Not only has Emily Blount joined the ranks of those who built Oxford’s already-flourishing food scene. She’s raised the bar.
BY GINNY COOPER MCCARLEY
PHOTOS BY TAYLOR SQUARE PHOTOGRAPHY
Something about the space struck Emily Blount the first time she saw it.
Sitting vacant and unbothered among the Square’s signature spots, it grabbed her while on a walk with her family. The bones of the building reminded her of New York, where she lived for a decade before moving to Oxford with her husband, Dan – a Mississippi native – and their two children.“I immediately knew it had potential,” Blount says. “I guess the New York style and feeling of it make me feel at home.” The culmination of that potential is Blount’s restaurant, Saint Leo.With Blount at the helm, the restaurant has more than capitalized on the building’s promise. The white marble bar serves a steady rotation of Oxonians sipping craft cocktails. The place stays packed most weekends, often with a wait.
The positive reception was instantaneous (even the restaurant’s three pop-ups before the opening were well attended), but the development of the restaurant was a long-time dream for Blount, whose life has been imbued by food.
Originally from Mill Valley, California, a city just minutes from San Francisco, Blount moved to Boston to study acting before pursuing a successful theater career in New York City. She landed a role in New York’s longest-running off-Broadway show, Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, also appearing in independent films, television and commercials.
However, after Blount met and married her husband, Dan, a native Mississippian—“I thought his Southern accent was so charming,” she laughed—and had children, the couple decided they didn’t want to stay in the city long-term with their family.
“(Dan) was like, ‘Come on, let’s give Mississippi a chance,’” Blount says. She agreed, with the stipulation that if she didn’t love the small town life in two to five years, they would move.
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Blount attributes her interest in food to her mom, in part, an avid gardener who supported the farm-to-table organic food movement in the late ‘60s and ‘70s.
Her childhood was spent traveling and eating a wide variety of food.
“Food was just always a really big part of our life,” Blount says. “There’s something about people sharing food together that’s always been attractive in terms of being a social person.”
Blount got her start in the service industry at a very early age, working as a hostess at an Italian restaurant in Tiburon, California, but her longest running—and most influential—restaurant experience was in New York City, where she worked at the classic French bistro Raoul’s in SoHo.
“That place was very formative, just because I loved everyone who worked there so much, loved what they did. The pulse of it was addictive, really,” Blount says.
Though she’s no longer acting on stage, the restaurant business isn’t so far removed from her first career, Blount says.
“Every service is a show, and a performance to a certain extent. I love that about it,” Blount says. “In a lot of ways it’s similar to Tony n’ Tina’s. The interactiveness, the unpredictability of what every day will bring is the same.”
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When Blount moved to Oxford, she knew she wanted to open some sort of hospitality related business, and oscillated between running a restaurant, a food truck, a bar, or a bed and breakfast.
“The seed of the idea was there,” Blount says. “I was always sort of circulating something.”
After researching possibilities, Blount decided to focus on wood fired pizza and local, farm-to-table food.
With the concept in place, Blount sought advice from John T. Edge author and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and self-proclaimed “big fan” of Saint Leo. Edge suggested that she travel across the region to see what other restaurateurs were doing.
“After that conversation, that’s what I did. It was very caloric and lots of fun,” Blount says.
Blount sought out all the best Italian and wood fired pizza joints in the South. She ate at Tribecca Alley in Sardis, Miss.; Post Office Pies and Bottega in Birmingham, Ala.; Antico Pizza in Atlanta, Ga.; Domenica in New Orleans, La.; and Hog and Homily in Memphis, Tenn.
After researching, planning, and preparing for years, the restaurant opened on June 30, and stayed busy through the summer and into the fall.
“It’s gone so well, and I’m so grateful [for] the reception,” Blount says. “The town has been so supportive of what we do.”
“Because of the influences of the university, sports culture, arts and literature, that to me keeps that alive, energetic feeling about the town. I would never have had opportunities like this if I still lived in San Francisco or New York City.”
