"We had a mission," says Mary Jo McMillin, chef/owner of Oxford's former foodie haven, Mary Jo's Cuisine. "We were converting people and proselytizing and spreading the gospel of eating well and homemade."
Loyal customers and those who never quite found the time to visit before the restaurant closed in 2004 will be glad to know Mary Jo hasn't retired her knives. McMillin continues spreading the word in her new cookbook, Mary Jo's Cuisine.
And while she isn't working a restaurant stove on a daily basis these days, McMillin's passion hasn't waned. With wisps of gray in her dark hair and dressed in comfortable, soft denim, McMillin could easily pass for someone's aunt who has invited you over for a civilized lunch and glass of Portuguese white wine in her private backyard.
As the conversation turns to food, McMillin leans in over the plate of smoked Irish salmon and homemade brown bread. Her voice gets low and throaty, taking on an intimate tone some women reserve when talking about a lover as she describes some of the dishes from her restaurant.
"We did a lot of elegant braised dishes, like beef carbonnade and veal Marengo," she says, caressing the last word.
"And we did a lot of stuffed chicken breast. We roasted the chicken on the bone and lifted it off the bone to serve, just warm it up in a lovely sauce. There's a wonderful recipe in the cookbook that's sort of Moroccan, with pistachios and currents and sun-dried tomatoes."
At other times this passion rises up so strong that McMillin can't help but shout it from the rooftops -- or at least the top of a dining room chair.
"I remember the first time I made cassoulet," she says with a laugh. "I had two of these gigantic oval braisers filled with it -- just gorgeous. I had confited the duck and I'd braised the lamb and the pork and I had lovely sausages. It was just divine and nobody was ordering it! I went out in the middle of the dining room and it was packed and I stood up on one of the chairs and I said, 'Listen everybody! There's this dish on the menu and it's so special. You'd have to go to France to get this, and even maybe there you wouldn't have it as carefully made. This is an opportunity of a lifetime! Won't you consider changing your order!' And people came to me afterward and said 'Oh, that was spectacular. I'm so glad I tried it.' "
McMillan began her culinary career as a culinary anthropologist of sorts in East Africa where she had gone to teach after college. She would watch the women cook in open-air kitchens, scribbling down their methods to try in her own kitchen. Some days she would bring the women something exotic like brownies or banana bread.
"That opened a door for me," she recalls. "Food just opens doors. If you'll eat with a person, when you put your hands in the same dish, that breaks down barriers like nothing else."
McMillin also traveled back and forth to the Ballymoe Cooking School in Ireland many times before she opened Mary Jo's.
"I just got a lot of inspiration there," she says. "It was like a country house in the middle of a huge farm, and I saw how they did it, you know, using all the local produce and asking people to grow things to their specifications -- they wanted animals fed in a certain way and reared in a certain way. I always in my heart believed in that because I came from a rural background. When I opened Mary Jo's I was really determined to do as much of that as I possibly could."
While Mary Jo's had a booming lunch business, being right across the street from Miami University's campus, foodies probably remember her best for her dinners. After just doing lunch for about six years, McMillan says, "Then I had a crew of workers for a while like I'd never had again. And they really got me thinking about serving dinner. The other thing was that when we decided to do dinner, I was very eager to do a prix fixe menu because I always felt that was a nice way to eat. And it worked really well because no one else was doing it then."
When McMillin decided it was time to close Mary Jo's Cuisine, she headed back to Ballymoe's for inspiration and solace and seriously started working on her recipes and the 15 vignettes included in her book.
"I've always been so concerned about food and concerned about what's in it and that it's properly done. I think it should be nice and it should be balanced," she says, briefly channeling the aunt before she takes a bite of the potato soup she'd prepared and returns to talk of her lover. ©