Confessions From A Chef

Words by Ashley Locke
Photos by Blake McCollum

“Complicated. Hard. F***ed up. Beautiful.” That’s not only how Mitch McCamey describes Mississippi––it’s also how he describes himself.

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“Whenever I walk, I walk faster than everybody else. I talk faster,” said Mitch. “My tempo made me good at it.”

What he’s good at is opening restaurants. Three in three years––two The Neon Pig locations and Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen. Mitch’s restaurants have become Tupelo staples and successful by any measure, but he didn’t achieve his status the easy way.

Mitch was born in Okolona, Mississippi. He was raised the way a lot of Mississippi kids are raised: learning to drive as soon as their feet can reach the pedal, getting a little too familiar with alcohol, and growing up because they have to. He got his first job on a cattle farm at age 17, and a string of odd jobs followed. Bookstores, bike shops, kitchens. It was the kitchen work that stuck.

By his mid-twenties he was living in Vail, Colorado. “I spent most of my twenties out there,” he said. “The mountain was my life. I was poor, and then a barbecue restaurant opened in a trailer on the side of the road. People kept telling me to try it, and I was like, ‘Man, I’m from Mississippi!’ But it turned out they were from Alabama, and it was good.”

That’s how Mitch began working for Michael Fernandez, the “smartest person [I’ve] ever met,” at Moe’s BBQ. Fernandez was classically trained and well practiced in perfectionism. Time in his kitchen was hard and long and manic. Mitch was built for it, adopting the need to get everything exactly right. He learned a lot from Fernandez, but he wanted to learn more, get sharper, and fine tune his technique.

“I moved to Birmingham and worked for Chris Hastings at Hot & Hot. I was the protégé of the sous chef, Bill. He taught me so much, but I ended up messing the job up,” Mitch said.

There was an affair that hurt too many people—the sort of wound that stays raw. “I was one of Chris’s favorites, and I got banished from one of the best restaurants in the country. I didn’t learn—I made mistakes for two years and had to move back home.”

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That door closed. It was slammed shut, really. However, opportunity knocked and Mitch answered. It was Michael Fernandez.

“Michael said he was putting a Moe’s BBQ in Tuscaloosa. He asked if I wanted to help open it, and I did. I lived above the restaurant. It was my entire life,” said Mitch. “Michael had a lot of faith in me, and I took that faith too far. I abused my power and my situation. He showed up mad one day and gave me 24 hours to get my shit and get out of the restaurant.”

Door number two was closed. With nowhere else to go, he moved back to Mississippi. He left behind two disappointed mentors, but he brought home an education and a skill set that rivaled any chef.

Trouble not only followed Mitch, it welcomed him home.Open any southern gothic novel and you’ll read Mitch’s story. He returned to alcoholism, divorce, PTSD, death, and prison. The details, only Mitch can tell. “The south has real grit,” he said, “The people are survivors.”

In 1936, Tupelo was completely destroyed by one of the most devastating tornadoes in US history. The whole town is made up of survivors, and Mitch is one of them. He went in with two friends on Tupelo’s Home Chef Market, eventually turning it into The Neon Pig. Its focus on locally sourced food felt fresh, even though the concept was an old one. Farm-to-table was familiar to every grandma with a garden, but with a restaurant, Mitch could support the community.

With The Neon Pig’s success, Mitch was able to open Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen on Tupelo’s thriving West Main. The same concept, but steak, oysters, and cocktails instead of bacon, burgers, and beer. He opened a second Neon Pig in nearby Oxford not long after.

Though he got the restaurants going, he says his staff really runs things.

“Keeping these people is the most important thing to me. I love all of them. I don’t have to manage them, I just steer them,” he said. “I try to reward people. I give them raises, let them know I appreciate them for sticking it out.” He makes sure they can pay their rent, that their oil is changed, that he invests in them.

It’s been rocky the whole way, but things are going well. Mitch is starting to add a little positivity to his aggressive perfectionism. He has plans for himself, his staff, and his community. “Mississippi is really changing. I don’t think I’m a leader in that,” he said, “Our story is beautiful and tragic and it’s still in the beginning.”