Chef Tom Gray (@cheftomgray on Instagram) is the owner of Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails in St. Johns Town Center and Town Hall in San Marco.
Can you please tell us about your background?
Born in Virginia and raised in Orange Park, Florida, I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and spent the following seven years honing my craft in professional kitchens in New York City, Los Angeles and Napa Valley. I returned to Jacksonville in 1999, where I was the founding partner and executive chef /operating partner of Bistro Aix for 13 years. In December 2012, the drive to grow and expand my creative vision as a chef and as businessperson prompted me and my wife/business partner, Sarah Marie Johnston, to begin planning and development of Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails. Moxie opened in the fall of 2013, and our newest venture, Town Hall in historic San Marco, opened in the spring of 2017.
What is your culinary style?
Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails and Town Hall showcase my take on contemporary, regional American cuisine, influenced from my southern upbringing, extensive travels and passion for sourcing locally-grown ingredients.
For Town Hall, we brought a decidedly West Coast vibe to the small restaurant to pair with a focused menu influenced by our time together living and travelling in the west. Drawing inspiration from seasonal, layered flavors and using ingredients from local farms and artisan purveyors for its menus (as is done at Moxie), Town Hall also offers a selection of wines from around the world (also available for retail sale), creative wine cocktails and Jacksonville’s finest local craft beers.
For sourcing at both restaurants, we use as many local, organic, natural and sustainable ingredients as possible, and make decisions every day to bring in the best of available items from herbs and vegetables, to meats, fishes and cheeses, as just a few examples. Our “Direct Connections” philosophy means we try to source as much locally, sustainably and organically as possible, working directly with the farmers, artisans and craft producers who grow, cultivate or make the ingredients we serve. We source and serve these ingredients every day … not just for special events or special menus.
What distinguishes Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails and Town Hall from other restaurants in the First Coast area?
Each restaurant has its own personal story. Moxie Kitchen +Cocktails has maps that represents our personal and professional journeys from Florida to New York, California (both Northern California and Southern California) and back to Jacksonville again. Town Hall has a modern California/West Coast vibe that is something we are familiar with having lived there for many years and liking the relaxed yet professional feel of many locations there.
Beyond the décor, however, each is a unique expression of types of cuisine I’m personally drawn to: Southern-influenced at Moxie and West Coast-influenced at Town Hall. Both represent my creative interest in exploring ingredients, flavor combinations and cooking techniques combined with my interpretations of classics and new dishes. Nuance of flavors, sourcing of ingredients and presentation are all important factors in making a dish a standout on our menus and ones we know our guests will enjoy.
How would you describe the First Coast food scene?
Our food scene is growing and evolving at a rapid pace. There are a lot of creative chefs and independent restaurants carving a niche and doing their thing. Jacksonville has grown to be a good city for that, much more than when I grew up here, when it was mostly only chains and very few independent restaurants. It’s a tight-knit culinary community with a lot of collaboration and support of each other.
What excites you most about the future of the Greater Jacksonville area?
I really love that each neighborhood has a cool vibe. We are a quickly-growing food community and emerging as a food hub for our region. People want to move here … there’s plenty of room to grow and put down roots. It’s attractive for a lot of reasons: the climate, the people, the neighborhoods, the water (both ocean and river), outdoor activities, arts and culture. While I’d say it’s still relatively an unknown destination for many, mostly everyone who visits Jacksonville “gets it” and really loves it!
What do you enjoy most about living on the First Coast?
There’s so much to do here, and it’s so easy to do it! Jacksonville is affordable, easy to navigate, has a great climate and has lots to do. The people are friendly and while many are from Jacksonville or Florida, I meet people everyday who have relocated here from across the country and world. Everyone is attracted to the same great features of our city and want to contribute their efforts to make it even better in their own way.
What do you like to do in your free time?
Not a lot of that right now, but when I do have free time, I enjoy going on walks and bike rides, or relaxing at home with friends and my family. Vacations are few and far between, but travel always includes exploring great food cities like Seattle, San Francisco and Charleston.
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