Bright Star

Bright Star

How Southern Soigné Has Brought Personal Dining to Mississippi

Words by Michael Woods

Photos by Andrew Welch

“What else have I really gotten away with?”

It was supposed to be only a pop-up.

During the height of COVID, Zacchaeus Golden and his mother started serving food in the Belhaven neighborhood of Jackson, Mississippi. The operation was run only on a tasting menu, the dishes ever changing, with the customers being served a five-course meal. That is, unless they wanted the chef’s experience, which featured seven to 12 courses. Fitting its name, Southern Soigné was truly fine dining, an experience rare in the state’s capital.

“There’s not a lot of restaurants like this in the area—really in Mississippi period,” Golden explains. “The restaurant industry is very tricky. You know, just because you got a flash of something don’t mean it’s gonna hold.”

But it did, and after several months, the place was doing great business, much better than expected, and the next logical step was to go brick-and-mortar.

The only question was where.

“It’s not so much me finding the space—it’s kind of the space finding me, if that makes sense.”

Born in Belzoni, a tiny town in the Delta, Golden ventured out-of-state for his training, first completing a culinary program at Bishop State Community College in Mobile before bouncing all over the country, from New Orleans to Virginia to Northern California. Of the 13 restaurants in the country with three Michelin stars, he worked in four of those kitchens, rising in the ranks, including The French Laundry, The Inn at Little Washington, and SingleThread. His résumé also includes a couple of James Beard award-winning establishments, and studying under renowned chefs such as Daniel Patterson and Erik Anderson.

Looking through his experience and the people he studied, he knew the feel he was looking for when finding just the right place for his own. He loved Sean Brock’s Husk Restaurant, especially how comfortable and connected that aesthetic and experience was.

“Their restaurants are all based off of like older homestyle buildings, like old homes that they converted into restaurants, and I’ve always kind of liked that,” he continues. “So it’s very quaint and intimate.”

He wanted the style of dining presented to the guests to be based on direct contact with the chef. There would be no written menus, every dish explained by the head chef directly to those sitting at the table. The goal was to establish a personal connection, as if every one of them were at a chef ’s home, and the building needed to reflect that.

In the Farish Street District, they found one.

Built in the late 1800s and relocated to North President Street, Golden converted the older home into a space that became Southern Soigné’s new home, finishing up in 2021. In addition to functioning as a gallery for nearby artists, all of the plating and dishes were created by local ceramic makers.

“It should be like a nuance of Mississippi, if you will,” Golden posits. “A unique Mississippi food experience—just something special, I guess.”

When it came to his own style food, though, he learned by going out of his comfort zone, readily admitting to starting with a flavor palette that was only adapted to traditional Southern food before exploring other areas.

His first major exposure was when he started working at Shaya, an Israeli restaurant near

Uptown in New Orleans, eating dishes with flavors he hadn’t experienced before. 

“I'm not a picky eater, because I’ll pretty much try anything, soo things that I’ve tried that are really good, they stick with me. They become like a part of the tricks in the bag, if you will.”

The menu comes in the moment, pulling from all over his taste memory, from shows he’s watched and improvisation. When he does braised greens, he uses brown sugar and olives, onions, and kale, a trick he learned from Mourad in San Francisco. He’ll spread his influences around, from Moroccan style to upscale seafood, at one point even doing a 48-hour sous vide octopus, grilling and serving it with chimichurri dotted with squid ink pearls.

If he ends up ordering lobsters though, he’ll fry the knuckle and toss it in a soy, garlic-ginger glaze. Because, at the end of the day, he knows exactly where he is. “This is the South. You have to have something fried.”

The neighborhood itself adds some extra weight to his business: Farish Street is a landmark district, an important hub for black Mississippians with a long and deep history that began with the implementation of Jim Crow. Throughout the 20th century till the 70s, Farish Street was a progressive pocket in the traditionally conservative state, home to civil rights leaders and advocacy operations. Medgar Evers, the famed activist and NAACP field secretary, had an office right on the street above the Big Apple Inn, a famous diner that’s still running today, before his death.

For Golden, being there has a huge significance.

“It just holds a ton of history,” he ponders. “It's humbling, and it makes me a little proud to be able to operate in an area that has some significance to my culture.”

Recently, though, Jackson’s notoriety has been a little different.

In late August of 2022, storms surged on central Mississippi, flooding the Pearl River and causing the city’s largest water treatment facility to fail. At the time, the governor announced that safe drinking water was not available to the entire population of the capital, indefinitely. National news brought intense focus and scrutiny toward the situation, and the President declared a federal emergency to trigger aid.

But what most people only reading the bullet points didn’t know is that the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant failed because of its usage. It was already running on backup pumps by the time the storms came in, due to failure a month prior.

The entire Jackson water system fails periodically, and has for decades, with no end in sight.

Notices are routinely put out to citizens to boil their water when a pipe fails, when parts of the outdated and expiring infrastructure of the city’s supply inevitably goes down.

Golden knows it, has seen it all before.

“There’s always a water crisis. There’s never not a water crisis. I'm just counting the days till we get another boil water notice.”

Although he was in Florida working at the time of the storm, by the time he returned, he faced a familiar sight. When he reopened, the restaurant went almost a week using only bottled water for cooking and washing dishes. And though the situation appears to be put on pause for now, many in the city are still struggling, and the problem is not solved as much as swept under the rug.

For a small business owner, the reality is that the situation is a give-and-take.

“You don't want the place that gave you opportunity to also be the place that shuts you down. It’s kind of a double-edged sword right there. I'm very grateful to be able to operate here. But some things should not be a factor, you know, like clean running water. That's a wildcard.”

Dealing with the past, the present, and the future is part of operating a business in Jackson. For most, the only way to see is forward, and Southern Soigné intends to do that, a proud experiment directly in the middle of a fine dining no man’s land. Whether they are served a course of golden tilefish and full plume quail grilled over a wood fire, or a dessert of fruit and strawberry jam, anybody who comes to this home to eat will feel welcome, no matter what is happening outside its walls.

The chef comes out and speaks to each person.

The humanity of the meal is foregrounded. 

“I tell people that it's not just a place to have a meal; we try to be more of an experience, we try to fuse a few things—fine food, fine wine, and fine art,” he says hopefully. “Something that could give people a reason to not only come eat, but come and see what else the place has to offer. You know, especially when it comes to food. Bright star in a dark sky, if you know what I mean.”