By Alyssa Schnugg

Rummaging through an old box of school papers one day, Jon “JD” Davis found a drawing he did as a young child after being asked what he wanted to be when he grew up.

“It was a stick figure wearing a chef’s hat,” Davis said, smiling at the memory.

Decades later, Davis, now 35, has donned the hat his younger self imagined so many years ago.

Davis is the new chef de cuisine or head chef, at City Grocery.

Raised in Memphis by his grandparents, he came to Oxford in 2007 to attend the University of Mississippi. In his senior year, he was “cut off from the family payroll” and it was time for him to find his way in the world.

A friend suggested he apply for a job at Boure’ as a pantry cook. He wound up working there for three and a half years.

While he always loved cooking for family and friends, the job at Boure’ was his first professional cooking job and he only kept climbing and learning from there.

He took a seasonal job in Cape Cod where he continued to hone his cooking skills and then returned to Oxford where he landed a job at The Bling Pig, where he expanded his restaurant knowledge by being a bartender, working front of house and as a general manager. He worked at The Graduate for about a year, returned to The Bling Pig for a while and then took a job at Saint Leo for about three months until he got the opportunity to become the sous chef for the Jackson Convention Center.

About a year later, with new skills under his chef hat, he returned to Oxford and worked at Saint Leo as head chef for a few years before taking a job at City Grocery about a year ago until he was promoted to head chef about 10 weeks ago.

Davis said while he loves to cook, he enjoys teaching others to become better than he is. Appreciative of all the chefs he’s worked under throughout the years, he now wants to share that knowledge with his staff.

“I tell them all the time that my goal is to make you better than I am by the time you leave here and if I haven’t done that, then I’ve failed at my job,” Davis said. “That’s how I pay it forward for all the guidance I’ve received over the years from different chefs and now John (Chef John Currence, owner of City Grocery).”

City Grocery was opened more than 30 years ago and has become an iconic restaurant in Oxford. It has received recognition features in publications such as The New York Times, Southern Living, USA Today, Bon Appetit and more as a fine Mississippi establishment.

Becoming its new head chef, was a little intimidating, Davis admits.

“It’s intimidating and exciting at the same time,” he said. “City Grocery is an institution and I feel like this place put a scope on the culinary scene within Oxford but also the entire state as a whole.

“My goal was to be the head chef at City Grocery and now it’s happened. You’re upholding a legacy here and trying to keep that same air of what the Grocery is – the food and how you represent it.”

To Davis, food is more than just nourishment – it’s a chance to tell a story.

“Whatever I put on a plate, I want it to tell a story,” he said. “I want there to be some type of component of ‘This is what I feel,’ ‘This is who I am’ – whether it’s something that brings back a memory or something I just enjoy eating and want to share that with others.”

Being a man of color, Davis said the importance of working his way up to becoming a head chef in one of Mississippi’s best-known restaurants isn’t lost on him.

“I want to put more people of color in the kitchen – not in a dishwasher role or busing role. I want to see them on the grill, being a sous chef. I feel some type of initiative and just overall motivation to show them this is actually a viable profession,” he said.

Davis said he hopes to create new items while keeping the tried and true favorites on the menu, but he also wants to pay homage to the chefs who were there before him by researching old City Grocery menus and bringing back an old favorite now and then.

“I wanted to find some older dishes throughout the years that I could replicate and maybe invoke memories from people coming in who were here in the past and maybe recognize it.

“So my thing is, I want to honor the history of this place, but also kind of put my little spot of influence and my little flair on some things to where it’s like, well, I was here as well.”