Three months ago, Steph Cook was a single, 49-year-old convicted felon and sober drug addict with a respectable but unfulfilling career as a sous chef.
Chef Steph, who's now in a relationship with a woman he calls wonderful, owns Memphis Mojo Café, a Bartlett gastropub cultivated from years of obsessive dreaming. Originally interested in a law career, Chef Steph stumbled upon cooking while waiting tables at Willie Moffatt's as a Memphis State University student. He talked his way into the kitchen, where the staff tried to discourage him.
"I must've peeled every shrimp in the ocean," Cook says. He became a line cook and sous chef at several trendy spots in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Miami's South Beach. Cook says he had an offer lined up as the sous chef at a casino in Las Vegas.
But after a weekend of partying, on May 4, 1999, he blacked out and plowed into two patrol officers. He went to jail for several years, was released, and bounced in and out of rehab in Florida before moving back to Memphis in 2011. He got clean and job-hopped at several local restaurants, looking for fulfillment.
Cook didn't enjoy the "Hell's Kitchen" communication he endured as a subordinate and felt stifled creatively. In October, he ran into a former neighbor, and the two hatched an idea to launch a food cart. Soon the idea evolved into a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
They found the current location in December and Mojo Cafe opened January 2nd. Cook's creations come with a self-titled slogan: FUNky SOULicious. The menu hovers near the $5 to $10 mark and features traditional food cart items spruced up with Memphis branding and compulsive detail.
Chef Steph's "Elvis Dips" may classify as an eighth deadly sin. The dish essentially combines funnel cakes, banana pudding, and peanut butter — the fried dough contains Nutter Butters and banana slices and is served with banana whip for dipping.
His $8 Angus beef sliders include chorizo, bacon, tomato chutney, and chipotle aioli. The in-house sauce enhances the bite-sized meat before ushering in a moderate kick. The accompanying seasoned fries are a cross between the shoestring and steak versions.
The three-piece Tiger tenders ($6) are a reference to the University of Memphis as well as Tony the Tiger, the mascot that graces the box of Frosted Flakes, which Cook also uses to coat his chicken. He also offers chicken tenders coated in Fruity Pebbles.
Cook has many ideas, including healthier items: "I'm like a 'Rain Man' of taste," Cook says. "I can visualize anything I want, figure out whether people will like it, and then put my spin on it."
7124 Hwy 64 Suite 101 in Bartlett (207-6041)
After nearly 10 years in Michigan, Cheryl Burns remarried the father of her child,
rekindled her on-again, off-again TV show, and returned to her roots in Memphis.
The show, Fox In Tha City Memphis, first aired locally after Saturday Night Live in 2001 with a hip-hop music video theme. It's evolved into part entertainment, part reality show, airing again last summer on CW-30.
"Being here, I needed something tangible for me to do," Burns says. "I had some restaurant gurus in the family and we decided to open up FoxCee's Overton Park Bar & Grill."
The restaurant, named after her TV character, features a wall painting of a lipsticked fox with long lashes and brown hair. A block from the Sears Crosstown Development Project, FoxCee's is as much a neighborhood hangout and entertainment venue as it is a restaurant. Equipped with a small stage and soulful decorative theme, it features live music from local bands in addition to Thursday karaoke.
Southern comfort food like Red Carpet Fried Catfish ($10.75, with onion rings or fries, slaw, and toast) and pulled pork spuds ($8.50) highlights the menu.
Burns is also preparing to shop the TV show again. After an entertainment career, she earned a master's degree in marketing and worked as a college enrollment advisor and in federal procurement.
But Memphis drew her home, and she opened FoxCee's on January 23rd. The restaurant is open 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Wednesday and 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.
"[Entertainment] is an itch you can't get rid of," Burns says. "You have to create your own opportunities. It's something I never want to give up. The show will give me that avenue. It's like a dream, but nothing comes to sleepers."
394 N. Watkins (207-4328)