Restaurant design isn't the only thing we do at ai3, but it's certainly one of the more fun aspects of our business. We've found that chefs and designers are kindred spirits. We get them. They get us.
Such is the case with Chef Tom Gray and Sarah Marie Johnston. They are the husband-wife team behind Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails, which will open this fall in Jacksonville, Florida. For the last 13 years, Chef Tom has been the executive chef and operating partner at the critically acclaimed Bistro AIX where he's earned two James Beard Award nominations.
We've enjoyed getting to know these two and becoming part of their journey this past year and a half- and, we want to introduce you.
ai3: At the end of last year, you announced your departure from Bistro AIX, where you were executive chef and founding partner. Why did you decide to leave?
SMJ/TG: As a creative team, we were really feeling the pull to grow and expand and create something new. We loved Bistro AIX and what we created there and while it was difficult to leave what we were a part of for over 13 years, we felt it would allow us to pursue a new dream. We were feeling the need to challenge ourselves beyond our comfort zone, to push the boundaries and make something big come to life!
ai3: You'll soon break gound on your new restaurant, Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails. Tell us a little about it and the inspiration(s) behind your vision.
SMJ/TG: After having studied, worked and traveled around the country for nearly 20 years, Chef Tom felt that he had an American story, and American culinary ideas to share from those experiences. Moxie means gusto and exuberance... we really feel this project embodies not only our vision and desire for something truly unique for Jacksonville's dining scene, but also having the guts to go out and make it happen.
ai3: There are great restaurants, and then there are the type of restaurants that anchor a community and foster loyalty. In your opinion, what separates the two?
SMJ/TG: It's the ability to make an authentic connections. Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails has a lot of heart and soul poured into it. Much time has been spent sourcing materials that are very personal to each of us. From the art (made by friends in Jacksonville) to the reclaimed wood (sourced from family friends in Maine), and everything in between, we hope that guests will feel that energy and find something interesting and intriguing about Moxie from the first time they see it. We want everyone to feel connections in the ways the design, food, and ambiance work together to impart a sense that they are in a very special and welcoming place.
ai3: Did you two meet in the industry: What makes the business partnership between you work? What do you each bring to the table?
We met while we were both working at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone where Tom was the Executive Sous Chef of the professional restaurant on campus, and Sarah Marie was one of the managers in the campus retail store. We were in California together for five years before we decided to move to Jacksonville (where Tom grew up) to create and then open Bistro AIX.
Tom is never one to sit back and watch things happen. He is a creator and a visionary- one of the most tenacious, yet gracious, people you'll ever meet. Sarah Marie's got a natural penchant for writing and marketing, so she takes on a more supporting and behind-the-scenes role. He's comfortable being in the spotlight and she's comfortable making sure he looks good out there. It's a near darn perfect union for a business and for our marriage!
ai3: What advice (2-3 points) would you share with someone who wants to build a restaurant from the ground up?
SMJ/TG: Do your homework. Have vision. Pick a great team to help you achieve it. Persevere. As so eloquently stated by Earl Nightingale, "Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway." Lastly, if the answer is "no", you probably didn't ask the question the right way. At the same time, be flexible when you need to.