He always promised he’d be back. We figured we’d be without his talents for a few years at least. The truth is, he never wanted to leave to begin with. So begins the story of a chef from Dallas who has fallen in love with Jackson – and has returned with big plans and no intent to leave again.

Thirty two year-old Chef Jesse Houston is revealing his next adventure: a “really solid” restaurant concept in the works. “I have the name, the location, menus, uniforms, even layout and design of the space,” he says. “I just need backing.” According to Houston, there have been some talks and discussions but he’s still looking carefully at all of his options. “I’ve had some very interested people.” When pressed for more, he was tight lipped, but did say the idea is “very unique” and something very lacking in Jackson as a whole. “There’s one aspect of it not in Jackson, and another aspect, (you’ll find) only a couple of places out of the way too far to drive.”

As for the concept, Houston calls it “polished casual and inexpensive.” That means, he says, food on par with, if not better than, any fine dining around. “It will still be elevated, fun and exciting cuisine,” he explains. “I want it to be a neighborhood place locals flock to for a great meal. Starving artists can show up, have a great time, and feel like it won’t kill (their wallets).” And he hopes the restaurant will find its home in Fondren. “It’s a great artistic community. Absolutely a blast. Regardless, I’ll be here all the time.”

Until then, Houston is in the restaurant consulting business with one client thus far and two more in the works. He’ll work closely with Livingston Farmer’s Market and their planned community events. And, in the next two months, he’ll be the creative force behind three pop ups. From Asian inspired food truck fare with LurnyD’s Grille (think pork buns and Korean chicken wings), a Tom Ramsey/119 collab (details to come) and Pop Up Pizza – The Empire State Strikes Back! at Sal & Mookie’s.

If that isn’t enough, Houston will be part of a group of chefs that will travel to New York City during the June 8 Mississippi Picnic to cook at the James Beard house. He joins Dan Blumenthal, Tom Ramsey, Jeremy Enfinger, Nick Wallace, Mitchell Moore and Mike Roemhild for “Southern Comfort Redux.” Though it’s an honor to cook there, chefs provide their own food and pay their own way. Houston will visit the city for the first time. “I already have a giant itinerary of things I can’t afford or find time to do, but I’ll try to hit as many as I can,” he says.

Pop Up Pizza

Sal & Mookie’s once again will become Houston’s playground on April 29 with the return of Pop Up Pizza – The Empire State Strikes Back! “We always said we would do a second one,” he remembers. Counted as a customer favorite in all of the pop ups he has done, Houston says it’s a different atmosphere than he’s used to, but was a good time last August. “They have such a well-oiled machine that, I had to step away, let them do their thing and I just garnished the pizzas. Those guys are hossin’ it out, throwing dough around, getting them in the oven. It was crazy!”

Houston, Blumenthal and BRAVO! Chef Karl Gorline collaborate on pizzas (see the menu here.) “Karl is great,” Houston tells us. “We think a lot alike in terms of ridiculousness.” Just how ridiculous? Houston says there’s a Tom Gha pie on the menu. “It’s coconut curry sauce, sauteed shrimp, bean sprouts, cilantro, jalapeno, mint and peanuts.” Then there’s the crawfish boil (mozzarella, crawfish tails, andouille, corn, crab boil aioli and fresh basil) and the pizza sandwich (a pizza on top of pizza!), Houston’s favorite, a white pie makes a return (mozzarella, Fontina, goat cheese, roasted garlic, chile flakes, truffle oil, fried sage and an over easy egg).

And in a nod to Ferrari-driving Chef Blumenthal, the menu includes the Ferrari California (chicken, bacon, avocado and pickled grapes). Houston jokingly says it’s his way of giving Blumenthal a hard time. The rest of the menu is something you’ll have to wait to see. “You want to bring back a couple of favorites, but let it be its own animal at the same time,” he explains, calling menu planning a challenge. “Where do you go from here?”

Last year, it was Sal & Mookie’s busiest day ever. Whatever the case this go around, Houston is happy to be back in the one-day business with the pizza professionals. “I’m always excited to work with Jeff, Dan and Karl and can’t wait to come back and sling some pies – or get out the way of pies being slung.” He says he’ll dedicate the event to Hal White, a long time Jackson restaurant staple who passed away last week. “It’s a huge loss and a devastating blow. I’m tired of awesome chefs passing away. It needs to stop happening.”

From There to Here

When Parlor Market restaurant took a different direction last fall, the change sent Houston, their executive chef, in search of a job. His initial idea was to open his own restaurant, but fear set in. “It’s scary to go into the unknown, so that won out,” he explains. So he took a position with the John Currence family of restaurants in Oxford. “It was a great opportunity with a great chef – and a great job,” Houston says. “But I never wanted to leave Jackson. I should have gone with my gut.”

Jackson diners’ guts have been in tune with Houston’s cuisine since May 2010 when the late Chef Craig Noone brought the Texas Culinary Academy graduate here as sous chef, and later, Chef de Cuisine. Houston kept his title out of respect long after Noone’s passing and assumed the lead role in late 2011.

After the brief stint in Oxford, Houston says he is coming back here for a sense of permanency. “I could go back to Dallas, but I never felt at home there,” he tells us. “It’s too big and it’s easy to disappear there.” Houston goes on to say that the Dallas food scene, in many ways, is “here today, gone tomorrow.” Jackson, he feels, is more his fit.

Here, he says, there’s a sense of community. Houston explains, “People support each other and like to collaborate. It’s easy to get to know a ton of people who you run in to randomly at a coffee shop or the grocery store. You get to know your customers and find out their likes and what they want. I really love it and love working with others here.”

Houston names Nick Wallace, Executive Chef at the King Edward Hilton Garden Inn, as a favorite collaborator. “Nick is probably the most talented chef in town but doesn’t get the recognition he deserves because he works in a hotel,” Houston offers. “I’m hoping he’ll get the chance to change that with his own restaurant soon. People need to know more about what that guy does; he’s an incredible chef.”

Part of what Houston says he loves about Jackson are creative and talented people like Wallace, Bradley Adair (Land Vs. Ocean), artists like Justin Schultz or bands like Taylor Hildebrand or Furrows.“Creative people here are tightly woven and knitted together,” he observes. “If people saw more of that, they would fall in love with Jackson the way I have.”

Houston has himself gained notoriety for his willingness to create and share his own talents. It’s a quality that puts him in the same boat as those he admires. “I love what I do and try to create the best possible food,” hes says. “I put my integrity into it, use the best ingredients possible and support local. The uniqueness of what I do and will be doing will propel me forward.”

The Dallas native sees himself benefiting from the changing tide in Mississippi’s capital city. “The struggles Jackson goes through – last in everything, the worst in this – people are sick of it,” Houston feels. So, he believes, that creates a desire to be better. “I’ve always said, in the next five years, Jackson is going to be on the verge of something amazing. In ten years, it will be. It’ll be more than just a place on the map that’s a pass through.”