Each month, we’ll sit down with a different Oxonian to find out what makes them tick. For Ajax owner Randy Yates, it’s all about serving up classic Southern food for his loyal customers, a recipe that’s made the restaurant one of Oxford’s most iconic.
BY AUSTIN DEAN
(Photo: Bruce Newman)
OM: Most people know the nuts and bolts of how you got started, but tell us where the inspiration for Ajax was first born.
RY: Ajax was my grandfather’s nickname in college, where he was the house steward at his fraternity. He always bragged about how good his food was. He was a renowned host at his cabin at the Neshoba County Fair. We would have fried chicken, huge roasts, butter beans, peas, cornbread, rice and gravy, five kinds of cake. He had kids happy hour every day.
Oxford didn’t have a place where you could get barbecue, plate lunches, burgers and a cold beer or bloody Mary. When the location became available Currence and I jumped on it. Our recipes come from our moms, family members, Mississippi and Louisiana Junior League cookbooks. I worked for the Primos family in Jackson, also The Cherokee. Several of our dishes are based on favorites from old Jackson restaurants.
OM: Ajax is iconically Oxford, earning constant regional and even national recognition as one of the South’s best restaurants. What does it mean to you personally to be such an institution to Oxonians and the university community?
RY: It’s such an honor to own Ajax. The way the Oxford and Ole Miss communities have supported us is overwhelming. I think the greatest moment was when (Oxford Eagle) readers voted for us in “Best of Oxford” the first year that was a category. It was just a blank that said, “The best thing in Oxford is _____” And we were written in. I was just stunned. Two years later, we won it again.
OM: You’re always singing the praises of your employees, often giving them all the credit for Ajax’s success. So, what is it about your staff?
RY: The most amazing thing about Ajax to me is the longevity and dedication of the staff. So many have been there 15 years and longer. I’m not married, so they really have become family to me. I wish this whole article could just be a list of the staff’s names. That is actually a great idea. They make my job easy and a joy.
Chip Angelo, who owned The Cherokee in Jackson, taught me that people don’t work for me, they work with me. Leave them alone to excel, and help them all you can.
OM: What’s your perfect plate lunch?
RY: I am a pot roast with mashed potatoes, green beans and cornbread boy for life. Then again, it’s hard to beat pork chops, sweet potato casserole, and butter beans. Chicken and dumplings are what my mom would cook for me for my birthday every year. Catfish with slaw and turnip greens is mighty hard to beat. If we had room to fry chicken it would beat out all of these. I’d rather have it than lobster.