib gravy.

3. Other than the food, what is your favorite part about your restaurant?

Chef Tom Gray: Definitely the people! Moxie is all about the people. Whether they’re part of our staff or the guests that come every day to enjoy what we prepare and serve. People are the energy, the excitement, the noise! It's what I love most about being at Moxie every day.

Chef Waylon Rivers: The ambiance and atmosphere.

4. What does southern hospitality mean to you? How does your restaurant reflect this?

Chef Tom Gray: Translating my ideas of what "Southern" is all about at Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails is a very personal expression because I infuse traditional Southern-style with my own experiences, travels and ideas of what flavors I like to combine together. Ideally, for me, "Southern Hospitality" means serving foods with a genuine smile and friendly grace, that comfort the belly and satisfy the soul.

Chef Waylon Rivers: Southern Hospitality is making someone feel as if they are a part of your family even if you have just met them. It means being polite and addressing them in a respectful manner all the time. We try to embody this at our restaurant by instilling these values in our company culture from the top down.

5. What does it mean to be from Jacksonville?

Chef Tom Gray: I liked growing up here a lot, but I'm also glad my parents had a bit of wanderlust and traveled the world and took my brother and me on a lot of trips to different parts of the country. I appreciate now, more than ever, those days exploring and getting a chance to visit our relatives in Maine or South Carolina, or wherever we were visiting and connect with the culture of the region we were visiting.

Chef Waylon Rivers: It means being from a really big city with a small town feel. Everywhere you go in town it seems that you will always run into someone you know. People are usually really polite and you sense that when you are out. It has a pretty laid-back vibe with the beaches being so close and overall a pretty cool city to grow up in.

6. What are your favorite things about Jacksonville?

Chef Tom Gray: Jacksonville has a great core of entrepreneurs working hard to do interesting and creative things. I love being with people who have vision and the desire to create, and also the work ethic to make things happen. There is a lot of opportunity in this city!

Chef Waylon Rivers: The Jags, the beaches and “not so cold” winter.

7. If you could go anywhere in the world to eat (other than Jacksonville), where would you go and why?

Chef Tom Gray: I love the Basque region of Spain and would go back in a heartbeat!

Chef Waylon Rivers: There are so many places I still haven't been to that I would like to go to eat. Two that come to mind are Copenhagen and Tokyo. Both of those cities have such a density of high quality restaurants who embody the types of food and philosophies that I appreciate.

8. Where do you get your inspiration? What or who has inspired you?

Chef Tom Gray: Travel is always invigorating. Even if only for a few days, going to a new city that has a great food culture is a way to relax and unwind. Inspiration is everywhere if you are open to noticing it.

Chef Waylon Rivers: I am always reading and observing what is going on in the world of food. I take inspiration from my experiences growing up and also from food that I would like other people around me to experience.

9. What is one tip you would give aspiring chefs out there? Anything, could be in the kitchen or perhaps for those looking to open their own restaurant.

Chef Tom Gray: While there is a lot of excitement in the kitchen and restaurants, they also require an extraordinary amount of work. Being able to do what you love and are passionate about is a true honor, just know there are long days and nights ahead for anyone who chooses cooking as their profession.

Chef Waylon Rivers: Stay organized, never stop learning and be prepared to sacrifice a lot to achieve your goals. You will only be successful in this industry if you are willing to challenge yourself and take risk.

Find out more about Jacksonville’s vivacious epicurean culture, restaurant and bar scene. Learn how to Sip & Savor Jax during Restaurant Week and discover a boundless array of fine dining options.

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