– Emily Blount
A great deal of the Saint Leo’s success, Blount points out, is due to the incredible team she’s assembled to run the restaurant.
“I really feel so fortunate to have the team that I do,” Blount says. “They’re all super talented and hardworking. They are so much a part of why this is possible.”
Head Chef Jeff Robinson has been cooking in Oxford for more than two decades, working for places like Ajax and McEwen’s, to name a few. Expertly manning the wood fire is head pizzaiolo Marco D’Emilio, who hails from Abruzzo, Italy, and worked previously at a pizzeria in Rome and as a research scientist at the University of Mississippi.
The menu, designed in collaboration with Dan Latham, a James Beard Award-nominated chef and former owner of L&M’s Kitchen and Salumeria in Oxford, features seasonally inspired pastas, salads and desserts. Nine pizzas anchor the menu, each piled high with local ingredients.
Blount’s favorite is the burrata soppressata—a yeasty crust topped with creamy cheese and dry Italian salami, though her kids always opt for the Margherita pizza, which features fresh mozzarella nestled in tomato sauce.
“They are both about to turn into a pizza because they eat the margarita pizza all the time,” Blount laughs.
Edge lauds the transportive nature of the restaurant.
“(Blount) is a great recruiter of talent, a lifelong student of the industry, and a cheerful manager of chaos. She’s also a splendid curator of space,” Edge says. “Saint Leo manages to be transportive — am I in NYC, Rome or Oxford? — and, at the same time, resolutely local.”
Blount is firmly committed to finding local ingredients. The restaurant sources a significant amount of its produce, meat and dairy from Mississippi farms including Home Place Pastures, Native Son Farm, Woodson Ridge Farms, Goose Valley Farm, The Peeples Farm and Brown Family Dairy, among others.
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A great deal of the restaurant’s appeal—fresh food and drink aside—is its unique bistro atmosphere, with a carrara marble bar, copper details, and cozy leather banquette, which Blount envisioned from the beginning.
“I had a general aesthetic in mind,” Blount says. “I had some key ideas, and then the rest of it really fell into place.”
Some small details, like the stunning tambour ceiling, were implemented along the way. Blount incorporated the unique wood material throughout the design—including the bathrooms—after being inspired by the work of set-designers-turned-interior-designers Roman and Williams.
Blount also used her design savvy (in conjunction with Howorth & Associates Architects and advice from her husband’s uncle, Sam Blount, who helped renovate the restaurant) to completely gut the mid-century ranch home the family purchased a year after their move.
When the couple initially relocated, Blount was hesitant to take the plunge of homeownership, so the family rented an apartment off the square for a year before searching for a larger space.
“I was really freaked out about living in a house, so we lived in an apartment when we first moved here, even though I had two kids,” Blount laughed. “I didn’t know what to do with a yard or space.”
After acclimating to life outside the city, Blount and her family began the search. When the deal on their dream house fell through, they decided to buy across the street and make it perfect, expanding and creating an open, welcoming space for the family.
And in spite of her initial bargain with her husband, after four years of living in Oxford, Blount isn’t going anywhere.
“I love that Oxford is so diverse and has so many different people from different places,” Blount says. “Because of the influences of the university, sports culture, arts and literature, that to me keeps that alive, energetic feeling about the town. I would never have had opportunities like this if I still lived in San Francisco or New York City.”
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Though the last few years have been a whirlwind of moving across the country, creating and designing a restaurant and renovating a home, Blount is not content to settle for anything less than perfection at Saint Leo.
“I think there’s still a mountain to climb in front of us,” Blount says. “I want to be great, and I think that doing anything really well is hard. I’m learning and experiencing that all the time.
Going forward, Blount is working hard to make sure every meal at the restaurant is a success.
“Just like a play, you’re only as good as your last act, or your last scene,” Blount says. “Here, you’re only as good as your last plate.”