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Betty’s: Serving up good eats

For me, it was the short rib grilled cheese.

Five items into my tasting foray at Brookhaven’s popular new eatery, it arrived — a mound of tender shredded beef encased in white cheddar cheesiness and chef-made black pepper mayo, book-ended by seared Texas toast. One bite of the classic-done-right made me eager to try anything on the menu — even the items I couldn’t pronounce. And that’s the kicker at Betty’s Eat Shop.

Comfort foods like mac-n-cheese sidle up next to fried calamari as easily as trendy marble tops the ‘50s-style soda fountain counter. There’s abstract art and an antique ice box in the mix, too, as well as tomato relish and duck confit. Yes, anyone inside Betty’s Eat Shop for more than five minutes can sense the contrasts, but figuring out that owner/chef Matt Fitzsimmons is the most interesting contrast of them all? Well, that may take a while longer.

Known these days by locals as an upstart restauranteur, Matt Fitzsimmons once rode a wave of a different kind of popularity — as Brookhaven High’s top-scoring basketball guard. An article from The Daily Leader archives provides some insight: “Fitzsimmons watched a near-capacity crowd begin heading for the exits when Lawrence County held a 9-point, 61-52 lead with 1:47 left in the game. Instead of throwing in the towel, Fitzsimmons and his Panther teammates rallied for a thrilling 68-66 overtime victory.”

That was sixteen years ago, and I asked Fitzsimmons how his drive to score 17 points in the last quarter of that game relates to his drive to operate a successful restaurant now. He indicated the two scenarios aren’t so very different: “There’s a team atmosphere here, and I’m juggling multiple things. It’s like trying to see the whole court in basketball. I want to know how to react. And there’s the pump of adrenaline during rush hour.”

Betty’s namesake is Fitzsimmons’ late grandmother, whose boxes of handwritten recipes (the one for Beef Stroganoff looked particularly good) are out on display. You’ll find some of her specialties on the menu, but they are likely to have an added modern twist. That’s because Fitzsimmons has been schooled by some big-name chefs, and it shows in his labor-intensive offerings and an emphasis on fresh, local and in-house. He spent several years at Trattoria Lucca in Charleston under Chef Ken Vedrinski, where the focus was keeping it simple and not overcomplicating food.

“Don’t use six ingredients when five will work,” Fitzsimmons explained. “If you’re doing simple food you give every ingredient it’s proper attention.”

Next, Fitzsimmons moved to City House in Nashville, where he was under the tutelage of James Beard Award winner Tandy Wilson. “He was the first chef I worked for that tried to get all his supplies from farmers,” Fitzsimmons explained. “I saw how he interacted with them, and I’ve used that here. He even invested in green houses.”
That focus has led Betty’s to purposely secure Mississippi suppliers like Home Place Pastures in Como (meat), Delta Blues Rice in Ruleville (rice), Delta Grind in Oxford (cornmeal and grits), Mississippi Natural Products in New Hebron (mushrooms), and Alderman Farms in Brookhaven (eggs).

“The eggs we get from Alderman Farms make a beautiful pasta,” Fitzsimmons said. “Theirs are more toward the bright yellow. When you make pasta with local eggs it’s a different texture and look that can’t be replicated with store-bought eggs.” In addition to wet and dry pasta, Betty’s also makes its own ricotta and sauerkraut. According to Fitzsimmons, 95 percent of what they serve is made in-house. They even grind their own sausage.

The kitchen is visible from the seating area, and an open, wood-burning brick fireplace allows patrons to view the cooking process. Fitzsimmons is often joined in that spot by Andy Allen, a graduate of New England Culinary Institute who is also a Brookhaven native. When Betty’s opened last June, Allen was working at Saltine Restaurant in Jackson and was ready to move back. “We are fortunate to have him,” Fitzsimmons acknowledged.

Proof of their extra-effort culinary style is found in something as simple as an order of French fries. The Betty’s crew brines their potatoes before a two-stage frying process, and the result is one of the best sides I’ve ever eaten. As I finished off the last of mine, a train headed to parts unknown cruised the tracks across Whitworth Avenue. The call of its whistle seemed symbolic of yet another contrast: What would make a big city chef want to come back to his hometown and start from scratch?

“It was a difficult decision to leave Nashville,” Fitzsimmons acknowledged, “but I was always working for this moment. Being there and in Charleston showed me that food drives a town, and I wanted to be part of that energy here in Brookhaven.”

This article is reprinted by permission from eat.drink.MISSISSIPPI magazine. Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.